Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real.

Year of Release: 1986
Genre: Horror/Biography
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 83 minutes (1:23)
Director: John McNaughton


Michael Rooker ... Henry
Tom Towles ... Otis
Tracy Arnold ... Becky


When fellow ex-con Otis invites Henry to move into his Chicago apartment, he becomes a willing participant in Henry's senseless, random killing sprees. Meanwhile, Otis' unsuspecting sister, Becky is smitten with Henry, whose broken childhood mirrors her own.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, remindin' us that just cause a man kills his mama in cold blood an turns a half dozen prostitutes into Sloppy Ho mix, that don't mean he'll just sit idly by while you try puttin' the figure four lip lock on your sister. I mean, sure, Henry's got a mild anger management problem that sometimes causes 'im to take a woman out for drinks an end up shovin' the broken Smirnoff bottle so deep into 'er face that she bleeds out over two gallons of Mary Kay cosmetic products, but that don't mean he's screwed up enough to try gettin' a date from the Ozark Mountain Datin' Agency. 2500 clients, 4 last names, it's pretty disgustin'. This Otis character's got some strange ideas about havin' a good time, cause I dunno about the rest of you, but in my opinion, goin' for a ride on the sister fister sounds about as appealin' as gettin' a vasectomy at Stevie Wonder's Outpatient Surgery an Custom Soap Refinery where their motto is "If we can't see you today, it's cause we're blind, dumbass." What a creepola, that Otis. Guy gives me the worst documented case of the willies since Monica Lewinsky hadda get 'er stomach pumped after a near fatal overdose.

But speakin' of people who get taken for a ride, the other day me an Billy Hilliard were out at Chickawalka Creek, which if you've never been there, is named for this wise old Indian guy who started takin' his dates out there to check out the stars at night to get 'em in the mood. Course it didn't always work, which is how the place got it's name on account of it bein' quite a little jaunt back to town after he'd ditch 'em for refusin' to erect his teepee. But anyway, Billy an I were out there stickin' carp with our bows when B.J. Wilder came walkin' down the road churnin' out more blubber'n an Eskimo at a whale processin' plant. I swear to God, 'er mascara was runnin' so bad it was clear down in 'er socks an she looked about like somebody left a Rorschach ink blot test on the dash board in mid August. Seems that Mark Skidman invited 'er out to watch the prisoners burn slash piles with the idea that either the bright colors or the smoke inhalation goin' into an already oxygen deprived brain might be enough to get 'im some tail. The problem arises from the fact that nobody in town seems to realize that B.J.'s just 'er name an not some speed datin' label that the chunkheads on the varsity squad assigned to 'er an so this kinda thing keeps happenin' to the poor kid just about every weekend an by this point Billy was gettin' pretty P.O.'d on account of B.J. bein' his fourth cousin thrice removed. So after we took poor B.J. home an hosed off enough make up to get 'er back down to Brandon Lee "Crow" levels of goop as opposed to the Papa Shango look she was sportin' when we picked 'er up, we drove back out to Chickawalka Creek to get the drop on Marky Mark an the Funky Cuntch he'd picked up after droppin' B.J. like a baby in a high school bathroom on prom night. Which worked out pretty good, cause by the time we found 'em they were makin' the sign of the Diabetic slobber porpoise in the bed of his '68 International an neither one of 'em heard us kick the rocks he had bracin' the tires outta the way or had much of a chance to notice us gettin' outta there while the truck rolled down the hill into the creek. We didn't really stick around to find out what happened after it took off down the hill like a gut shot bear, but the brakes on that thing hadn't worked since 1988 even if he'd been able to reach 'em an so he ended up spendin' about two seconds extricatin' 'imself from the wench an the next three hours tryin' to winch the truck outta the mud before finally givin' up. I'm not real worried about 'im findin' out since he reads at about a third trimester level, an sides that, Billy looks about like John Coffee from The Green Mile, only a lot hairier. Mostly I just wanted to set the record straight about the REASON why this needed to be done, an to make sure all the pretty ladies out there understand that I'm out there standin' up for their personal dignity an self-respect. Fortunately, the Bowsers'll prolly continue to see me as a rude, sexist pig, so that bridge'll never hafta be crossed.

