Henry is a drifter who murders scores of people - men, women, and children - as he travels through America. He migrates to Chicago, where he stops at a diner, eats dinner, and kills two waitresses.
Otis, a drug dealer and prison friend of Henry's, picks up his sister Becky, who left her abusive husband, at the airport. Otis brings Becky back to the apartment he shares with Henry. Later that night, as Henry and Becky play cards, Becky asks Henry about the murder of his mother, the crime that landed him in prison. He tells her he stabbed his mother because she abused and humiliated him as a child, though he later claims he shot her. Becky reveals that her father raped her as a teenager.
The next day, Becky gets a job in a hair salon. That evening, Henry kills two prostitutes in front of Otis. Otis, though shocked, feels no remorse. He does, however, worry that the police might catch them. Henry assures him that everything will work out. Back at their apartment, Henry explains his philosophy: the world is "them or us".
Henry and Otis go on a killing spree together. Henry says that every murder should have a different modus operandi so the police will not connect various murders to one perpetrator. He also explains that it is important never to stay in the same place for too long; by the time police know they are looking for a serial killer, he can be long gone. Henry tells Otis that he will have to leave Chicago soon. The pair then slaughter a family, while recording the whole incident on their video camera, then watch it back at their apartment.
Becky quits her job so she can return home to her daughter. Otis and Henry argue after their camera gets destroyed while Otis is filming female pedestrians from the window of Henry's car. Otis gets out of the car and goes for a drink, while Henry returns to the apartment. Becky tells Henry her plans, and they decide to go out for a steak dinner. After, she tries to seduce him, but he seems scared of her advances. A drunken Otis enters and asks if he's interrupting anything. Embarrassed, Henry leaves to buy cigarettes. He returns to find Otis has raped Becky and is strangling her. Henry kicks Otis off her and a fight ensues. Otis gets the upper hand and smashes a bourbon bottle onto Henry's face. Otis is about to kill Henry when Becky stabs Otis in the eye with the handle of a metal comb. Henry stabs Otis, forcing him to bleed out and dismembers his body in the bathtub, telling Becky that calling the police would be a mistake.
Henry and Becky dump Otis' body parts in a river and leave town. Henry suggests that they go to his sister's ranch in San Bernardino, California, promising Becky they will send for her daughter when they arrive. In the car, Becky confesses that she loves Henry. "I guess I love you too", Henry replies, unemotionally. They book a motel room for the night.
The next morning, Henry leaves the motel alone, gets into the car and drives away. He stops at the side of the road to dump Becky's blood-stained suitcase in a ditch, then drives away.Michael Rooker as Henry
Tom Towles as Otis
Tracy Arnold as Becky
In 1984, executive producers Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali of Maljack Productions (MPI) hired a former delivery man for their video equipment rental business, John McNaughton, to direct a documentary about gangsters in Chicago during the 1930s. Dealers in Death was a moderate success, and was well received critically, so the Ali brothers kept McNaughton on as director for a second documentary about the Chicago wrestling scene in the 1950s. A collection of vintage wrestling tapes had been discovered, and the owner was willing to sell them to the Ali brothers for use in the documentary. However, after financing was in place, the owner doubled his price and the brothers pulled out of the deal. With the documentary cancelled, Waleed and McNaughton decided that the money for the documentary could instead be used to make a feature film. The Ali brothers gave McNaughton $110,000 to make a horror film with plenty of blood.
McNaughton knew the budget would be too small to make a horror film about aliens or monsters, and was unsure what to do until he saw an episode of 20/20 about the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. McNaughton decided to film a fictional version of Lucas's crimes.
In the meantime, the Ali brothers brought Steven A. Jones onto the project as a producer, and Jones hired Richard Fire to work as McNaughton's co-writer. With the producer, writer, and director in place and with the subject matter decided upon, the film went into production.
Henry was shot on 16mm in only 28 days for $110,000 in the year of 1985. During filmmaking, costs were cut by employing family and friends wherever possible, and participants utilized their own possessions. For example, the dead couple in the bar at the start of the film are the parents of director John McNaughton’s best friend, while the bar itself is where McNaughton once worked. Actress Mary Demas, a close friend of McNaughton’s, plays three different murder victims: the woman in the ditch in the opening shot, the woman with the bottle in her mouth in the toilet, and the first of the two murdered prostitutes. The four women Henry encounters outside the shopping mall were all played by close friends of McNaughton. The woman hitchhiking was a woman with whom McNaughton used to work. The clothes Michael Rooker wears throughout the film were his own (apart from the shoes and socks). The car driven by Henry belonged to one of the electricians on the film. Art director Rick Paul plays the man shot in the layby; storyboard artist Frank Coronado plays the smaller of the attacking bums; grip Brian Graham plays the husband in the family-massacre scene; and executive producer Waleed B. Ali plays the clerk serving Henry towards the end of the film.
