Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Directed by John McNaughton
Screenplay by Richard Fire and John McNaughton
Produced by Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, and John McNaughton
Starring Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, and Tracy Arnold
Released on January 5, 1990
Henry (Michael Rooker) is a blue collar drifter who works odd jobs and lives with his friend Otis (Tom Towles). He’s also a serial killer. When Otis becomes clued in to Henry’s “extracurricular activities”, things become a lot more complicated for the both of them. Further throwing a wrench in the machine is Becky (Tracy Arnold), Otis’ sister, who has arrived in town to crash at their apartment in an effort to escape her own troubles.
Before anyone brings it up, yes, I am well aware that this film is often counted as an ‘80s release. It was shot in 1985 and had its first festival screening in 1986. It also managed to hit up a few more festivals throughout 1988 and 1989. That said, it never actually saw any official theatrical release until early 1990. Between that and the fact that it never made an actual sizable mark on audiences until then, it fits the bill for this column.
Back to the film, over 25 years later and it still packs a visceral punch. The cinematography is just as cold-hearted as Henry himself, displaying both his violent actions and their disturbing aftermath in a fiercely realistic and harsh manner. There is nothing glamorous or exploitative about the carnage on display here. That’s incredibly fitting, given that it is loosely based on a real pair of killers (Henry Lee Lucas & Otis Toole).
While there are other characters that pass in and out of the frame, only Henry, Becky, and Otis are the real focus of the tale at hand. Each of them is damaged in their own way. Becky is fleeing an abusive spouse, forced to leave her child in the care of her mother and to take up residence with her degenerate brother in the meantime. She also later divulges that she was sexually abused by her father as a child, laying out a tragic pattern of abuse in her life that sadly has no end in sight. While not as flashy a role as Henry or Otis, Tracy Arnold manages to hold her own with both Rooker and Towles throughout.
Henry, of course, is our titular serial killer. His killings often seem to come out of nowhere, however, and generally are not crimes of passion. He might not be the brightest person in the world, but he’s street smart enough to know how to continue his deadly hobby and not get caught. He is a cold, calculating murderer and Rooker sells every last minute of it. There’s a reason that this film got Rooker a lot of work after it was completed and was shown around the industry for years before it received a wide release. He’s phenomenal in it.
Whereas Henry is incredibly pragmatic when it comes to his dark desires, Otis is not. Otis is, to put it mildly, a buffoon. A dangerous buffoon, but a buffoon nonetheless. Once Otis begins joining Henry on the killing floor, the latter constantly has to stop Otis from doing incredibly stupid things. At first Henry seems amused by this, as well as Otis’ overall reactions to murder, but it becomes increasingly clear that his patience is wearing thin. Further complicating their relationship is the fact that Henry is developing feelings for Becky and Otis is abusive towards her.
Normally a goofball, over-the-top character like Otis could be the worst aspect of a film. Such characters are apt to be grating, after all. Lucky for us, Tom Towles is just an accomplished character actor as Rooker. Even when he’s at his worst, it’s hard not to like Otis. Hell, the same can be said for all three leads.
We know that Henry is a terrible human being, but what little morals and sense of right he does have make him somewhat endearing. That has everything to do with Rooker’s inherent charisma. Otis is similar in that regard. We should hate him throughout, but Towles’ performance makes that hard to do. As for Becky, she’s certainly no monster, but Arnold makes you like her enough that you just want to scream at her to run away as fast as she can from these two.
That is where this film gets me, and most others, from what I gather. These people should be nothing but reprehensible, but you can’t help but develop at least some sort of affinity for them. Even in the face of horrific violence, both on screen and off (shown via murder tableau), you cannot help but see Henry and Otis as human beings. That is the power of not only the performances, but McNaughton’s film as a whole.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer might fudge the facts of these real-life killers in favor of striking a specific tone, but that’s why it’s so wonderful. Instead of being wrapped up in laying out a biographical tale, it’s intention is solely to evoke a myriad of feelings within its viewers. Joy, sorrow, disgust, horror, empathy, concern, etc. All are conjured as one experiences Henry. It also manages to relay one of the most important things that one can understand about real-life serial killers: they’re people. They’re monstrous people, but they are people nonetheless. They have friendships, loves, and day-to-day lives.
It’s why you’ll often see neighbors of such killers stating that “He/she seemed like a such nice, normal person” over and over again in interviews. They aren’t mindless, hulking slashers. They’re people, which makes them all the more dangerous. You don’t know you’re in trouble until it’s too late. More than anything, it’s instilling that true crime fear and those real world feelings of dread in its audience that makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer a masterpiece. A disturbing, unforgettable masterpiece.
Up Next: Arachnophobia (1990)
As a fan of musician Mike Patton (of Faith No More fame) and his band Fantomas, I can’t help but share this as a bonus for those not aware of its existence. If you haven’t heard the Fantomas album The Director’s Cut, you’re missing something special. Enjoy their rendition of Henry’s haunting main theme…