You guys really needa quit gettin' me off topic like that when I'm tryin' to talk movies, specially when we've got a good movie for a change. An a damn good movie at that. You've prolly seen at least a coupla these serial killer "biography" flicks the studios've been pumpin' out for the last decade an a half an I just wanna make it perfectly clear that this one is different. It's gritty, ballsy, callous, an uses those other flicks to wipe its ass. Which isn't particularly effective, but gets the point across just the same. But before we get into the story, I've plucked out a few nuggets of wisdom that I found particularly pertinent from the movie that brought Michael Rooker an Tom Towles outta nowhere an into a future with seemingly endless genre acting opportunities. First, if you offer a man a black and white TV set in 1986, you deserve everything you get for such a mindblowin' level of disrespect. This ain't 1962, jackass, an they ain't TV shoppin' to catch the latest episode of Lassie. Second, time may heal all wounds, but a Wendy's Bacon Cheeseburger heals just about any psychological trauma. An third, you can lead a corpse to water, but you can't make 'em sink. Man do I feel stupid. I've been tryin' the Spicy Chicken Sandwich all these years an it never cured diddly squat. But more importantly than all that, I think I may've discovered the meanin' of life while I was watchin' this one, even though I'd already seen it about eight times an musta missed it up to this point. Now, it seems to me that the big guy up yonder gave us all this free will for a reason, cause if it wasn't for free will, we'd all just be runnin' off a script with the Lord as the world's most in-demand screenwriter callin' the shots. Logic would then dictate that He'd prolly be a swell guy an make our lives just as perfect as we all thought Brad Pitt an Jennifer Aniston had it til they couldn't stand the sight of each other no more. So it's pretty obvious that we've got free will, an we absolutely hafta have it so that we can make sure to treat each other like a pair of panties that got returned to Walmart after a heavy period, that made their way back into the discount bin. Otherwise, we'd never be able to find our soul mates who're precisely as screwed up as we are an finally achieve the level of fulfillment necessary to settle down an raise dysfunctional families that we can get into fist fights with at snowmobile parties. I realize that some of you out there may not yet've found that special someone that makes you feel like the deep seeded hatred you harbor for humanity after spendin' 13 years bein' known as the girl who shit 'er pants in Kindergarten isn't that big a deal, when the man you love was once caught out in the barn with a calf that was tryin' to extricate milk outta his baby maker. Just knowin' that we're not alone in our borderline psychoses makes all the difference in the world, an I hope that one day we can all find our one an only just like Henry an Becky in the movie. Unless of course you've seen the endin'... but ya know, not all love stories turn out as good as Romeo an Juliet, so I don't feel like this really diminishes my point in the least.

