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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Turning up at the Chicago apartment shared by old prison buddy Otis (Tom Towles) and his timid sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), Henry (Michael Rooker) slowly draws Otis into his dark, obsessive world of casual murder.

The violence is at first oblique, with Henry’s past murders presented as a series of grotesque tableaux accompanied by the distressing sounds of the victims’ death struggles.

Later, the violence becomes more graphic, virtually unwatchable – a fact that is used against the audience in the infamous home invasion scene, which is revealed in retrospect to be a video recording that Henry and Otis are viewing.

What makes Henry so disturbing is the cool matter-of-fact tone McNaughton sustains throughout. Whether presenting a halting conversation or bloody carnage, he observes events with the unblinking eye of a surveillance camera. It is this air of detachment that makes the blood run cold.


Rooker achieves frightening intensity as an ice-cold killer for whom murder and taking a beer out of the fridge are much the same thing.

The remote possibility of moral redemption seems to be held out by Henry’s tentative relationship with Becky, but even that faint glimmer of hope is extinguished by a devastatingly downbeat ending.

A film of ferocious, haunting power, and a highly impressive directing debut from John McNaughton.

Throughout filming, the filmmakers cut costs by using family and friends and even the crew itself. The dead couple in the bar near the start of the film are the parents of director John McNaughton’s best friend, whilst actress Mary Demas (a close friend of McNaughton’s prior to the film) 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.

Michael Rooker
Tracy Arnold
Tom Towles

John McNaughton