Exploring John McNaughton’s remorseless tour de force and the psychotic enigma upon which it was based
In 1986, rookie director John McNaughton was approached by a Chicago home video executive eager to cash in on the low-budget slasher craze, expecting a money-spinning slice of exploitation for his $110,000 outlay. What he got instead was a painfully authentic docudrama chronicling the everyday exploits of a deadpan serial killer, a picture that was immediately banned by the MPAA and BBFC for its devastating bluntness and explicit nature. The movie premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986 and would spend years trapped in censorship purgatory. Not only did the MPAA deny ‘Henry’ an R rating, it proclaimed that no possible cut of the material could ever qualify it as such. It wasn’t until the release of an unrated version in the late 80s that the movie caught fire after impressing influential critic Roger Ebert at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival.
Though is would displease many of Ebert’s colleagues, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was not the trashy slice of violence critics had become accustomed to in a period of slasher oversaturation, but an authentic representation of true horror that unsettled for entirely different reasons. While an overabundance of mindless slashers served to trivialise murder in an era of dead-eyed antiheroes and audiences cheering on psychotic murderers, ‘Henry’ offered something that was regrettably real, that couldn’t be condemned as cynical trash or waved away with an aloof casualty. Many of those critics who had found McNaughton’s debut ugly and disturbing had no choice but to admire the rotten fruit of his labour. The purpose of the film was to enlighten, not entertain, and Henry’s was a story worth telling.
The movie’s lack of budget and decision to use friends and family lends ‘Henry’ a rare legitimacy, as do its grainy production values and a cast of rookie actors who exceed all expectation, helping to realise the unique vision of a young director who had previously only been involved with documentaries. With ‘Henry’, McNaughton turned a creative corner, one so controversial that, much like industry darling and Edward Pressburger collaborator Michael Powell following the release and subsequent banishment of innovative proto slasher Peeping Tom, he was quickly ostracised from the industry, making a total of three movies during the next decade. The most notable was 1993’s underrated crime comedy Mad Dog and Glory, but even with the backing of high-profile McNaughton fan and director/producer Martin Scorsese, the same influential figure who had resurrected Peeping Tom from the commercial doldrums having financed a screening at the 1979 New York Film Festival, the movie would quickly fade into obscurity, and is now little more than a footnote in the genre’s long and storied history, much like the director himself.
Executive meddling was once again at play. Mad Dog and Glory featured an all-star cast that included the likes Bill Murray and Robert De Niro — both a huge draw in a year that saw the release of the hugely popular postmodern parable Groundhog Day and Tobias Wolff adaptation This Boy’s Life. McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones were contractually obligated to deliver the movie with no script deviations, but following an undesirable test screening Universal demanded that the final scene be re-shot in response to audience typecasting. In the original cut, De Niro’s working stiff lawman went up against Murray’s brash mafioso boss in a bout of fisticuffs that left the former Raging Bull star landing a solitary blow, something the test audience were thoroughly displeased with. In the movie, both Murray and De Niro are cast wonderfully against type, but despite how well received the film was critically, the broader, mainstream audience just didn’t buy it.
In an era of textbook slasher hegemony, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer goes similarly against convention. From the opening image of a woman lying dead in the reeds of some unseen wasteland, we know we are in for a brutally intimate portrayal and not the slice of crowd-pleasing horror most had expected. The film’s unapologetic opening moments are so dread-laden you’d be forgiven for feeling a mild sense of nausea as the burn of deeply immoral acts immediately makes your skin crawl. Henry first appears as a stone-faced wanderer, routinely patient as a number of staggering images alert us to a series of graphic murders, but, like most successful serial killers, we soon realise that he has an ability to charm in equal measure, drifting in and out of sincerity the way he does casual murder. So startling is one image of a semi-naked woman sitting dead on the toilet with a bottle rammed down her throat that a subsequent 1991 release — one of many problematic editions released during its purgatorial sentence — would cut an astonishing 38 seconds of footage without consulting the director for fear that such a shocking image so early in the movie would cement the minds of an already dubious MPAA. If Jason Voorhees proved problematic in an era of wry self-awareness and meta shenanigans, I can only imagine what those watching censors thought of ‘Henry’. It doesn’t celebrate and trivialise murder in a way that displeased parents worried about Jason as their children’s foremost babysitter, but it isn’t afraid to open wounds that that are much deeper, the normalcy and reality with which events unfold something that many would much rather supress.