The movie begins with various shots of butchered babes interspersed with shots of a guy (Henry) havin' lunch, tippin' the waitress approximately 37 cents, an drivin' around the streets of Chicago in a 1970 Chevy Impala that looks like the lionesses out on Michigan Avenue got ahold of it an let it limp away after eatin' their fill. Then Henry pulls into a mall parkin' lot an starts scoutin' prospective pincushions an after findin' one that he thinks can help 'im out with his one man blood drive, follows 'er through the suburbs til she pulls into 'er little middle class slice of American Pie style bungalow an Henry has to take a rain check when 'er husband comes out to help carry in the Royal Crown cola an Ritz crackers. But Henry's no quitter, so he settles for a hitchhiker carryin' a George Strait acoustic guitar an proceeds to belt out his own version of The Day the Music Died. Elsewhere, a woman (Becky) is waitin' around at the airport lookin' real sad about not havin' big enough casabas to warrant a strip search by the TSA til 'er brother (Otis) comes to pick 'er up an helpfully lets 'er know she looks like Lecy Goranson after hittin' skid row so hard even the gangs cross the street when they spot 'er cardboard condo in the distance. Course then she starts bawlin' like somebody just tore the head off 'er Cabbage Patch doll an so Otis apologizes an promises not to criticize 'er lifestyle, til they get to the car where he reminds 'er about how he told 'er that 'er boyfriend was a crackheaded bimbo magnet, but she don't wanna talk about it. So then they head for home where Otis puts his own spin on Edwin Starr an asks; Whore? Huh, good God doll, what're you good for? Sides shakin' 'er maracas in night clubs, he specifies. Then Becky gets this look on 'er face like she's about to put on a pair of cleats an give 'im a pole dance he'll never forget an, tells 'im she can do all kinda stuff so long as she gets 'er federally mandated 77% of a man's wages. But about that time Henry walks in an Otis introduces 'im to Becky who gets this look on 'er face like she's already plannin' the weddin' arrangements, an Henry hasta go to work before she tries handcuffin' 'im to the radiator. Unfortunately, there ain't much work today, so Henry's boss lets 'im off early an he decides to take his boss's advice an show some initiative by headin' over to the 'burbs an tellin' the dame he tailed earlier that 'er husband hired 'im to come spray for crabs an once she lets 'er guard down he strangles 'er with the cord to 'er hydraulic dildo. The next day, Becky's guttin' a fish in the kitchen sink an askin' Otis what Henry's really like an if he thinks he might ask 'er to go steady an Otis tells 'er he dunno much about 'im cept that he met 'im in the crossbar hotel where they stuck 'im after he killed his mama, an she shoots 'im this look like he's a Neanderthal who can't see Henry's inner beauty. Then Henry comes home an they enjoy Becky's famous fillet 'o carp an after Otis takes off to find someplace with a functionin' toilet, Henry an Becky sit at the kitchen table an play Crazy Twos while discussin' their inner most childhood traumas with each other.

Becky goes first, on account of 'er havin' so much baggage that if it belonged to Donald Trump an he flew Southwest Airlines, they'd end up ownin' Trump Towers after all the check fees came in. Not surprisingly, Becky's got Daddy issues, as just about anybody would have after bein' forced to engage in the Arkansas version of Love Connection, even though 'er Mama knew about it an pretended she didn't believe 'er cause she figured if she held out long enough she might be able to get on Donahue someday. So once she makes like a porn star in the shower an gets that load off 'er chest, she tells Henry that she really likes talkin' to 'im cause he's such a down to earth "live an let live" kinda guy an asks 'im if he really killed his Mama or if she's just failed another one of Otis' confidentiality tests. Then Henry tells 'er that yeah he killed his Mama but to be fair; after bein' forced to watch 'er take the ole tenderloin tunneler night after night from guys so ugly they make Ron Jeremy look like Robert Redford, he didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't have done in his situation. The next day, Becky decides to go look around town for a job since she an Henry are practically engaged now an she's gonna need some scratch to keep 'erself lookin' good if she wants to keep a man as in demand as he is, an ends up workin' for some beauty parlor doin' shampoo jobs on wrinkly old ladies who spend all their time talkin' about what sluts the women their husbands actually find attractive are. So now Becky's giddy as Honey Boo Boo's Mom after findin' a sealed box of Ding Dongs an she comes home to tell the guys about 'er job an model 'er new "I Heart Chicago" t-shirt while Henry tries concealin' the fact that everybody knows Chicago ain't been worth a damn since Mayor Daley an Terry Kath kicked off in the late 70s. Then Otis asks 'er to bring 'im a beer an when she does he tries arrangin' a family respoonion with 'er til Henry grabs what's left of his hair an tells 'im that if he even thinks about stagin' a confederate consummation with 'er again he's gonna an go all Ray Rice on 'im til he remembers his manners. Course, Becky's so overwhelmed by this show of chivalry that she tells 'em both to go out an have a beer an that she'll clean up even though she really just wants 'em outta there so she can try to take in this massive turn around in 'er life, an once Otis quits bein' butt/follicle hurt, he an Henry go hit the town. So after they leave the house they decide to take in dinner an a ho an pick up a coupla hookers an take 'em to this dark alleyway where Henry doesn't seem to realize she's the one that's supposed to have 'er hands wrapped around him, an once he strangles 'er Otis' knobbler gobbler realizes what's happened an Henry hasta spin 'er head around like a dreidel at a Hanukkah party an dump their bodies in the alley for Oscar the Grouch to deal with.

