John McNaughton’s directorial debut has been hailed as one of the best by any first-time director. I won’t be one to disagree with those who agree. McNaughton took $125,000 dollars, an idea of fictionalizing a week in the life of one real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and a dedicated crew of filmmakers to create a raw, unflinching, visceral piece of filmmaking. Originally filmed and finished in 1986, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer languished in ratings limbo as the filmmakers struggled with the MPAA over its X-rating. In fact, it’s been reported and written in many publications that it is one of the few films screened by the MPAA where they saw no way an edit here or there can ever lower it to an R-rating. I think its fortunate for film fans and academics everywhere that McNaughton and company decided to release the film in 1990 unrated.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was loosely-based on the life of one Henry Lee Lucas. One of the most prolific (though Lucas has since discounted ever killing over 600 people) serial killers in American history. From the beginning, Henry plunges the audience into a world seen through the eyes of a sociopath and as, Ebert once wrote in his own review: “an unforgettable portrait of the pathology of a man for whom killing is not a crime but simply a way of passing time and relieving boredom.”
The first scene is haunting in its graphic and realistic portrayal of the randomness of a serial killer’s passing through the myriad roads and highways that criss-cross the American landscape. It was this stark and realistic portrayal of the aftermath of violence and death that has made some people label McNaughton’s directorial debut as a snuff-film masquerading as an arthouse production. It’s difficult to disagree with such people since the violence (though it doesn’t go as far as most horror films of the era and barely a blip on the MPAA’s radar in today’s mega-blockbuster-shoot’em-ups) has no look of articiality and not glossed-over with your typical horror/suspense sensibilities. It doesn’t have that exploitation look that the horror films of the 70’s and early 80’s. What it did have was the look and feel of a documentary. The titular character (chillingly portrayed by Michael Rooker) commits his murders as one who sees nothing wrong in what they’re doing. To Henry what he does he does to pass the time and to break-up the boredom of his existence. This behavior shows the banality of Henry’s view of the world around him. It goes to show that as horrific as Henry must seem to the audience there’s a sense of reality in what he does. We read about it on the news, in true-crime documentaries, and in the sensationalist shows dealing with serial and mass murderers.
Henry is not the only one who wades into the dark underbelly of American life and society. There’s Henry’s former cellmate, Otis (played with relish by Tom Towles) who at first seems like a buffoon, but later shows his own pathology for senseless killings as Henry finally brings him into his own world. In fact, Otis’ reaction to Henry’s revelations about what he does in secret looks similar to the reaction of the violence addicted mass audience who revel in the violence in action films and horror retreads. Otis is at first confused and knows that he should be disgusted with the killings he first witness Henry committing, but he later gives in to his own primal impulses. He soon revels in the act of murder and even sees it as his own form of entertainment. It’s during the home-invasion and subsequent murders of the home’s family captured on videotape by Henry and Otis that this change in Otis hits home.
This is the juncture in the film that posits the damning question the filmmakers want to ask the audience. Do we recoil in horror and disgust at this horrifying, voyeuristic sequence or does the audience continue to watch with the dispassionate eyes of one who has become desensitized to onscreen violence. There’s no clear answer to this question and the filmmakers don’t condescend to the audience and try to sugar-coat the violence. It is also this sequence where we see the difference between Henry and Otis. Henry almost feels remote and disconnected from the acts he’s committing. To him breaking the neck of a teenage boy might be the same as stepping on an ant. But to Otis the killings themselves becomes his addiction and only form of joy. He’s willing to go beyond what his mentor has done to sate his appetites. We see Henry’s reaction to this change in Otis and realize that as much as the audience want to hate Henry, he is the lesser of two evils. He doesn’t take joy from his work and we cling to that barely there shred of decency in the hope that salvation and redemption is at the end of the ride.
To the filmmakers’ credit Henry doesn’t trivialize the gruesome events from scene one right up to the end credits by tacking on a Hollywoodize happy ending. As the final reel comes to a conclusion and we see Henry and Otis’ sister, Becky driving off into the night (a sort of reverse-negative of the typical riding-off into the sunset of Hollywood past), the audience is ready to breath a sigh of relief from the relentless visual and emotional pounding the film has put on the audience. But the rug is pulled out from under the audience’s feet. McNaughton and his writers do not believe in the redemption of Henry. In fact, they know that such things are only seen in Hollywood and fairytales. What they give the audience instead is a scene that continue to show that the film is steeped in the real world. People like Henry do not find forgiveness and salvation from their evil deeds. People like Henry continue to ply the roads and highways of America. Their seeming normalcy hiding the calculating, sociopathic murderous instincts just below the surface.
I credit Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as one of the truest work of American filmmaking. A great character study of a sociopathic individual whose banality can truly be called the face of evil. McNaughton’s film is admired and reviled and both sides have credible points in taking their sides. It is a great piece of work that shows that filmmaking can go beyond its basic need to entertain. It is also a brutal piece of film that didn’t have to be made the way it was made, but to do it in any other way would’ve diluted the message and impact of the story.