First things first, I don’t know how this film has slipped under the Ruthless Review Radar for so long, because this dark and terrifying movie contains one of the most Ruthless characters of all time. Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer was christened to be a very low budget $100,000 horror flick, but the final product was not a horror or slasher film, but instead, a gritty and searing docufilm. This movie vividly shows the awful consequences of the actions of totally damaged and dysfunctional human beings. Although the movie was finished in 1986, it was not released until 3 years later because the MPAA could not live with anything less than an X Rating, that is just how disturbing and graphic this movie is. It was finally released with no rating at all. This movie, with truth being more horrible than fiction, was based on the life of a real serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
All the actors were unknowns and Michael Rooker was stunning as Henry, who portrayed a vicious killing machine with such stoic and detached demeanor that it was viscerally chilling. Otis, played by Tom Towles, was a snaggle-toothed Redneck ex-con, and a consummate loser who had designs on his already abused sister. This creep readily accepted Henry’s cold-blooded and random “Kill for Thrill” lifestyle. After Henry nonchalantly murders two hookers in a dark alley in Chicago, there is no turning back, Otis was hooked. Becky is a battered wife and is fleeing from her situation to live with her brother Otis, who is roommates with Henry. After they share stories of childhood abuse, incest, violence and unspeakable misery, Henry readily admits that he killed his mother, but Becky already knew this and because of her own life of abuse and horror, was immediately drawn to Henry. She was also hooked, but in a different way.
Other than the unfortunate victims, all of whom die bloody, brutally, and rapidly, the film is totally unfettered by any side or back stories. There are no police around or investigations to be had, it is totally about two lives that are off the tracks and one that is just a magnificent train wreck, and that is Henry. The rampage of Henry and Otis is almost comical at times, as they have procured a camcorder and like to use it to document their work. In a scene reminiscent of the one in Red Dragon, they like to kick back and enjoy watching their videotaped crimes on their ill-gotten television. The home invasion scene is similar to the one in Clockwork Orange, only it is much darker, much more sinister, graphically more violent and extremely difficult to watch. One of the defining moments in the film was after a failed pass at one of his dope customers, Otis is pissed and snarls to Henry, “I’d like to kill…SOMEBODY”. The pause from Henry was immediate and electric. “Say that again”, he said, after hearing those sweet, sweet words. “Let’s me and you go for a ride, Otis”. For Otis, the killing was a spree, a high, something powerful and thrilling to do. He was just another low-life loser ex-con. For Henry though, it was different, it was his profession and his calling. He lived for the kill and for nothing else. Henry was the ultimate psychopath, no one else even comes close. His killings were random, highly efficient, and done without plan, remorse or conscience.
I’ve never seen anything else to compare to this film, it’s all alone and probably should be. If evaluating as a horror film, that really doesn’t work as this film does not jump out and scare you, but there is such a visceral horror that lasts the entire 83 minutes. There is no way within the framework of decency to enjoy this film, but it must be admired by an audience that chooses to sit through this thing. It’s a bleak journey and shows the very bottom of the human condition that is so damaged that not even the most optimistic would have any hope for a fix or redemption. From the macabre mannequin-like still lifes, shown after the killer is long gone, to the sickening and brutal home invasion, this is a repulsive, yet fascinating documentary on senseless, random murder. The casts of unknowns, again were brilliant and every scene that Rooker appeared was hair-raising and chilling, regardless of how innocuous he appeared.
I won’t spoil the ending, which was a masterpiece, but after the scene where Henry walked in on the attempted rape of his sister by Otis, the audience was given hope for redemption, in spite of having watched yet another bloody and violent murder and dismemberment. We are yearning for some sort of method to the madness, some sort of solace for the emotional damage of actually viewing this initial hour of bloodshed and horror. To this end, McNaughton manages the run time and the pacing perfectly. You will not be disappointed.
There are just not enough superlatives to do this work of art justice. Anyone who is even a casual connoisseur of horror or slasher films should watch this film. No part of this haunting undertaking will leave you feeling good, but you will come away with the satisfaction of watching one of the most Ruthless performances of all time.