[regarding murder] It’s always the same and it’s always different.Henry
The infamous bottle scene is not an isolated incident in a film that possesses an uncanny ability to inspire gross discomfort and emotional unease, feelings singularly personified by our eponymous killer. Henry sees human life in an abstract manner. As far as he’s concerned people are inanimate objects, sources of interest in an otherwise mundane existence. He talks to passers-by as glibly as he discusses killing them. He makes sincere promises to people moments before leaving their corpses in a suitcase by the side of the road. Murder seems to come naturally to Henry, pleasantries and horror delivered with the same icy nonchalance because he approaches both as if they are one and the same. It’s a stark reminder of the tenuous nature of civility and our natural instinct to trust everyday strangers.
Shot on 16mm in only 28 days, events transpire on the grey winter streets of Chicago, Henry’s latest stop on a ceaseless and uncompromising quest for human disposal. There he meets an aimless parolee named Otis (Tom Towles in similarly beguiling form), another soulless shadow brooding on the bottom rung of society. Initially, Otis doesn’t seem to possess the same remorselessness as Henry. He admits to having killed people, but only when he had no choice. When we first meet Otis, he displays a perverted underbelly that never strays further than harassing the local high school boys he peddles dope to, but after Henry brutally murders a couple of loose women who they pick up at a bar, Otis’ horror dissipates in the time it takes them to eat a burger, a development that sees him slip into murder with a similar ease, developing a depraved taste that outweighs Henry’s for sheer sadistic pleasure.
While Otis’s lack of intelligence may go some way to explaining an absence of empathy on his part, Henry is a different prospect entirely. Played with devastating dispassion by actor Michael Rooker, he is able to convince his accomplice of the merits of murder with an unnerving pragmatism. Cold and calculated, he is self-schooled in his ability to go unnoticed and absolutely confident of his infallibility. This was an era before sophisticated DNA techniques and digital surveillance, a time when law enforcement still had much to learn in terms of human behaviour and how to prevent sociopaths from becoming fully blown serial killers. Today, serial killers are pretty much a thing of the past in much of the developed world, spree killers, characterised as persons who commit a criminal act that involves two or more murders or homicides in a short space of time in multiple locations, replacing them in a world of CCTV, GPS and the all-seeing eye of the Internet, but the likes of Lucas had free reign. Without motive or a pattern to aid the police with their investigations, serial killers could do as they pleased, hopping from state to state with the knowledge that all trace of them would vanish almost overnight. It’s people like him who are the reason for the thousands of unexplained disappearances that occurred, and continue to occur, each and every year.
It is when Otis’s sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), shows up that we begin to understand a little more about the implacable enigma that is Henry. Becky is a fragile ex-stripper who has fled to Chicago to find work and is immediately taken by Henry’s straightforward nature. This is never more evident than when Henry admits to murdering his mother at the breakfast table, a blunt revelation which, thanks to an emotional naivety and lack of basic intelligence on Becky’s part, she foolishly mistakes for trust. Becky is the kind of troubled soul who has experienced so much hardship that she longs to see the good in people, and Henry is the placid protector she has spent her entire life searching for. Becky immediately strikes you as the kind of person who is prone to ill-judgement, and in Henry she makes her most fateful decision yet.
The characters in Henry are based on the confessions of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and accomplice Otis Toole, and though much of what we see in the movie is inaccurate, there are events that ring true. As bereft of human emotion as a fictional Henry is, he seems to have an averse reaction to crimes of a sexual nature, a fact which also appeals to Becky, who speaks frankly about her abusive upbringing with a man who seems impervious to the realities of human suffering. In reality, Frieda “Becky” Powell was a juvenile detention centre escapee with mild intellectual disabilities who Henry grew close to after moving in with Toole (her uncle) and his parents. In the film, Henry reveals glimpses of his own past to Becky, echoing the childhood of Lucas and a prostitute mother who, according to him, would make him wear a dress and watch her work. Henry confessed to stabbing his mother in the neck during a physical quarrel over his then-fiancé and was sentenced to 40 years for second-degree murder after claiming self-defence. Incredibly, he was released in 1970 after serving only 10 years due to prison overcrowding.
And so transpired one of the strangest, most spurious serial killer stories in modern history, one that proved mostly the stuff of morbid fantasy. While serving a further five-year sentence for the attempted kidnapping of three schoolgirls, Lucas began a relationship with a female pen pal, later marrying and divorcing her following accusations that he had sexually abused her stepdaughter. Further accusations of sexual abuse would follow Lucas, leading him to California with a then 15-year-old Powell. Less than a year later, Lucas was arrested for the unlawful possession of a firearm and subsequently confessed to the murder of both Powell and 82 year-old Kate Rich, an invalid who the couple had been hired to care for. Lucas would even lead authorities to the pair’s remains, though in-line with the killer’s dubious nature, the supposed victims were never officially identified.
