Chaos Reigns: ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ is Just as Terrifying 35 Years Later

The thirty-five years that have passed since its premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in October of 1986 have done nothing to diminish the impact of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It is a film about reality—truths that are in some ways distant, but in others deeply relatable. It is about chaos and death, but also about deep sadness, disconnection, and even love. In it we see the random nature of life and death as its principal characters wander and roam through the world, and what happens when they collide with strangers and each other. Its vivid characterizations combined with stark, unadorned images remind us that somewhere, people like Henry really exist and the things we are witnessing really happen. Henry is exactly as its title suggests: a portrait. It depicts a subject. It does not comment. It does not judge. It does not flinch. It allows us to do all those things for ourselves.

The film is loosely based on the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, a drifter arrested in 1983 for the murder of a young woman. At his trial he claimed to have killed 100 more. Eventually Lucas confessed to killing 360 (sometimes he claimed 600) people over the course of eight years and “in every way there is except poison.” He confessed to so many murders that he became known as “The Confession Killer.” In the years since Henry was made, serious doubts have arisen over the validity of his claims, but at the time the film was being conceived and produced, they were widely accepted as true. The inconsistencies in Lucas’s confessions are even reflected in the film, particularly in his recollections to Becky of killing his mother. First, he says he stabbed her, then he says he shot her. And then there is Otis’s claim that Henry killed her with a baseball bat. Is this the version he told Otis?

Though named after real people, the characters of Henry (Michael Rooker), Otis (Tom Towles), and Becky (Tracy Arnold) only tangentially resemble their real-life counterparts Henry Lee Lucas, Otis Toole, and Becky Powell. Henry of the film is at turns hideous and heroic, repellant and magnetic, terrifying and strangely likeable. The movie plays quite a trick with the introduction of Otis. Even though we know how dangerous Henry is, Otis is far more despicable, making Henry appear almost restrained or even noble by comparison. The real humanity of the film comes from Becky. She is the warm, beating heart of the film and the character we can most relate to. Where Henry and Otis have no issues with eviscerating humans, Becky is disgusted by cleaning a fish. She bleeds with empathy for Henry and falls in love with this man she sees as her protector, particularly from her depraved brother, Otis. These characters are our guides through a dark world unfamiliar to most of us but somehow relatable as well. The film is the essence of that eerie feeling we have all had of being watched or followed, but from the watcher’s point of view.

The key theme, or perhaps even thesis, of Henry is that the world is ruled by randomness and chaos. From the very beginning, this point is driven home. We see Henry eating breakfast in a café while having an innocuous conversation with the waitress, driving down Chicago streets as he switches radio stations, and performing a day job as an exterminator. But these mundane daily activities are intercut with tableaus of Henry’s victims. A naked woman lying dead on the grass. Another floating face down in a river. A man and woman both shot and lying strewn in their own blood. Henry drives to a shopping center and sits in the parking lot, waiting. A woman catches his eye, and he follows her home. When she is greeted by a man at her door, he simply drives on only to pick up a young woman with a guitar case. We do not see the murder of this hitch hiker, but we know her fate when Henry brings her guitar home to his roommate Otis and his sister Becky who has come to stay with him following her divorce.

Later in the film, Henry kills two prostitutes in front of Otis, who is shocked, at least at first. “What’s gonna happen when they find those bodies?” he askes Henry, who calmly answers, “nothing.” This is when Otis is drawn into Henry’s chaotic world. “Open your eyes, Otis. Look at the world. It’s either you or them. You know what I mean,” he says. Otis does know what he means, and so do we. Soon, Henry takes Otis for a drive after a bad day to help him “feel better.” The two pretend that their car has broken down and wait for a good Samaritan to stop and help. Otis then pulls the gun that Henry has given him and shoots the man in cold blood. Just a stranger who stopped to help. Randomness rules. Chaos reigns.

Late in the film, Becky tries to be affectionate with Henry, who resists. As she is kissing him, Otis walks in. Henry takes the opportunity to go for a walk through the downtown streets alone at night. In some ways, this is a bookend to the opening sequence. We assume that he is on the prowl and will likely kill someone tonight. Perhaps the convenience store clerk he buys cigarettes from who asks, “hey, how about those Bears?” to which Henry answers, “fuck the Bears,” before walking out the door. He strikes up a conversation with a woman walking her dog. He follows her for a while and watches, only to turn away and go home. Neither of these people will ever know how close they came to death that night. When Henry returns home, he finds his victim: Otis as he is attempting to rape his sister.