Rooker remained in character for the duration of the shoot, even off set, not socializing with any of the cast or crew during the month-long shoot. According to the costume designer Patricia Hart, she and Rooker would travel to the set together each day, and she never knew from one minute to the next if she was talking to Michael or to Henry as sometimes he would speak about his childhood and background not as Michael Rooker but as Henry. Indeed, so in-character did Rooker remain, that during the shoot, his wife discovered she was pregnant, but she waited until filming had stopped before she told him.
Because the production had so little money, they could not afford extras, so all of the people in the exterior shots of the streets of Chicago are simply pedestrians going about their business. For example, in the scene where Becky emerges from the subway, two men can be seen standing at the top of the stairs having a heated discussion. These men were really having an argument, and when the film crew arrived to shoot, they refused to move, so John McNaughton decided to include them in the shot.
After filming was finished, there was so little money left that the film had to be edited on a rented 16 mm flatbed which was set up in editor Elena Maganini's living room.
MPI did not plan a theatrical release for the film. McNaughton himself sent copies of the film to prominent film critics, hoping to attract attention and thus a distributor. Vestron was the first distributor to show an interest in the film, but they pulled out over home video distribution disputes with MPI and fears of a potential lawsuit due to the film's use of real names. Following this, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival on September 24, 1986. In 1988, MPI hired Chuck Parello, who worked to get the film in theaters. The film played at several festivals throughout 1988 and 1989, where it attracted increasing amounts of attention. This culminated in positive attention from Roger Ebert at the Telluride Film Festival in 1989. Atlantic Entertainment Group expressed interest in releasing the film theatrically but mandated that it have an MPAA "R" rating. The MPAA responded with an "X" rating, which was popularly associated with pornographic films at the time. In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he writes that the MPAA told the filmmakers that no possible combination of edits would have qualified their film for an R rating, indicating that the ratings issue did not simply involve graphic violence. He also went on to say that the film was an obvious candidate for the then-proposed A rating for films that were for adults-only which were non-pornographic. This film, along with Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, were the instigation for the creation of an adults-only rating for non-pornographic films, NC-17. Due to the rating, Atlantic pulled out. Following further controversy over the rating, Greycat Films picked up the film for distribution after it screened at the Boston Film Festival in 1989. Its theatrical premiere, a limited release, was on January 5, 1990, during which it grossed $609,000, in part due to the continued controversies surrounding the film. McNaughton credited the MPAA's refusal to accept any cuts as giving him the opportunity to release it uncut, as he would have made cuts had they requested it.
In the UK, the film has had a long and complex relationship with the BBFC. In 1991, distributor Electric Pictures submitted the film for classification with 38 seconds already removed (the pan across the hotel room and into the bathroom, revealing the semi-naked woman on the toilet with a broken bottle stuck in her mouth). Electric Pictures had performed this edit themselves without the approval of director John McNaughton because they feared it was such an extreme image so early in the film, it would turn the board against them. The film was classified '18' for theatrical release in April 1991, after 24 seconds were cut from the family massacre scene (primarily involving the shots where Otis gropes the mother’s breasts both prior to killing her and after she is dead). Total time cut from the film: 62 seconds.
In 1992, Electric Pictures submitted the pre-cut theatrical print of the film to the BBFC for home video classification, once again missing the shot of the dead girl. In January 1993, the BBFC again classified the film '18', but the Board also removed four seconds from the scene where the TV salesman is murdered, meaning a total of 42 seconds were removed from the home video release. However, BBFC director James Ferman overruled his own team and demanded that the family massacre scene be trimmed down to almost nothing, removing 71 seconds of footage. Additionally, Ferman re-edited the scene so that the reaction shot of Henry and Otis watching TV now occurred midway through the scene rather than at the end. Total time cut from the film: 113 seconds.
In 2001, Universal Home Entertainment submitted the full uncut version of the film for classification for home video release. The BBFC waived the four seconds cut from the murder of the TV salesman, and 61 of the 71 seconds from the family massacre scene (they refused to reinstate the 10 seconds of the scene where Otis molests the mother after she is dead). Additionally, they partly approved the 38 second shot of the dead woman on the toilet, but they demanded that the last 17 seconds of the shot be removed. Based upon this, Universal decided to remove the shot entirely. Total time cut from the film: 48 seconds.
In 2003, Optimum Releasing again submitted the full uncut version of the film for classification for a cinema release, and later for a home video release. In February 2003, the BBFC passed the film completely uncut, and in March 2003 the uncut version of the film was officially released in the UK for the first time.
