Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer DVD Review

Written by Steve Pattee

DVD released by Dark Sky Films

Directed by John McNaughton
Written by Richard Fire and John McNaughton
1986, Region 1 (NTSC), 83 minutes, Unrated
DVD released on September 27th, 2005

Michael Rooker as Henry
Tom Towles as Otis
Tracey Arnold as Becky


On the surface, Henry (Michael Rooker – Days of Thunder, Mississippi Burning) is polite and, at times, even friendly.  But beneath that surface, there is a man filled with rage and a desire to kill.  His preference, like most serial killers, is women, but Henry will take care of anyone who crosses him, because he is not a man to be fucked with.

It isn’t long into the movie when Henry shows Otis, his roommate and former cellmate, how to kill a person — justifying killing by claiming it’s always necessary. Otis quickly takes to his new hobby, and things get really disturbing when they add a video camera to the mix and start filming their extracurricular activities.

However, Otis’ sister Becky moves in with the duo and there is a quick attraction between her and Henry.  When Becky finds out from Otis that Henry killed his own mother, she seems a bit surprised but takes it in stride.  Even odder is when she asks Henry directly, and he confirms it, she seems understanding.

With a whole household full of whack jobs, things are guaranteed to be interesting.


When Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is mentioned, it is more often than not followed with "loosely based on Henry Lee Lucas."  And that is not fair to the movie.

Yes, director John McNaughton got the idea for the movie after watching a "20/20" interview with Henry Lee Lucas.  Yes, the opening scene has a dead female laid out based on a photograph of one of Lucas' victims.  Yes, in addition to a character named Henry, there is one named Otis and another named Becky (presumably named after Lucas' real-life cohort, Otis Toole, and lover, Becky Powell).  I don't dispute that it was loosely based on Lucas' life.  The similarities are there.

However, are Psycho or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remembered for being loosely based on killer Ed Gein?  No.  They are remembered for their antagonists, Norman Bates and Leatherface, respectively.  And Henry should have the same respect.  Because Michael Rooker's performance as Henry is probably one of the best, if not the best, performances of a killer I've ever seen.

Admittedly, Killer is closer to the truth than Psycho and Massacre, but Rooker is captivating as the maniacal Henry.  When he is on screen, he radiates charisma and you better watch him because if you don't, I do believe he'll kill you.  Rooker doesn't just act Henry, he becomes him.  He is so intense in this role, at times I felt I was watching documentary footage rather than a movie.  The only people that come immediately to mind that pulled the killer role off so well, aside from the aforementioned Anthony Perkins, are Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.  Rooker was so good, in fact, that even though Killer sat on the shelf for almost five years because of its "X" rating, word got out that Rooker was the man.

Rooker’s supporting cast was rock solid, too.  Tom Towles (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) played Otis magnificently.  Otis seems likeable enough for about five minutes, but then he just becomes that creepy neighbor you go out of your way to avoid because there is just something off about him.  Towles is great because he plays Otis so well you almost like him, even after you see him do something like eyeballing his sister in that gross, uncomfortable way.  Towles never goes over the top with the role, even though it would be very easy to do so.

Tracey Arnold is also great as Becky, Otis' sister.  She was quite believable as a woman who's been a victim all her life.  Arnold plays her role with an ingenious subtlety that really, really works.  She always puts Becky in the background, where the character seemingly belongs (because of the nature of a victim), but you never forget that she is there.  Brilliant.

Aside from the top-notch acting, the story and script are both awesome.  While there is not a lot of gore, Killer is, quite simply, brutal.  Brutal as hell.  Henry's rages, both internal and external, are so intense I feel physically and mentally drained every time I finish the movie.  And I've seen this movie a lot.   It's not so much that the violence is nonstop, because it isn't.  It's the fact that the movie seems so realistic, it takes the violence up a notch.

More often than not, Killer is on any given "top 100 horror films" list, and it's easy to see why.  I remember the first time I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 15 years ago.  It blew me away then, and it blows me away now.  Often, movies lose their appeal as time goes on, but not here.  Every time I watch Killer, it's new again and it never gets old. It's brutal, it's nasty, it's unrelenting and it has Rooker's stellar performance. If you are a horror fan, there is no reason why this one shouldn't be in your collection.  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is just an awesome movie.

Video and Audio:

Considering its age and $100,000 budget, Killer's 4:3 OAR looks good.  Certainly it's not a pristine picture, and there is grain throughout, but this is the best I've seen this film look.

The image is clean, the blacks are solid and the skin tones are natural.  An overall great looking picture.

Killer's Dolby 2.0 sounds great.  As this is not an action movie, 5.1 or DTS is not needed.  Robert McNaughton's brilliant score never overpowers the dialogue and creates the perfect atmosphere for the movie.

English subtitles are offered.

Special Features:

On disc one of this two-disc special edition is a commentary by director John McNaughton, moderated by David Gregory.  It is a fascinating commentary to listen to and any fan of the film should give it a spin.

Also on disc one is a 28-picture gallery and trailers for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2 and The Manson Family.

Disc two holds the rest of the special features, and when I popped in the DVD, I wept with joy.

“Portrait: The Making of Henry” is about an hour long and is an in-depth look at the film, from how the money was raised to the first screenings.  It seems most of the people involved are interviewed, including McNaughton, Rooker, Arnold and Towles.  One of the most fascinating parts of this documentary is the discussion on the “X” rating the film originally got from the MPAA, what the MPAA said needed to be changed and why the film sat on the shelf from 1986 to 1990.

“The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas” is a documentary taken straight from The Serial Killers and tells the real life story of Lucas.  This is a good piece to watch, as it bookends the movie nicely.

There are about 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes available, with commentary by McNaughton.  It looks like the original sound was not available, but McNaughton does an excellent job explaining what’s going on, so the audio is not missed.

Wrapping up disc two are some original storyboards.


Movie: 5 Stars

Overall: 5 Star Rating

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Steve Pattee
US Editor, Admin
He's the puppet master. You don't see him, but he pulls the strings that gets things done. He's the silent partner. He's black ops. If you notice his presence, it's the last thing you'll notice — because now you're dead. He's the shadow you thought you saw in that dark alleyway. You can have a conversation with him, and when you turn around to offer him a cup of coffee, he's already gone.
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