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Film / Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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"Yeah, I killed my Mama."

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a controversial 1986 horror crime film directed and co-written by John McNaughton that follows the exploits of a serial killer named Henry (played by a then-unknown Michael Rooker).

Henry is a psychopath who kills frequently and indiscriminately — whether men, women or children. He stays in an apartment with his prison friend Otis and Otis's sister Becky, who has left a tough relationship with her convict husband and has traveled to Chicago to make some money for herself and her brother. 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. Both Henry and Otis are loosely based on and derive their names from real-life convicted serial killers.

The film is notable for two major reasons: 1) launching the career of Rooker, and 2) the huge amount of controversy elicited from its extreme depictions of physical and sexual violence, which led to it being given an X rating from the MPAA (which was largely reserved for pornographic films at the time) and being released through several different edits in the UK as well as on home video.

A sequel, titled Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II, was released in 1996, made by a new writer/director with a new actor playing Henry. Set several years after the original, it has Henry shacked up with a dysfunctional family headed by an unhinged arsonist named Kai.

"Henry: Tropes of a Serial Killer"

  • 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.
  • Actor IS the Title Character: Michael Rooker as Henry.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Deconstructed. The movie goes through great lengths to remind us just how much of a monster Henry is, which is a lesson that Becky unfortunately fails to learn. She's just gotten out of a relationship with an abusive boyfriend who was a criminal and thrown in jail for murder awaiting trial. When she discovers that Henry murdered his own mother, she endears herself to him, believing she has 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. Either way, Henry is heavily implied to have killed Becky by the end of the film, and it's left ambiguous but doubtful how much of his feelings towards her (if any) were real.
  • Ambiguous Situation: As noted below, this film is loosely based on the murders of Henry Lucas and his partner Otis Toole. However, not only are there several deviations from what actually happened, but none of the main characters are given last names. As a result, while they are clearly based upon them, it is ultimately unclear if the Henry and Otis in this film are actually supposed to represent the actual Henry Lucas and Otis Toole. They could just be similarly named killers. This may have been intended to help avoid or lessen the controversy that would come from making a film based off of actual murders.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • The Jerkass fence Henry and Otis try to buy a TV from was apparently intended as such.
    • 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 Duumvirate: Villain Protagonist Henry teams up with fellow Serial Killer Otis to go on a murdering spree. However, Henry turns on Otis when he tries to rape Becky, and kills him in the end.
  • Big Damn Heroes:
    • During the one moment where it seems like Henry will lose (when Otis overpowers him after Henry attacks him when he sees him assaulting Becky), Becky saves him by impaling Otis' eye.
    • A deleted sequence has a burglar break into the apartment and attempt to rape Becky while Henry and Otis are away. They come back in time to save her, and it leads to Henry awkwardly attempting to comfort her while Otis stands around twiddling his thumbs.
  • Black Comedy: On the 20th anniversary DVD release, director John McNaughton said that he finds the conversations that Henry and Otis have when they're not committing murders to showcase a sort of "dark comedy duo" dynamic between them. He also ruminates that if you watch the movie more than 5 times, you begin to see a "comedy of the stupid"; Henry is cunning in his killing but is completely illiterate, Otis is able to read but is completely devoid of social graces, and Becky possesses social prowess but is also hopelessly naive.
  • Break the Cutie: Becky. Her father was sexually abusive, and she enters a deep Heroic BSoD after seeing Henry kill Otis.
  • Celibate Hero: Or villain, in Henry's case, as it's implied that his mother's abuse has instilled in him a kind of revulsion towards sex, which is why he apparently never does anything sexual with his victims, and why he's so uncharacteristically perturbed by Otis's perversions and Becky hitting on him.
  • 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.
  • Destructive Romance: Falling in love with a serial killer gets Becky killed. Henry is a stone-cold sociopath and having a woman fall in love with him does nothing to change that.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While Henry is fine with murdering anyone, including whole families, he repeatedly expresses revulsion towards sex crimes like incest and necrophilia, which is ultimately what puts him at odds with Otis when he walks in on him raping Becky. While Henry kills Becky himself after saving her, the disgust that he displayed in regards to Otis's deviant behavior towards her appeared to be genuine, with his response to the sight of Otis trying to give Becky a Forceful Kiss during an earlier scene being to grab Otis and disapprovingly state, "Don't do that Otis — she's your sister."
