“Open your eyes, Otis. Look at the world, it’s either you or them…you know what I mean.” The words spoken by Michael Rooker in his portrayal of Henry, based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas are a chilling and revealing look into the apathetic mind of a sociopath. The lore of the serial killer is very much a part of American pop culture. What is it about these people who are disconnected from humanity? Why do we feel fascinated by people who commit violent acts of murder? The answers to these questions are answered in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
The depiction of a cold-blooded murderer in film wasn’t new at the time of its release. Far from it, the mid-80s seemed to have a never-ending supply of films depicting murder from the likes of slasher icons such as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and even Karl the butcher. At the other end of the spectrum, films such as The Killing of America (1981) gave a cold, calculated look at the violence and death that seemed to permeate at every moment on our television screens. A decade earlier, the realities of the conflict in Viet Nam would forever change the horror genre as bloodshed was broadcast across television screens in middle America. Last House on the Left (1972) and Halloween (1978) both reflected this seismic shift in contemporary society, with terror coming home to the quiet towns of suburbia to roost. The underbelly of city violence played out in Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980). Notable for Joe Spinel’s iconic depiction of murderer Frank Zito, reflecting the paranoia and terror injected in New York City during the infamous Son of Sam murders.
The middle ground between fantasy and reality is nowhere better exemplified than in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While it’s easy to see that Henry and Otis are heavily based on Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, the film makes no attempt at being a biopic or recreate reality. Instead, the film creates its own reality, one in which Henry becomes the focus. The film is an undiluted and honest look into the mind of a psychopath.
Henry himself is sometimes described as an ‘anti-hero.’ I find this description to be incorrect and “missing the point” for the lack of a better term. Henry doesn’t serve as the antagonist of the film, neither the protagonist. If anything, the film is completely objective in how it chooses to depict him. For a film whose subject matter is pure transgression, it leaves much of the violence off-screen. The violence that’s depicted are scenes of the aftermath of Henry’s murders, forcing the audience to draw their own conclusions as to what occurred. Much of the on-screen violence is devoted to Otis becoming indoctrinated by Henry into becoming as cold and as calculating as he is.
This is also what makes Henry such a unique character. As someone who’s completely detached from the expectation of society and apathetic to the suffering of others, we’re repulsed, sickened, and terrified of Henry…yet we’re held in complete fascination by him. Much of the effectiveness of the character can be credited to actor Michael Rooker. His performance is the most terrifying from an actor since Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of serial killer Rev. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Like Mitchum, Rooker exudes a charisma that draws both the audience and the other characters to him. This is seen in Otis’ sister Becky, portrayed by Tracey Arnold. Much like the audience of the film, Becky finds herself completely captivated by Henry. The person who adheres to no authority or morals has always been something we feel drawn to. Ever since Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), the attraction of living outside social norms has held an attractiveness that we can’t help but be fascinated by.
The relationship between the audience and a film, or any piece of art for that matter, itself becomes a separate reality. Every so often, a film manages to illustrate this bond thoroughly. If we consider the film a subject and the audience the voyeur, then Henry attacks its viewer for its complacency in viewing the transgression. A pivotal moment of the film involves Otis and Henry acquiring AV equipment after the murder of a shopkeeper. Henry and Otis are seen on a couch, watching a rape and murder they just committed and videotaped for posterity. This moment mirrors the audience participation that’s occurring during the film. The video camera in serial murder is nothing new, mass murderers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng videotaped their crimes in vivid detail.
Otis commenting “I want to see it again” almost comes across as an indictment of the moviegoing public and their insatiable need for violent entertainment. This aspect of viewing the killer’s deeds through the camera lens would later be utilized in The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), which utilized the found footage formula to depict the evolution of the motive and methods of a serial killer, all the while utilizing a pseudo-documentary approach to heighten the sense of realism within the film. The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Henry share another trend, the realization that the most vicious acts aren’t make-believe, but occurrences that happen in the world we live in.
The enduring truth about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is that while we continue to search for sensationalism, the truth about those who commit the most heinous deeds is far more barbaric than the fantasy we sometimes attempt to lose ourselves in. While true crime is sometimes watered down and diluted for mass consumption in a form of softcore pornography, the reality is that there are those who walk among us who are more monstrous than we can possibly comprehend. The publics’ continuing fascination speaks to the attraction of all things related to the outer fringe.