Though Lucas later denied any involvement in the crimes, the consensus remains that he was responsible, but an infamous confession spree would further muddy the waters. After being transferred to Williamson County Jail, Texas in 1983, Lucas would confess to a further 28 unsolved murders, a figure that would rise to an incredible 600. The Lucas Task Force would ultimately clear 218 unsolved murders based on their subject’s confessions, which would have made him the most notorious serial killer in history, but questions were quickly raised. With nothing to lose, it was thought that Lucas took responsibility for the murders for the simple prospect of everyday home comforts such as steak meals and milkshakes, something a man in his position would have otherwise been stripped of. The fact that Lucas was given access to the case files of his supposed victims in order to “refresh his memory” led investigators to further question the validity of his claims.
Lucas’ case would also set a precedent after damaging the reputation of the Texas Rangers, leading to a re-evaluation of police techniques and an awareness of the possibility of false confessions, now categorised as voluntary false confessions (those that are given freely without police prompting), coerced compliant confessions (those that are given as a result of coercive interrogation techniques) and coerced internalized confessions (those in which a suspect is so affected by the interrogation process that they begin to believe their own culpability). Despite Lucas’ dubious claims many believe that he was still responsible for a significant amount of murders, criminologist Eric W. Hickey reaching a figure of around 40 based on various Lucas interviews with an unnamed investigator. DNA evidence has since verified that Lucas was indeed innocent of the murder of 20 supposed victims.
[to Becky] I guess I love you too.Henry
It is the fictional Henry’s aversion to all things sexual that changes the course of our characters’ relationships, leading to a final twist that proves utterly devastating, a moment of sheer emotional bankruptcy that manages to catch you off-guard in spite of the movie’s relentless tone and grim sense of inevitability. Some horrors shock, others disgust, but ‘Henry’ goes above and beyond, taking us out of the moment to contemplate very real atrocities that exist away from the celluloid realms of cinematic fantasy. The fact that the film arrived during America’s serial killer boom only added to the discomfort and sensitivity of audiences, critics and censors. McNaughton’s debut is painstakingly brutal, capturing the anonymous drudgery of life on the fringes and the quiet capacity of those with too much time on their hands, but despite its many qualities, including some truly harrowing sound design, much of the movie’s power derives from Rooker’s unflinching performance, his hard gaze simmering with an emptiness that forever borders on frenzy.
A then theatre exclusive Rooker, who embraced the role as a means to test himself in a different medium and experience shooting out of sequence, would throw himself into the role absolutely, dismissing several books about serial killers before reaching out to the very Texas Rangers who had spent so many hours interviewing the movie’s subject, ultimately recording an audio tape of himself speaking in character. Rooker would remain in character for almost the entirety of the shoot, to the point that cast and crew members were unsure of who exactly they were dealing with: the actor or Henry himself. At McNaughton’s request, Rooker would self-isolate in a room of mirrors that he would cover with trash bags with the aim of being consumed by the character. Let’s just say his methods worked. Perhaps a little too well for comfort.
Critics have often wondered whether there is a place for this movie as entertainment, which in itself speaks volumes about the impact that it has on our sensibilities. It’s ironic that theatres were only too willing to lap up the kind of meaningless violence exhibited by the likes of Jason Voorhees, while the immensely powerful and carefully controlled Henry was banished to obscurity along with a director who would be forced to find work on foreign shores. Financers were obviously cautious about funding a rebel filmmaker who had no time for industry convention. Ultimately, the movie offends not because it was meant to, or to gain publicity and sell tickets. It offends because it is all too real, dissecting a side of humanity that we are often quick to deny.
‘Henry’ will always be remembered for its commercial notoriety, and there are some truly graphic moments here: the rape and attempted murder of Becky by her own brother, a screwdriver in the eyeball and an uninhibited decapitation, while the infamous home invasion still remains one of the most unsettling scenes ever committed to celluloid. But the starkest moments are the intimate portraits of those we don’t see murdered, the harrowing sounds and explicit images of Henry’s lifeless victims, who in that moment seem to replicate his vacant grasp on human life, their final expression hinting at the kind of horrors that we would much rather ignore.