MOVIE REVIEW | Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It’s brutal in its portrayal of Henry’s killings, but I never felt like I was watching a slasher movie or horror.”

Henry 1
“She was a whore. My mama was a whore. But I don’t fault her for that. It ain’t what she done, but how she done it.”

Here is one of those movies where all I knew about it was the notoriety of its existence, and nothing about the actual story being told.  It faced backlash from censors, it struggled to find distribution and it was banned in some countries.  But for all of that resistance, 30 years after its release, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a movie that found an audience then, and keeps getting talked about today.


A montage of shots shows several women, all brutally killed in different ways.  Cut to Henry (Michael Rooker) an intense, and intensely unsettling dude.  He’s the kind of guy whose everydayness lets him hide in plain sight, but if you do pay attention, he doesn’t have to do anything specific to appear unsettling, he just is.  Henry lives in Chicago with Otis (Tom Towles), an old prison buddy.  And soon, Henry also lives with Becky (Tracy Arnold), Otis’ sister who has quit her job as a stripper and left a young son behind as she moves to Chicago hoping to find a better job to build a better life for her and her left behind son.

One night, Becky asks Henry if a story Otis told her about Henry killing his own mother is true.  Henry calmly and openly tells the story of stabbing his matriarch.  Or did he shoot her?  Henry’s story is as inconsistent as it is graphic.  One night, after Otis witnesses Henry kill a couple of prostitutes, the extent of his murderous past is revealed.  Henry kills anywhere, anytime, with no real preference for victim or method.  In fact, it’s Henry’s seeming randomness that has kept him free for so long.  No consistency means local cops never know they’re looking for a serial killer or that the killings are even related.  Even on the rare occasions when dots are joined, Henry’s long gone and moved on to the next town.

Knowing so little about the content of this movie going in was definitely an advantage.  I had no idea of its setting or who was in it.  I had no idea of it was a true story or some sort of Silence of the Lambs style thriller.  So to get a gritty, piece of 80s nihilism like this was a great surprise.  It’s not the kind of movie I would generally seek out, but seeing it while not knowing what to expect made it a shock in all the right ways.
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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a strange movie.  It’s a fictionalized version of a real person, but sensationalised far beyond being anything close to a biopic.  It’s brutal in its portrayal of Henry’s killings, but I never felt like I was watching a slasher movie or horror.  It’s kind of grindhouse exploitation in the way that there a long sections of talking for every quick eruption of violence or action.  But it’s too grounded and disturbingly real to be totally exploitative.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Directed By – John McNaughton
Written By – Richard Fire, John McNaughton

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?
Roger Ebert
Rolling Stone
Blood Crypt

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