Not surprisingly, Otis's eyes're about the size of dinner plates an he's got this look on his face like Henry somehow managed to achieve peace in the Middle East, an so Henry hasta take 'im over to the Arctic Circle to buy 'im a burger an see if he can't get 'im to come outta his shell shock. Then they go home an Henry explains to 'im that it was either them or the malnourished 90lb crack addicts with bad 80s hair an that the world's gone to heck in a handbasket ever since New Coke was released, so nobody could possibly expect 'im to be held responsible for his actions. This makes Otis feel a lot better, so he hits the livin' room to watch some TV til the rabbit ears on his 1967 Zenith stop workin' right in the middle of Night Court an he hasta put his foot through the screen like Bruce Lee anytime one of those old Batman episodes he did guest shots for come on, an so he an Henry have to look for a new one at Shady Joe's No Questions Asked Electronics an Kidney Transplants. Unfortunately, Joe's customer relations're so bad that he's bein' observed by talent scouts from Comcast, an he ends up mouthin' off to the guys, an they end up havin' to stab the guy a couple dozen times an bust a Panasonic Quintrix II on his head til TV kills the rudeo star. So once they take their pick of the litter an some other goodies, they head home an use their new camcorder to make a video tape for Becky's daughter featurin' white people dancin' so bad that you start to envy the guy with the busted TV on his head back at the TV dealership after lookin' at it for a couple merciless minutes. The next day, Otis devotes the mandatory five minute monthly meetin' with his parole officer to showin' 'im what a fine upstandin' citizen he's become an then heads over to the high school to sell some pot to a chunkhead on the varsity squad. Only Otis starts thinkin' a little too long about the kid's tight end in the locker room after practicin' end-around patterns, an after he starts grabbin' the kid's thigh the kid uses the rejection method imparted unto him by his last dozen dates an punches Otis right in the ole booger barn. Otis is P.O.'d, so he goes home an tells Henry what happened an Henry says that killin' the kid's no good cause his parents won't think dyin' vicariously through 'im is nearly as good as their previous arrangement, but that there's no reason why they can't head out on the town an find a consolation prize. Eventually, The Adventures of Die-lo an Otis lead 'em to an underpass where Henry gives Otis a gun an explains that guns're easy to get, an that all he had to do was tell Charlton Heston he'd been turned down after a background check before Chuck got so P.O.'d he just gave 'im one of his extras. So once Otis understands the plan, he pops the hood while Henry heads over to the side of the road an does his best to look cute an mechanically ignorant til a good Samaritan pulls over an Otis blasts 'im like bad rap music comin' outta the window of a 1977 Cadillac an begins feelin' immediately refreshed.

