Man. Henry. Even if this day and age, the relatively low-tech piece of horror trash, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is discussed only in hushed tones by the troglodytes who surf the bottom feeder flicks of the horror genre. We all view this flick with a sense of morbid reverence that says, “Woah, buddy. That’s close enough.” Henry is the kind of picture that settles in to the pit of your stomach and makes itself at home, meanwhile upsetting the delicate balance of your stomach’s ecosystem like a bull in a fucking china shop. It is a scuzzy, seriously unpleasant movie-going experience in every conceivable way and it’s the kind of horror movie that comes only once in a lifetime. When we meet Henry, he has already dispatched one victim in an absolutely godawful fashion but somehow by the halfway point of the movie, we find ourselves siding with him as the movie introduces Otis, someone even worse than Henry. It doesn’t tug at the heart strings and this viewer-killer alliance isn’t forced, it’s coerced by the simple act of offering us the (slightly) lesser of two evils.
The funny part is that Henry was originally conceived as a slasher movie of the most generic kind. Through the simple fortune of shit luck, director John McNaughton found himself with a small budget to make a horror movie with the only provision coming down from the producers that it have lots of blood. McNaughton went to work and a month later he turned in a movie that Maljack Productions didn’t know what to do with. They wanted jiggly coeds getting hacked to pieces by a lumbering maniac in a mask but McNaughton turned in this lyrical piece of filth that was the cinematic equivalent of a Cannibal Corpse song. Henry is an oppressive, slow moving picture that hates you. It is a movie that wants to see us all have our heads bashed in with a toaster and then strangled to death with the cord. Henry is pure evil and it’s no wonder because the whole thing is heavily inspired by the killing spree committed by murderers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole.
Henry Lee Lucas was the tragic result of scummy shit kicking hillbillies grinding their nasty bits together when they ought to have been doing the world a favor by drinking themselves to death. His father lost his legs when he was hit by a freight train and his mother was a cruel drunken whore with a meanstreak that’s hard to believe. Not only did she kick the crap out of Lucas and her other kids, usually for no reason, but she was a neglectful cunt who let Henry’s eye wound, the result of a fight between he and his brother, fester before it had become so infected that she was left with no choice but to take him to the hospital where it was then removed. Still, this wasn’t the worst of it. The childhood of Henry Lee Lucas is a blueprint for how to make a monster. The woman, for no conceivable reason, often forced young Henry to watch her fuck her customers. The world has this woman to thank for one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. Is it any surprise that Henry’s first victim was his mother?
By the time of his death in 2001, Lucas had confessed to over 600 murders between 1975 and 1983. A Texas court convicted him of 11 and the actual number of Lucas’ murders is probably closer to 15 with the high-ball body count being 40 and the low-ball body count being 2. Why the confusion and speculation? Refer to my article about the arrest and execution of Johnny Frank Garrett for further evidence of Texas justice but law enforcement in the Lone Star State has a reputation for being fabulously shitty. More on that later.
Lucas’ modus operandi was a simple one and it’s one of the many criteria that criminalists consider when chasing down a serial killer of this type. Lucas made a habit of moving around the country constantly. His nomadic lifestyle and tendency to never repeat his killing habits left police scratching their heads. When a serial killer typically commits a series of crimes, each murder bears a series of signatures. Maybe they use the same weapon or same sort of weapon. Maybe the remains are left in a certain position or dressed in certain clothing. This is the one thing that nearly all serial killers have in common. They establish a set of behaviors that work for them and carry some kind of significance and they repeat the cycle with each murder. This is how police know that they have a serial on their hands. Lucas didn’t do this. He’d strangle one victim in Alabama and then stab another in Louisiana the next week. In Florida, he’d shoot someone and then in Georgia he’d beat someone to death with a baseball bat. He stayed moving and used different weapons and in each case the police thought that each murder was an independent occasion carried out by different people. Lucas didn’t do this on purpose because he was trying to throw police off his tracks. Quite frankly, Henry was too stupid to realize he was doing that at all. Meanwhile, during a stop in a Florida soup kitchen, Lucas had hooked up with Ottis Toole, a severely mentally handicapped man of similar stripe to Lucas and the two began a strange relationship that may have been a gay love affair and was definitely a violent, murderous partnership. At the same time, Lucas was nailing Toole’s 12 year old niece Frieda “Becky” Powell. It’s also believed that Becky was engaged, most likely against her will, in a sexual relationship with her uncle, Ottis. The whole story is like a Jerry Springer episode from hell.
In the end, Lucas was busted with an unlicensed gun and was implicated in the murder of Kate Rich. He would later confess to this murder and of the murder of Toole’s niece, Becky, who was last seen arguing with Lucas at a truck stop. Later on, Lucas would wind up confessing to every single open homicide that Texas investigators put in front of him. He would later recant every single confession and claim that he was not, in fact, a serial killer, but he would eventually wind up on death row for eleven murders. Even though then-Texas Governor and architect of all that was wrong with America 2000-2008, George W. Bush would later commute the death sentence to life in prison without parole, which Lucas served until his death in 2001. Texas homicide cops, with so many open murders threw everything they could at Lucas and Lucas was only too happy to confess to all of them, implicating Toole in many of them. Toole, meanwhile, was too stupid to deny any of them and often played ball with Henry’s claims for reasons known only to himself. They were a classic serial killer team up. One strong personality that dominated the weaker personality. Seemingly as psychotic as this pair of murderous mongoloids, the Texas legal system, hungry to get some open murders off the books took to pinning all of the murders of Lucas and Toole without, for a second, considering that the victims’ families might want to know who actually murdered their loved ones. They were, and probably still are, a lazy bunch of scum bags whose own incompetence couldn’t get them fired even if they shot their own dicks off with their service firearms.
Top to bottom, the tragic, miserable life of self-loathing serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas became the perfect frame for a nasty, oppressive horror movie whose infamy lives on to this very day. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was spawned from a story you can’t make up.