Film / Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

"Yeah, I killed my Mama."

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a controversial 1986 film that follows the exploits of a serial killer named Henry.

The film starts out with a girl named Becky, who just got out of a tough relationship with her convict husband and heads to Chicago to make some money for herself and her daughter. She's staying with her brother Otis who has taken in Henry as a house guest. Becky and Henry share troubled pasts, which gives them a somewhat romantic connection while Henry and Otis begin a bond based on their shared desires for random violence and go on a killing spree.

The film is notable for two major reasons; 1) launching the career of the then-unknown actor Michael Rooker and 2) its extreme violence and rape scenes that caused a huge amount controversy with the MPAA and lead to several different edits of the film in the UK as well as on home video.

A sequel was released in 1996, titled Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Becky's father was sexually abusive, and Henry claims that his prostitute mother forced him to watch her have sex with clients, among other things.
  • Adorkable: Becky seems to find Henry's soft-spoken, awkward demeanor attractive. How wrong she is.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: This is what leads to Becky's undoing. She just got out of a relationship with an abusive boyfriend who was a criminal and thrown in jail for murder awaiting trial. And when she discovers that Henry murdered his own mother, she endears herself to him, believing she found a Kindred Spirit, instead of seeing that as a serious red flag. Given that her father beat and raped her all during her childhood, it's understandable how she'd see men like Henry as attractive.
  • Asshole Victim: The Jerkass fence Henry and Otis try to buy a TV from was apparently intended as such according to Word Of God. Otis himself becomes one at the end of the film.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Obviously, the serial killer achieves his goal of killing a lot of people. Henry takes Becky to an inn out in the middle of nowhere and kills her. He then dumps her body out in the middle of the highway and drives on before the ending credits. Even worse when you consider that Henry was probably thinking about killing her the moment she told him about moving back home, and that's hours before she was raped by Otis.
  • Big Bad: Henry is the dominant personality in the serial killing duo.
  • Black Comedy: Director John McNaughton, on the 20th Anniversary DVD release, says he finds the conversations that Henry and Otis have when they're not committing murders to be this, a sort of very dark comedy duo. He also ruminates that if you watch the movie more than 5 times, you begin to see a "comedy of the stupid", with Henry, while being cunning in his killing, is completely illiterate. Meanwhile, while Otis is able to read, he is completely devoid of social graces. And Becky, despite her social prowess, is also hopelessly naive.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Becky had a horrible childhood.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Otis tries to rape the wife in the family he and Henry murder, succeeds in raping his sister, and comes on to the guy he was selling weed to.
  • Downer Ending: After killing Otis, Henry and Becky drive away together and spend the night in a hotel. The next day, Henry dumps a duffel bag containing Becky's corpse on the side of the road and drives off to continue his murders.
  • Drone of Dread: About 90% of the soundtrack.
  • Evil Duo: Henry and Otis, with Henry being the more dominant and slightly more controlled "idea man", and Otis being more of a follower and going from "rather reluctant" to "impulsive".
  • Fatal Flaw: For Becky, her attraction to bad men with psychological problems.
  • Freudian Excuse: Played with. Henry says that he killed his mother because she was abusive, but in context the claim comes off as rather dubious. And while we can infer that having a father who sexually abused his sister didn't do wonders for Otis' mental health, it doesn't seem to be much of a motivating factor in any of his killings.
  • In-Universe Camera: Whenever Otis and Henry film their murders.
  • Karma Houdini: Henry is obvious, but the teenage boy who sucker punched Otis and steals his weed. A good Samaritan suffers his punishment instead.
  • Kill the Cutie: Becky gets raped by her older brother Otis, then killed by Henry the next day.
  • Minimalism: The film has a whopping three major characters, and more dialogue than "action"....most of Henry's kills are shown in the aftermath or implied.
  • Mood Whiplash: McNaughton said this was exactly what he was going for when he went from the murder of the TV shop owner in one scene (which was supposed to be funny and make us root for Henry and Otis), to Henry and Otis videotaping the murder of an entire family the next.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Henry can't seem to decide whether he beat his mother to death with a baseball bat, stabbed her with a knife, or shot her.
  • Neck Snap: While Henry claims to constantly change his method of killing, he uses this more often than anything else. He does it effortlessly in all but one case, and everyone seems to die upon it being performed.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Henry comes across as fairly simple-minded (he does a remarkably poor job of reconciling his various accounts of killing his mother), and the enjoyment he takes in some of his killings seems rather child-like.
  • The Public Domain Channel: After claiming another victim, Henry leaves her TV on this station. By the time we see it, it's in the middle of playing "Neptune Nonsense".note 
  • Random Events Plot: Aside from a vague subplot revolving around Becky trying to escape her abusive husband, the only real overarching "plot thread", if it can be called that, is Henry and Otis' desire to commit murder.
  • Reality Ensues: Falling in love with a serial killer gets Becky killed. Henry is a stone cold sociopath and having a girl fall in love with him does nothing to change that.
  • Serial Killer: Henry and Otis.
  • The Sociopath: If being a serial killer wasn't enough of a clue, Henry's indifferent response when Becky tells him that she loves him is further evidence. The ending confirms this.
  • The Stoic: Other than sadistic glee he takes in murder, Henry never shows much emotion.
  • Son of a Whore: Henry claims to be one, although unlike many other examples, he actually knew his father (as his mother was still married) and had at least two siblings, a brother and sister.
  • Unbuilt Trope:
    • Of the "serial killer lead" subgenre of the Villain Protagonist genre, ie all the serial killer and slasher films of the 90s and onward that have us root for the villain and may sometimes even give them a sympathetic motive. Here we're given the Serial Killer character in its rawest form and the result is more sickening than entertaining. Unlike such protagonists as Patrick Bateman, Henry is socially awkward, plain-looking, not particularly intelligent, and downright vicious.
    • The film also retroactively deconstructs the theme often found in these type of slasher flicks: The good girl breaking down the defenses of the serial killer. Instead, Henry sees Becky as more of a nuisance than a friend or love interest and kills her in the end. Seriously, Becky's fate would almost seem like a fuck you to Book!Clarice Starling and Debra Morgan if it wasn't for the fact that Hannibal and Dexter wouldn't come for over another 10 years.
    • The ending also serves as a prototype for the Bad Serial Killer vs. Worse Serial Killer that has become a staple of the genre. Henry and Otis' fight is brutal, ugly, and random and neither side has any moral high ground. And since Henry winds up just killing Becky later the same night, its completely pointless. Watching this and then watching Dexter square off against the Doomsday Killer makes the latter seem almost childish by comparison.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Henry Lee Lucas was a real serial killer who confessed to killing over 600 people... but was only convicted for 11 killings. The film is more or less based on Lee's claims than his actual crimes. It actually caused a huge scandal as police fed Lucas with details from various crimes, in many cases to clear unsolved murders: thus meaning the real killers were not pursued. Lucas himself got distinction as the only death row prisoner spared by (at the time) Governor George W. Bush of Texas. He died in prison from cancer, and Ottis Toole also died of natural causes while incarcerated.
  • Villain Protagonist: Henry.
  • Villainous Incest: Poor Becky was subject to this by her father. Later, her brother forces himself onto her.

Alternative Title(s): Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer 2