The next day, Henry an Otis head out to the park where they video tape these two bums kickin' the crap outta some yuppie so they can steal his Gucci loafers an finally know what it's like to walk in a rich man's shoes, an while they're observin', Henry explains to Otis that so long as variety remains the spice of life in their killin' spree an they utilize no discernible pattern, the cops'll never catch 'em. Fortunately it was 1986, or they'da prolly got caught after puttin' their videos on Youtube. But they get bored of waxin' killosophical pretty quick an once it's dark out they decide to go raid another middle-class casa so Otis can bounce this housewife around on his lap like a high school cheerleader at R. Kelly's house an leave greasy hand prints all over 'er groceries, all while Henry records the display an 'er husband whom he's stabbed an stuck a pillow case on so he looks like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2. Then the couple's kid comes home an Henry hasta drop the camera like the medical coverage on a cancer patient an twist his head around til he can check 'imself out without a mirror while Otis does the same to the woman. Cept then Otis tries initiatin' mouth to mouth resuscitation on 'er an when that don't work he starts goin' a little further an Henry has to swat his nose with a rolled up newspaper an get 'im back in the car before he knocks 'er up with zombie babies. The next day, Henry an Otis head out to shoot a documentary on random hotties caught in the act of existin', til Henry drives a little too close to a parked car an Otis' camcorder gets its lens broken off like a dick in a hostile lesbian bar, an so Otis chucks it out the window like every guy who's ever had narcotics on 'im while the cameras from the crew at COPS were rollin'. Then Henry gets P.O.'d an tells Otis that he didn't spend two years at camcorder repair school to have some dipshit just throw the electronics out the window, an stops in the middle of traffic to pitch 'im out on his Cro-Magnon keister before drivin' off. By this point, Henry's had his mellow pretty thoroughly harshed, so he heads home to play Old Maid with Becky who tells 'im that she's headin' for home cause she's tired of wakin' up to find Otis' face in 'er dirty unmentionables an invites Henry to come with so 'er daughter'll finally have that male role model that's been missin' from 'er life an Henry decides that he's nothin' if not calculated an takes 'er out to dinner so he can think about it before he jumps into anything serious. So once they have their fill over at Ed Fu Young's Chinese/American Cuisine an VHS Anime Rental Depot, they come home to find Otis passed out in the livin' room watchin' reruns of Killagain's Island from their home video library, only Becky don't notice cause she's too busy pullin' Henry into 'er bedroom tryin' to get some dessert. Then Otis walks in an gets Henry more flustered than a nun in a porno theater cause he really don't wanna have to deal with Otis inquirin' about a three-some if it comes to that an heads down to the store to pick up a couple hundred cigarettes to try an calm down. Gonna cut it off now, cause if Jack Nicholson were here, he'd tell the lot of ya that you can't handle the conclusion to this one.

Alrighty, well, this one's prolly in my top 10 list. Top 15 for sure, and a big part of that is the fact that it has an air of realism that very few horror titles have. There's nothing wrong with adding an element of silliness or fun to a movie, but with only a few rare exceptions, movies like this one always tend to be better received by the audience. Case in point, this movie had a budget of around 100 grand, and has managed a 7.1 on the IMDB. While I realize that's criminally low in comparison to what it deserves, consider that for a minute. It's really tough for a mainstream horror flick to get that kinda rating, and this one managed it with little press and little money. The reason it succeeds so spectacularly where so many other serial killer/slasher flicks come up short can be attributed almost entirely to its gritty, callous, matter-of-fact style and presentation. This one's got perhaps the most appropriate tagline for any horror flick ever made; "He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real." and that's exactly how they film it. It's uncompromising, cold, and doesn't try to cast any of the characters in any specific light. All three of the principle characters are utterly screwed up, and two of them have let their past histories get the better of them to the point that they're now more or less monsters. It's not the fun, borderline silly sort of flick that makes you laugh from time to time the way a Friday the 13th sequel might, nor does it suggest we root for Henry and Otis the way some movies of this sub-genre do in an attempt to be edgy. It's filmed very much from the perspective of an observer that has no stake in how it turns out, Henry and Otis' horrible actions are what they are, and the director makes no apologies nor pulls any punches. It's also rather interesting in the sense that it utilizes the Hitchcockian "bomb under the table" school of building suspense, while simultaneously making use of graphic shock sequences as well. Because while Henry and Otis are out committing their various atrocities, Becky is completely unaware of anything they're doing and is actually falling for Henry because she senses a kindred spirit in him due to a level of psychological trauma that rivals her own. The movie even manages to get you to care about Becky, even without a tremendous amount of character development. You hear all you need to the first time she sits down to play cards with Henry and tells him about her past, where she instantly becomes a tragically sympathetic character, all from that one short sequence. The movie's nothing short of brilliant, and while I don't want to spoil the ending, I've gotta say, that last 15 minutes is one of the most horrifying conclusions to any movie you'll ever see, with a final shot that cements perfectly what they were going for. It's cold, uncompromising, and real, right to the end.