After killing Otis and stuffing his dismembered corpse into a suitcase, Henry and Becky drive together into the night. Becky confesses, “I love you Henry,” and Henry answers in matter-of-fact tones, “I guess I love you too.” In the closing moments we are reminded that Henry is not a hero despite this salvific act. He is an empty shell drained of all humanity, morality, and empathy. The portrait of evil entirely lacking compassion and willing to leave the only love he has ever known in a suitcase in a field. The film ends with Henry free and roaming like the very specter of indiscriminate death. Again, randomness rules and chaos reigns.

Though the film does not judge its characters, it does judge its audience by facing us with the fact that we are consumers of violence and depravity as entertainment. In this way, it is very much like Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom in which a killer films the deaths of his victims and watches them later for his own sexual satisfaction. In both films, the audience is implicated with the killers, but the filmmakers are also complicit, fully aware that they are pointing three fingers back at themselves as they point one at the audience. Two companion scenes in particular illustrate this point.

After kicking in the screen of his television because of bad reception, Otis tells Henry, “I guess I got carried away…shit, I’ve got to have a TV,” a comment on the contemporary need for constant entertainment. Henry replies, “well, let’s go shopping” and the two drive to meet a dealer of stolen goods played by Ray Atherton. Because this character is such a loathsome person, who hustles and hassles our lead characters, we have been conditioned by various forms of media to be entertained by his murder. It is, at least to some extent, played for laughs. As an audience we may well think he had it coming and deserves his fate, including the postmortem electrical jolt he gets after a cheap television has been smashed over his head and plugged in by Otis. After all, Otis needs his TV and we need to be entertained as we already had been by countless murders committed by Michael, Jason, and Freddy up to that point in the 80s, not to mention the carnage created by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the era. But then, director John McNaughton, writer Richard Fire and the other filmmakers want us to be entertained too and are fully aware of the power they hold.

This all comes full circle when the tables are turned on us in Henry’s most notorious scene. We see Henry and Otis filming a brutal home invasion on a camcorder. It is soon revealed that the two killers are sitting on the couch watching the tape they have made. Otis rewinds it saying, “I want to see it again,” as he lets it run for a second time in slow motion. Later, Otis is shown asleep on the couch in front of the television, beer in hand, as the tape plays once again. This powerful commentary about the relationship between filmmaker and audience, and the exhibition and consumption of violence is satirical, disturbing, confrontational, accusatory, and a confession of guilt all at once. Though incredibly brief, it remains the best known and most commented upon sequence in the film, its power to shock and disturb as potent as ever.

The legacy of Henry is multifaceted. It opened the doors for a wave of serial killer films that handled the subject in a grounded, realistic fashion such as Silence of the Lambs (1991), David Fincher’s films Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), and the less plausible but real-life serial killer obsessed Copycat (1995) among others. It helped jumpstart a new wave of independent films with a much tougher sensibility than the usual Hollywood fare of the era. Its frank, pseudo-documentary style is a continuation of this style from the 70s but also a revitalization of it.

Maybe most impactful of all, the lawsuit between MPI, which financed the film, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the film’s rating has had far reaching consequences. When originally submitted to the ratings board, Henry received an X rating, the kiss of death for theatrical exhibition, even though it does not contain any more graphic violence than popular R rated slashers of the period. When asked what cuts could be made to receive an R, the MPAA replied that nothing could be removed, but that the X was for Henry’s “overall moral tone.” MPI sued. This eventually led to the ceremonial but essentially meaningless change from the X rating, at the time associated with pornography, to the euphemistic NC-17. Rather than succumb to this, however, MPI released Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on home video unrated, a move that allowed McNaughton’s vision to remain intact while the film was also able to find an audience and even become profitable. Henry remains a key moment for home video releases of unrated films and unrated versions of films to reach wider audiences. In a testament to the enduring power of the film, when Henry was re-submitted to the ratings board for a theatrical release in 2016, it still received an NC-17 thirty years after its initial submission.

In recent years, through DNA and other investigative methods, it has become clear that Henry Lee Lucas did not and indeed could not have killed all the people he claimed. But the facts of the Lucas case actually confirm the thesis of Henry as a film. Though he did not kill all these people, somebody did. He confessed to actual murders, even if they were not his own. Whether they were crimes of passion, profit, the work of a serial killer or killers, or the most likely explanation—a combination of all of these—is beside the point. The arbitrary nature of death illustrated by these murders is exactly what Henry is about. Somewhere, in some town, someone as cold, dispassionate, and vicious as Henry is out there. That is a more terrifying thought than any movie can depict. Somewhere, someone is pulling a suitcase out of the trunk of a beat-up old car, leaving it in an abandoned field at the side of the road, and driving on…