Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Dir: John McNaughton, 1986



Based on the true story of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, McNaughton’s docudrama is horrifying.

I do not get disturbed easily. I’ve seen some of the most vile films ever released. From August Underground and Murder Set Pieces through to Lucifer Valentine’s Slow Torture Puke Chamber and Regorgitated Sacrifice.

But, nothing, disturbs me like this film does.

Shot on a very low budget, its grainy, 16mm look just adds to the cruelty and trepidation.

The opening scenes depict bodies, decomposing in a manner of places and ways they’ve been murdered.  The most infamous of all is of a prostitute, sat on the toilet with a broken bottle embedded in her face and a breast exposed.

Henry (Michael Rooker), caused all of these deaths. A loner and a drifter, he drifts from state to state, murdering anyone he chooses or who gets in his way, regardless of the circumstances. He has no feeling or emotion for his crimes.

Henry lives with his friend, Otis (Tom Towles). Otis, picks up his sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold) from the airport and introduces her to his flatmate.

The ex con takes a liking to Becky, and reveals that he killed his mum, which is why he ended up in prison. Becky also admits to being abused by her father.

The two flatmates go on a killing spree, murdering, amongst others, a TV salesman and an entire family. The rape and massacre of the family is recorded on a video camera by Otis and Henry, so they can rewtch it, later.

Otis is a voyeuristic pervert, secretly filming women from his car.

Left alone with Becky, Otis rapes his sister and tries strangling her. Henry walks in and kills Otis. He and Becky, both dump the dismembered body parts of her brother and stay the night at a motel.

The next morning, Henry drives away, unaccompanied.

Pulling up at the side of the road, he dumps a bloodstained suitcase of Becky’s and drives away.

This film is bleak. It’s depressing. Horrific. Disturbing. Frightening. Real.

Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it. It sticks with you. Plays over and over in your mind. If you’re going to watch it, follow it up with a VERY funny comedy because it will weigh you down and drain you.

Michael Rooker is terrifying as Henry. So cold and emotionally inert. Nobody, could have played this role, except him. It’s like he doesn’t have to try. He IS Henry.

Towles, as the perverted Otis, is chilling. He and Rooker as an acting pair, evoke two monsters that you couldn’t imagine in your worst nightmare.

What makes their performances so brutal and shocking is that lack of emotion they both convey. They just walk through the film in dispassion. It’s almost like a sleepwalk. And, that, is truly scary.

The film was highly controversial on its release in America. The MPAA slapped it wth an ‘X’ rating, when all the distributors needed an ‘R’.

Despite being shown at festivals, and winning some positive reviews from critics, Henry wasn’t released to cinemas until 1990, four years after it was made. The censors refused to give it an ‘R’, citing that cuts could not be made. It was ‘X’ or nothing. Accepting the rating, a limited release followed that did very well. Although, the original cinema poster was banned.

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Original, uncensored US poster

Britain, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish.

The board knew from the start, that they would never be able to pass it, uncut. Distributors, Electric Pictures, submitted the film for a cinema certificate in 1991. However, before the submission, Electric removed 38 secs from the start of the film. The scene with the prostitute on the toilet was taken out, completely.

Even with this omission, the board still insisted on 24 more secs being cut, from the attack on the family.

After these cuts were made, totalling 1 min and 02 secs, an ’18’ certificate was given.

Electric, later, submitted the film for a video certificate. The previously cut footage was removed before submission but, James Ferman (yep! Him, again), demanded even more cuts. Four secs was removed from the murder of the TV salesman, and nearly all the attack on the family was censored. Ferman, also, completely re-redited the scene. He inserted the reveal of Henry and Otis watching the video of the attack, earlier, so the viewers were left in no doubt that it was a video they were watching. This removed the voyeurism that McNaughton intended. In short, he destroyed the scene. 1 min and 13 secs had been, further, censored by the BBFC. Including the distributor cuts, the amount now stood at 1 min and 53 secs. It was issued an ’18’.

Heavily censored version on the first UK VHS release

In 2001, the board having relaxed their guidelines, Universal Pictures submitted an uncut version to the board for a certificate. The previous four second cut was restored and the majority of the home invasion scene. The shot of Otis groping the dead woman’s breasts had to be removed.

The censors were happy to allow part of the prostitute scene through, but wouldn’t allow the zoom in on the prostitute with the bottle in her face and breast showing. Universal decided to just take the whole scene out. The censored footage now rested at 48 secs.

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Less censored 2nd UK VHS release.

2003, saw the film back in front of the examiners at the BBFC headquarters. Optimum Releasing submitted the full, uncut version of the film for a cinema and DVD certificate. Surprisingly, the board passed it, waiving all their previous cuts. For the first time ever in the UK, a complete, uncensored version was available to the public.

EPSON scanner image
First ever uncut release in the UK.

On a technical level, it totally deserves a 10. The effects are amazing and so realistic, they make you wince and your stomach churn. A magnificently, well made film, I can’t, in all honestly, give it a higher score because it is so depressing. It’s a film you can’t watch many times. You do go away feeling dirty and grubby. I realise that that’s the point, but it’s not an experience you would want to revisit.

For me, to rewatch it takes a lot of doing.

I imagine a lot of people may feel the same.



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