  • 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". A deleted scene also implies that they're in a secret sexual relationship.
  • Eviler than Thou: Henry when he kills Otis.
  • Eye Scream: Otis gets the end of a metal comb jammed into his eye by Becky.
  • Fan Disservice: A few bare breasts are shown in the course of the movie, but the women in question are being brutally murdered.
  • Fatal Flaw: For Becky, her attraction to bad men with psychological problems.
  • Foreshadowing: The song that plays once Henry turns on the radio after he and Becky declare their love for each other has a chorus that says, "Loving you was my mistake." Henry kills Becky the next day.
  • Faux Affably Evil: While not exactly charming, Henry can put a civilized front when it suits him, but it never lasts long.
  • For the Evulz: Henry's only real motivation for his crimes is this.
  • 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.
  • The Ghost: Henry's siblings and Becky's daughter are mentioned but never seen.
  • Gunman with Three Names: Or rather Serial Killer With Three Names in the case of Henry Lee Lucas, both in the film and in Real Life.
  • Hate Sink: The killers serving as the Big Bad Duumvirate are both awful in their own ways. They have none of the charisma of their contemporary slasher counterparts, nor are they Diabolical Masterminds in the vein of John Doe or Hannibal Lecter. At the end of the day, they're simply pathetic, depraved morons who, apart from a few moments of Black Comedy and Henry having a few standards Otis doesn't, no audience will find endearing in the slightest.
  • I Love the Dead: Otis begins to molest the corpse of a woman whose neck he had just snapped, but is stopped by Henry (either because Even Evil Has Standards or out of Pragmatic Villainy).
  • In-Universe Camera: Whenever Otis and Henry film their murders.
  • Karma Houdini: Henry, obviously.
    • The homophobic teenage boy who sucker-punched Otis and steals his weed. Otis wants to get his revenge, but Henry advises him not to since that would likely lead to Otis getting arrested. A good Samaritan suffers his punishment instead.
  • Kick the Dog: Henry is a dog-kicking machine, spending his days wandering America killing people with absolutely no rhyme or reason. His interactions with other people indicate that murder is the only thing he truly cares about.
  • 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.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Otis is seemingly genuinely shocked and upset when he kills his first couple victims. He grows out of it, and if anything becomes an even worse serial killer than Henry.
  • 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.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Henry advises Otis against getting revenge on the boy that hit him and stole his weed because the two have been seen together and the boy is young, and these factors would lead to Otis getting caught.
  • 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.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Henry murdered his mother.
  • 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 the 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.
  • Stupid Evil: Not that Henry is especially bright, but Otis is even dumber, frequently trying to rape his victims, potentially leaving behind evidence. It takes Henry to stop him each time.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: When Henry takes Becky out to the motel after killing Otis and disposing of his body, they declare their love for each other (Henry more reluctantly, reasonably), and Henry turns on the radio. The song that plays happens to go like this: "Loving you was my mistake..."
  • Tagline: "He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real!"
  • Unbuilt Trope:
    • Of the "serial killer lead" subgenre of the villain protagonist genre, i.e. 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 Darkly Dreaming Dexter wouldn't come about for over 10 years after this film was finished.
    • 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, itís 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 the then Governor of Texas George W. Bush. He died in prison from cancer. His partner Ottis Toole was not killed by him but also died from natural causes while incarcerated. Lucas had served a sentence for the murder of his mother, but all of the convictions except for this are questioned. The person Becky was based on was actually Ottis's niece named Frieda Powell (nicknamed Becky), only about twelve when she met Henry (so no abusive husband), and may or may not have met her demise at his hands (given that in prison Lucas tried and failed to have a hybristophiliac "fan" pass herself off as an older Becky, what happened is probably a Foregone Conclusion).
  • Villain Protagonist: Henry.
  • Villainous Incest: Poor Becky was subject to this by her father. Later, her brother forces himself onto her.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Henry snaps a young boy's neck in front of his parents during the home invasion.
  • You Bastard!: One scene has the television play a video of Henry and Otis's home invasion and subsequent murder of an entire family. It is then revealed that Henry and Otis are the audience watching the video.

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