John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer reemerges as an important turning point in the world of horror cinema. Many The Walking Dead fans may flock to this movie in the all-too-fitting precursory role for Michael Rooker as Henry, the quiet but menacing ex-con first presented to us in a sequence of grisly still shots of his victims overlaid with the audio of their struggle. He is living with fellow ex-con, part time gas station attendant, and weed dealer, Otis (Tom Towles), and Otis’ recently divorced sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). With Becky’s arrival Otis reveals that Henry was imprisoned for murdering his own mother who abused him as a child. The rest of the film charts Otis’ submergence into Henry’s world as they mirror their real life counter parts Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole – the former of which confessed to over 157 killings between 1960 and 1983.
The film was made on an incredibly stringent budget of 110, 000 (originally slated for a documentary McNaughton was to direct) with some actors playing several separate cadavers and the editor Elena Maganini working from a flatbed in her living room. McNaughton’s film seems to draw from this lack of polish in the conveyance of the general malaise that the characters exist in, and the film itself concedes this in Henry and Otis’ apprehension of a portable video camera that they use for home movies with Becky as she attempts to get Henry to dance with her. Eventually the camera becomes a useful tool in cataloguing and replaying their exploits and in the way that the control of that camera shifts from Otis to Henry we see more clearly the struggle between those who exert their own power and those who are subservient to another's.
Those seeking a story arc filled with grandiose moralizing or a comforting title card detailing the end of Henry’s terror will be appropriately disappointed. The film’s distinct breed of menace and unnerve relies not on the explicit realism of the criminal existing in our world but that slowly we are drawn into his. The world of Henry’s terror has no definable end point and for all the acts he commits outside of societal laws he is still one bound to his own compulsion.