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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Original film poster
Directed byJohn McNaughton
Produced by
  • Lisa Dedmond
  • Steven A. Jones
  • John McNaughton
Written by
  • Richard Fire
  • John McNaughton
Music by
  • Ken Hale
  • Steven A. Jones
  • Robert McNaughton
CinematographyCharlie Lieberman
Edited byElena Maganini
Distributed byGreycat Films
Release date
Running time
83 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$609,939 (US)[2]

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a 1986 American psychological horror crime film directed and co-written by John McNaughton, about the random crime spree of a serial killer who seemingly operates with impunity. It stars Michael Rooker as the nomadic killer Henry, Tom Towles as Otis, a prison buddy with whom Henry is living, and Tracy Arnold as Becky, Otis's sister. The characters of Henry and Otis are loosely based on convicted real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.

Henry was filmed in 1985 but had difficulty finding a film distributor. It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1986 and played at other festivals throughout the late 1980s. Following successful showings during which it attracted both controversy and positive critical attention, the film was rated "X" by the MPAA, further increasing its reputation for controversy. It was subsequently picked up for a limited release in 1990 in an unrated version. It was shot on 16mm in less than a month with a budget of $110,000.

The original poster artwork was a painting by Joe Coleman. It was considered too extreme and after being withdrawn, was replaced by the current official poster.


Henry (Michael Rooker) is a psychopathic 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 later murders the elderly proprietors of a liquor store.

Otis (Tom Towles), a drug dealer and prison friend of Henry's, picks up his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), 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, often having sex in front of him, though he later claims he shot her (which also contradicts the version Henry told Otis in prison, in which he described how he killed his mother with a bat). Becky reveals that her father raped her as a teenager. Henry reveals that he is disturbed by sexual violence against women because of his prior child abuse at the hands of his mother, forming a seemingly protective bond with Becky. Later when Otis makes an incestuous pass at Becky, Henry violently threatens Otis, who promises not to do that again. Becky indicates a romantic interest in Henry for his actions having protected her.

The next day, Becky gets a job in a hair salon. That evening, Henry and Otis pick up two prostitutes; Henry murders both of them by breaking their necks. Otis is shocked and disturbed and confronts Henry about his murderous lifestyle. Henry invites him to join his philosophy of murder, trying to convince him of a relativistic nature of murder. Otis worries that the police might catch them, however, Henry assures him that everything will work out. Back at their apartment, Henry explains his code of immorality: the world is "them or us". Otis seemingly accepts and drops the argument.

Later on, Otis becomes frustrated at his television's poor reception, kicking in the screen, destroying it. Henry takes him to a fence to buy a new TV at a discount. The man is rude and sarcastic and begins to ridicule them for showing up with "a lousy $50 bucks" and berate Henry and Otis when they refuse to buy his black-market goods. Henry uses the threat as an excuse to indulge his murderous impulses, and Henry stabs him repeatedly with a soldering iron nearby. When he fights back, Otis grabs a rope and starts to choke the man. Henry then smashes a TV onto his head. At Henry's urging, Otis plugs in the damaged TV, electrocuting the man. They then steal a high-end TV and a camcorder and return home undetected.

When Otis is punched in the face by a young teenage boy he tries to sexually assault while selling him marijuana, he complains to Henry that he wants to murder the boy. Otis is convinced by Henry to abandon that grudge for fear of being caught if he harmed the boy and, bolstered by the thrill of their previous homicide, decide to go on a random serial-killing spree together. They set a trap at night for drivers on Lower Wacker Drive, faking a broken down car, shooting a man to death who pulls over to help them. Henry advises Otis 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. Later on, the pair watch a recording of a home invasion where they murder a family of three. Otis begins to molest the mother's corpse until Henry objects.

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 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. Afterward, she tries to seduce him, but a drunken Otis enters and asks if he's interrupting anything. Using Otis's return as an excuse, Henry leaves to buy cigarettes and get some air. On his way back he encounters a woman walking her dog and is tempted to murder her, but abandons the idea and goes back to the apartment. When he returns, he finds Otis is raping Becky anally and is strangling her with her shirt. Henry fights Otis; however, Otis gets the upper hand, smashing a bourbon bottle onto Henry's face. Otis is about to kill Henry when Becky stabs Otis in the eye with the pointed handle of a rat tail comb. While Becky is in a state of shock, Henry grabs the rat tail comb from her hand and brutally stabs Otis, murdering him, and then dismembers his body in the bathtub.

Henry and Becky dump Otis's 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, seemingly annoyed. They book a motel room for the night.

The next morning, Henry leaves the motel alone, gets into the car and drives away without Becky. He stops at the side of the road to dump Becky's blood-stained suitcase in a ditch, then drives away.


