Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Here comes a personal favorite of mine. I think I first learned of the existence of this film after watching the Mallrats commentary, where Jason Mewes mentions it. I used to be a big Kevin Smith fan when I was a kid, luckily I outgrew it. Michael Rooker also stars in Mallrats as the villain. Eventually I probably rented it from Blockbuster and was blown away. For one it was an independent movie shot in Chicago in the gritty 80s. I sometimes ask older people what that decade was like in Chicago and don’t get much response. But what I can gather street crime was much more abundant and many neighborhoods with dogs and strollers today were actually affordable to live in. Henry gives a glimpse of that and then some.

Loosely based on real serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and his buddy Otis, the film is look at the lifestyles of killers in Chicago. It uses these very graphic depictions of crime scenes and lays the audio on top, makes for a very chilling effect as you don’t see the violence just the dead bodies. Very harsh audio indeed. The film deliberately features no police whatsoever and shows the daily life of a career criminal like Henry. How he seemingly gets away scot free from all his murders and understands “modus operandi” is quite interesting. There is a very graphic home invasion scene that the characters film themselves. The Director actually let Michael Rooker direct that scene in character.

Henry and Otis met in prison and live together at 1801 W. North Ave. At first Henry kills all by himself but then lets Otis in on it and then they work together. There is a rather interesting scene when Henry and Otis are watching the home invasion tape they made. After it ends, Otis rewinds it and Henry says “What are you doing?”. Otis responds “I wanna watch it again.” This exchange almost cements Otis as the true psycho and normalizes Henry for a second. As if Henry, a sick serial killer, somehow has lines and rules he won’t cross.

Filmed in 1985, it was eventually widely released years later, this was Michael Rooker’s first film feature, he, along with the Director John McNaughton were both Chicago residents. Supposedly Rooker was even a lifeguard at Pulaski Park swimming pool, quite ironic when compared to his role in Henry. I think with limited budget and resources everyone in production was able to make a very effective and brutal look into Henry.

McNaughton later went on to direct Wild Things in 1998. My brother rented that when I was a kid and let me watch most of it. That movie certainly has it’s moments and I think still holds up, plus Neve Campbell is in it and I think she is reading Death on the Installment plan by Celine,a favorite book of mine. I’m curious to see more of his filmography but with Henry he really left his mark on cinema early on. The film was heavily censored and even “banned” in parts of the world. Not too bad for a mere low budget film shot for peanuts in Chicago. Check it out if you can and turn the volume up, it’ll scare the shit out of you.

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