A parallel censoring of the film happened in New Zealand, where the film was originally banned outright by the Film Censor in 1992. A censored version was subsequently released on home video with cuts to the "family massacre" sequence. The film was finally released uncut on DVD in Australia in 2005; in 2010 another DVD release was approved, apparently without cuts in New Zealand for the first time.
Critical reception at its premiere was mixed, and the resulting debate over the film's themes and morality helped to raise its profile. The film's subsequent theatrical release was able to capitalize on positive reviews it had received throughout its controversial festival showings, and it was more positive. Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 86% of 59 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 7.6/10. The consensus reads: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an effective, chilling profile of a killer that is sure to shock and disturb." Rooker's performance received generally high marks.
Critics who liked the film tended to focus on the sense of newness it brought to the saturated horror genre. Roger Ebert, for example, called Henry "a very good film," a "low-budget tour de force," and wrote that the film attempts to deal "honestly with its subject matter, instead of trying to sugar-coat violence as most 'slasher' films do." Elliott Stein of The Village Voice called it "the best film of the year...recalls the best work of Cassavetes." Siskel & Ebert called it "a powerful and important film, brilliantly acted and directed." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune said it was "one of the ten best films of the year...combines Fritz Lang's sense of predetermination with the freshness of John Cassavetes." In a review from 1989, Variety wrote the film "marks the arrival of a major film talent" in McNaughton.
In 2013, a group of Belgian researchers praised the film for its very realistic depiction of a clinical psychopath.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Henry – Nominated Villain
In prison, Henry Lee Lucas confessed to over 600 murders, claiming he committed roughly one murder a week between his release from prison in 1975 to his arrest in 1983. While the film was inspired by Lucas' confessions, the vast majority of his claims turned out to be false. A detailed investigation by the Texas Attorney General's office was able to rule out Lucas as a suspect in most of his confessions by comparing his known whereabouts to the dates of the murders he confessed to. Lucas was convicted of 11 murders, but law enforcement officers and other investigators have overwhelmingly rejected his claims of having killed hundreds of victims. The "Lucas Report" asserted that reliable physical evidence linked Lucas to three murders. Others familiar with the case have suggested that Lucas committed a low of two murders to — at the most — about 40 killings. The hundreds of confessions stemmed from the fact that Lucas was confessing to almost every unsolved murder brought before him, often with the collusion of police officers who wanted to clear their files of unsolved and "cold cases." Lucas reported that the false confessions ensured better conditions for him, as law enforcement officers would offer him incentives to confess to crimes he did not commit. Such confessions also increased his fame with the public. In the end, Lucas was convicted of 11 murders and sentenced to death for the murder of an unidentified female victim known only as "Orange Socks". His death sentence was later commuted to life in prison by the then Governor of Texas George W. Bush in 1998. Lucas died in prison of heart failure on March 13, 2001.
The character of Henry shares many biographical concurrences with Lucas himself. However, as the opening statement makes clear, the film is based more on Lucas' violent fantasies and confessions rather than the crimes for which he was convicted. Similarities between real life and the film include:Henry Lee Lucas became acquainted with a drifter and male prostitute named Ottis Toole, whom he had met in a soup kitchen in Jacksonville, Florida. In the film, the character's name is "Otis" and the two met in prison.
Henry Lee Lucas sexually abused Toole's 12-year-old niece, Frieda Powell, who lived with Lucas and her uncle for many years. As in the film, Frieda Powell preferred to be addressed as "Becky" rather than her given name. However, in the film Becky is Otis' younger sister and is considerably older than the 12-year-old Frieda Powell.
As in the film, Lucas' mother was a violent prostitute who often forced him to watch her while she had sex with clients. The mother sometimes would make him wear girl's clothing and dresses. Lucas' father lost both his legs after being struck by a freight train; the character relates a similar story.
In the UK, the film was first released in its uncut form in 2003 by Optimum Releasing. The DVD contained a commentary from director John McNaughton (recorded in 1999), a censorship timeline, comparisons of the scenes edited by the BBFC with their original uncut status, two interviews with McNaughton (one from 1999, one from 2003), a stills gallery and a biography of Henry Lee Lucas (text).
In the US, in 2005 a special 20th Anniversary Edition two-disc DVD was released by Dark Sky Films. This DVD included a newly recorded commentary from McNaughton, a 50-minute making-of documentary, a 23-minute documentary about Henry Lee Lucas, 21 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary from McNaughton, a stills gallery, and the original storyboards. This DVD also featured a reversible cover featuring the banned original poster art by Joe Coleman. The film had a Blu-ray release in 2009.
A sequel, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II, was released in 1996. The film was directed by Chuck Parello and starred Neil Giuntoli as Henry with Kate Walsh, Penelope Milford, Carri Levinson, and Daniel Allar in supporting roles.