In 1984, executive producers Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali of Maljack Productions (MPI) hired John McNaughton, a former delivery man for their video equipment rental business, 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 finance a feature film. The Ali brothers gave McNaughton $110,000 to make a horror film with plenty of blood.[citation needed]

McNaughton knew the budget would be too small for a horror film about aliens or monsters, and was unsure how to proceed 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.[citation needed]

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.[3][4][5]

Henry was shot on 16mm in only 28 days for $110,000, in 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 1970 Chevrolet Impala 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.[3]

Rooker remained in character for the duration of filming, 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, Rooker remained so in-character, that during the shoot, his wife discovered she was pregnant, but she waited until filming had stopped before she told him.[5]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]


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 have the film be released 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 rated the film "X," which was popularly associated with pornographic films at the time.[6]

In 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.[7] Ultimately, the 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.

The film's theatrical premiere was on January 5, 1990 in Boston, where it grossed $50,504 during the weekend.[8] On March 30, it opened at the Angelika Film Center in New York and Austin, Texas, and grossed $17,888 for the weekend.[8] In its theatrical run, it eventually 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.[9]

Further censorship

In the UK, the film has had a long and complex relationship with the BBFC.[10] 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,[citation needed] 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).[citation needed]

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 woman. 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. The total time cut from the film was thus 113 seconds.[11]

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.[citation needed]

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.[12]

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.[13]


Critical reception at the film's premiere was mixed, and the resulting debate over the film's themes and morality helped to raise its profile.[14] The film's subsequent theatrical release was able to capitalize on the positive reviews it had received throughout its controversial festival showings, and its theatrical reception was more positive.[15] Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 87% of 61 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 7.58/10. The consensus reads, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an effective, chilling profile of a killer that is sure to shock and disturb."[16] On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 80 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews."[17]

Critics who liked the film tended to focus on the freshness it brought to the saturated horror genre. Roger Ebert, for example, called Henry "a very good film" and 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."[7] Elliott Stein of The Village Voice stated, "the best film of the year... [it] recalls the best work of Cassavetes." Siskel & Ebert described it as "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" and that it "combines Fritz Lang's sense of predetermination with the freshness of John Cassavetes."[18] In a review from 1989, Variety wrote the film "marks the arrival of a major film talent" in McNaughton.[19]

It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which says "Henry evokes horror through gritty realism and excellent acting. The film is not fun to watch, but it is important in that it forces viewers into questioning our cultural fascination with serial killers."[20]

The film was recognized by American Film Institute in 2003 for their AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains list.[21]

Comparison to real-life source material

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.[22][23] 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 to which he confessed. 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 Texas Attorney General's Office produced the "Lucas Report," which concluded that reliable physical evidence linked Lucas to three murders.[24][25]

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.[26] Lucas was ultimately 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 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.[citation needed]

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 he meets Henry 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's younger sister and is considerably older than the 12-year-old Frieda Powell.
  • As in the film, Lucas's mother was a violent prostitute who often forced him to watch her while she had sex with clients, sometimes while wearing girls' clothing for further humiliation. Lucas's father lost both his legs after being struck by a freight train; the character relates a similar story.[citation needed]

Home media

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 version, 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.[27] 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 and Penelope Milford in supporting roles.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Mark Hughes (October 30, 2013). "The Top Ten Best Low-Budget Horror Movies Of All Time". Forbes. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  2. ^ "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  3. ^ a b Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: Director's Commentary R2 UK Full Uncut Edition DVD. 2003.
  4. ^ Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: R1 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, 2005. Director's commentary track
  5. ^ a b Portrait: The Making of Henry. 2005 (Documentary).
  6. ^ Kimber 2011, p. 17–21.
  7. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (September 14, 1990). "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer". Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  8. ^ a b "B.o. records fall before 'Turtles;' 'Woman,' 'Daisy' up nationally". Variety. April 4, 1990. p. 5.
  9. ^ Kimber 2011, p. 19–24.
  10. ^ "Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer". BBFC. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  11. ^ "Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer"
  12. ^ "'Censorship Timeline' (R2 UK Full Uncut Edition DVD Featurette)".
  13. ^ New Zealand Censorship Database
  14. ^ Kimber 2011, p. 18.
  15. ^ Kimber 2011, p. 25.
  16. ^ "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  17. ^ "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Reviews - Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  18. ^ "Stills Gallery (R1 US 20th Anniversary Edition DVD Extra)".
  19. ^ "Review: 'Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer'". Variety. October 4, 1989. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  20. ^ Scheider 2013.
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-05.
  22. ^ Brad Shellady, "Henry: Fabrication of a Serial Killer". Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies, 2002. Russ Kick, editor.
  23. ^ "Myth of a Serial Killer: The Henry Lee Lucas Story DVD". Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  24. ^ Mattox, Jim (April 1986). "Lucas Report". Office of Texas Attorney General. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  25. ^ Knox, Sara L. (2001). "The Productive Power of Confessions of Cruelty". University of Western Sydney/University of Virginia. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  26. ^ Shellady, 2002
  27. ^ "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer by Coleman". Retrieved March 1, 2019.
  28. ^ Anita Gates. "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2". The New York Times.


External links

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