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USA 1986
Directed by
John McNaughton
83 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Despite the grisly and violent subject matter at its core, John McNaughton’s low budget film is exceptionally well made, harrowingly realistic and without the usual exploitational tackiness usually found with this kind of material. Loosely based on the true-life story of Henry Lee Lucas it is somewhat of a misnomer to call Henry a serial killer for he is more a mass murder, indiscriminately killing anyone who he happens to feel like with seemingly affectless efficiency.

Whilst Michael Rooker, making his big screen debut as Henry, is chillingly matter-of-fact, it is Tom Towles as Otis,Henry’s depraved accomplice, who really gives the film its twisted horror as, unlike Henry, he takes pleasure in the killings, in the hardest to take part of the film, videoing their crimes and playing them back like home movies.  The third principal character, Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who, intrigued by the allegation that Henry killed his mother, naively falls for his laconic self-absorption  provides a well-judged contrast to the gruesomeness of which we are aware but she is oblivious.

If the economical script and excellent performances are a considerable portion of the film’s success McNaughton also makes the lonesome inner-urban Chicago  setting a vital part of the film’s mood, all wintry grey, rainy streets and gloomy back alleys, neon-lit convenience stores and crummy flop-houses, a no-man’s land (and McNaughton’s home town) where, as Henry explains to Otis, one can kill with impunity.  

Make no mistake, Henry is discomforting and for some viewers it will be better to avoid (there was much debate about the moral value of the film at the time of its premiere at the 1986 Chicago Film Festival and it was not commercially released for three years due to want of a ratings classification) but it is intense, immediate film-making.

FYI: There was a 1996 sequel without Rooker as Henry or McNaughton as director that, unsurprisingly, tanked. Although he would never top his role here, Rooker went on to a lengthy albeit typecast career in similar fare. Arnold appeared in a handful of minor films over the years.




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