Okay then, lets see if this thing can save face after we jam a soda bottle shiv into it. The plot itself isn't really all that original or particularly mind blowing. It's not the premise that lifts it above all the other serial killer bio flicks, but the execution and the unique presentation of that time-tested idea. Realistically, I'm not sure it's even logical to suggest that the movie has a plot. It's essentially as though we're just following two sociopaths around watching their exploits, as though none of it's scripted. It's almost like the sickest reality show ever conceived, and barely feels like there's a story that's actually set in stone unfolding in front of you. So the plot's not really anything new, but the execution is phenomenal. The acting, you'd probably have to award top honors. Michael Rooker's portrayal of Henry is one of the greatest, maybe THE greatest, acting performances in the history of this genre. He's utterly convincing, and requires exactly zero suspension of disbelief in the role of Henry. Tom Towles also turns in a damn good performance that'd garner a hell of a lot more praise than it does if Rooker wasn't just that much more amazing as Henry. Towles is a complete scumbag that we genuinely despise even more than Henry, because you get the sense that Henry is a product of his upbringing, whereas Otis is an even sicker fuck who makes it abundantly clear that he is enjoying every moment of each act, after getting over the initial shock of it. Henry almost seems as though he's wired to do these things and has no control over it, which isn't to say that that excuses what he does; rather, it simply differentiates the two characters very clearly. Tracy Arnold gives perhaps the least impressive of the three performances, but still does a great job of conveying a tragic character that is really, in a way, the protagonist due to the way the other characters are written. Both Rooker and Towles are horror regulars, but I'm gonna make a judgment call on this one and list their resumes, so here's who matters and why: Michael Rooker (Hypothermia, Call 213, Whisper, Slither, Shadow Builder, The Dark Half), Tracy Arnold (The Borrower), Tom Towles (Blood on the Highway, Halloween 2007, Home Sick, House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, Groom Lake, The Prophecy II, Fortress 1992, The Borrower, The Pit and the Pendulum, Night of the Living Dead 1990), Kurt Naebig (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, The Relic), Rick Paul (Monster a-Go-Go). Mike really aughta be ashamed of himself, but he also recently played Yondu Odonta in Guardians of the Galaxy, for you normal people out there. He was also Merle Dixon on AMC's The Walking Dead, which is considerably less embarrassing.

The special effects, for the most part, are pretty good, if not too elaborate most of the time. There're really only two special effects that will have been at all difficult to pull of, one of which is really good; the other, not so much. The bad one, I'm not going to give away because it occurs after I cut the plot summary off and would cause major spoilers. But I will say that it's very brief, and that the reaction shot that follows is pulled off so well that it almost completely negates the sub-par effect. For the most part, we're dealing with bloody corpses, because while it's certainly a violent movie, it's really not all that gore filled. Most of the blood is shown in the opening montage where we're watching the various recent victims of Henry interspersed with his daily routine, though the one with the pop bottle shiv in her face stands out above the rest. I'll also say this; these victims play dead far better, and for far longer than you generally see in these movies, so props to the dead nekkid ladies. The shooting locations are still another triumph that goes a hell of a long way towards making everything work, and is probably the second biggest success in the movie. The cinematography here is nothing short of amazing, and the gritty authenticity of the streets of Chicago, as they actually were at the time of the movie's shooting, lend still more realism to the already fantastically chilling atmosphere generated by the superb acting and the unusual presentation of the story. Words don't do it justice, despite the best efforts of my limited ability to articulate. And of course, the soundtrack pretty much takes whatever question you might have about this movie's cinematic sublimity and knocks it outta the park. It's a very simple, angry, menacing soundtrack that's both catchy and chilling. It's not over-used, nor under-utilized, and it matches the deathly serious tone and feel of a movie that was already pretty close to perfect to begin with. Absolutely one of the most atmospheric movies ever made, right up there with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; can't say enough good things about it. Overall, it's a classic, and one of very few movies that can actually scare someone out of the room if they're susceptible to that sort of thing, but don't expect it to be fun or uplifting, it's far too realistic. Buy it, even blind, if you've not seen it, because you're going to want to see it more than once.

Rating: 95%