Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) Poster

Frequently Asked Questions

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  • They are random murder victims of Henry. According to director John McNaughton, they represent a tableaux of Henry's "work"; Henry is a murderer, and the shots of his victims, unadorned with commentary or contextualization, represent a montage of his achievements, a portfolio of sorts. In his commentary track on the 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, McNaughton suggests that if Henry were a painter, the film could legitimately start with a collage of images which he had painted. As such, the shots of the dead bodies represent examples of his artistic endeavors, an illustration to the audience of what he does, how he does it and how much talent he possesses.

  • Strange, unexpected sound effects are used approximately six times during the film; during the four shots of the dead bodies which open the movie, as Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) pull up outside the home of the family they are about to murder, and in the very last shot of the film. In the case of the four early shots and the closing shot, the sounds are ostensibly the sounds of the murder act itself. What we are hearing is the sound of the murder taking place, juxtaposed with the image of the aftermath of that murder; we hear the act and see the result, but we don't see the act. As such, the sounds are used simply to clue the audience into the violence which resulted in the macabre scene with which we are visually presented.

    However, there is more to the effect than that. During postproduction, director John McNaughton wanted the soundtrack to have a very disconcerting and disturbing feel to it, to instill a sense of unconscious unease in the viewer right from the very start of the film. As such, rather than simply have the literal sounds of the murder on the soundtrack, he had composers Ken Hale and Robert McNaughton record a huge number of what could be called "unsettling" sounds, from animals being slaughtered to the sound of a dentist's drill at work. These sounds were then mixed into the sound of the murders (which were made up of screaming, gun blasts etc), creating a bizarre collage of sounds, some of which are diegetic, some of which aren't. This means that some of the sounds are legitimately generated by the scene itself (a woman screaming for example), some of the sounds aren't (the sound of an animal for example). A good example of this marriage of diegetic and non-diegetic sound can be found in the shot of the dead woman on the toilet with the bottle in her mouth. If you listen closely to the soundtrack, amongst the sounds of the actual struggle and murder, you can hear a voice shouting, "Die bitch. Die bitch." It's entirely possible that this is Henry's voice, shouting at the woman, and is therefore diegetic. However, the voice has been altered to sound inhuman, far too guttural, like a demon or an animal. So, whilst the words may have actually been spoken during the murder, the way they are spoken is heard non-diegetically (ie not generated by the actual scene itself, but instead artificially created by the mixers). The cumulative effect of all of this is to create a wall of disturbing and inhuman sound, which in turn, creates a sense of unease and discomfort in the viewer; not only do we hear the (already disturbing) sounds of murder and death, but such sounds are embellished, enhanced and made ever more disturbing, by the use of other unsettling sounds.

    The same thing applies to the scene outside the house. In Portrait: The Making of 'Henry' (2005), composers Steven A. Jones, Ken Hale and Robert McNaughton explain that for that scene, they wanted to unhinge the audience, make them unconsciously aware that something abominable was about to happen. As such, they mixed a plethora of generally unpleasant sounds, which were then played at a barely audible level. If one listens to the scene carefully, there is a very definite feeling that something is "wrong", but it is almost impossible to puts one's finger on what it is. This is due to the unnatural and unsettling, non-diegetic soundtrack, which functions here, as elsewhere, to subconsciously disturb and terrify the audience.

  • No definitive answer to this question is supplied by the film. In his commentary track for the UK Full Uncut Edition DVD, director John McNaughton says he believes that Henry did not kill his mother. On the 20th Anniversary DVD, McNaughton further states that Henry honestly cannot remember whether or not he killed her, or, if so, the details, thus explaining the glaring discrepancies in Henry's account of what happened (he told Otis he beat her to death her with a baseball bat, he initially tells Becky (Tracy Arnold) he stabbed her, and then he tells her he shot her). It is true that Henry was in jail for committing some type of crime, obviously, and he maintained that it was for the murder of his mother. However, this doesn't necessarily make it true. Interestingly, the real Henry Lee Lucas did indeed kill his mother, and went to jail for it for several years. However, the fact remains that in the context of the film, there can be no certainty one way or the other as to whether or not Henry really killed his mother.

  • No, there is no truth to this whatsoever. After filming the family massacre scene, actor Tom Towles insisted that actress Lisa Temple (who plays the mother) go to the casualty department because he was convinced he had injured her neck for real when he snapped it. Temple herself was confident that no damage had been done, but for Towles' peace of mind, she did go to casualty, where she received a clean bill of health. Over time, this story has evolved into an urban myth that Temple had to go to hospital because she was so traumatized by shooting the scene, the content of which the filmmakers had allegedly concealed from her prior to shooting. As she herself tells it in "Portrait: The Making of Henry", there is no truth in this story. She went to the hospital purely as a precaution.

  • The most likely answer to this question is that he is bisexual. The possibility that he may be homosexual arises in relation to two scenes when he makes sexual intimations to the young student to whom he is selling drugs (Kurt Naebig). Firstly, when the man first approaches Otis at the garage, Otis flicks his tongue in and out in a suggestive manner as he walks away, prompting the student to say disgustedly, "Fucking pervert". Then, when they meet to exchange the drugs, Otis places his hand on the young man's inner thigh, causing the man to punch him and flee the scene. These two incidents would seem to imply Otis harbors a homosexual attraction for the young man, which would obviously imply that he is either gay or bi.

    The possibility that he is bisexual comes about in relation to three other scenes in the film. Firstly, we see Otis receiving oral sex from a female prostitute. Secondly, he gropes and kisses the breasts of the body of the murdered mother (Lisa Temple) during the family massacre scene. Thirdly, he tries to rape his sister, Becky. Now, whilst in the case of the second and third of these examples, it could be legitimately argued that sexual orientation is not a particularly relevant factor, and instead, all these two incidents demonstrate is that Otis is a man who is not above necrophilia and incest, revealing him to be a sexual deviant, irrespective of his straight, gay or bi tendencies. This could perhaps lead one to postulate that, for Otis, any form of sexual activity is acceptable. Of course, saying this does not necessarily make him straight, gay or bi, but it does seem to imply a bisexual tendency; if he is willing to have sexual relations with both men and women, irrespective of his proclivity for sexual deviancy, then he is, for all intents and purposes, bisexual.

    Interestingly, in the deleted scenes on the 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, there is a pseudo-romantic scene between Otis and Henry, perhaps implying that their relationship in prison became physical. After they have killed the prostitute, and Henry lays out for Otis his "them or us" philosophy, they embrace and collapse back onto the coach together. However, the fact is that this scene was cut from the film, and as it stands, if we take the five scenes that depict Otis in sexual activity, the most reasonable answer to the question of his sexual orientation is that he is bisexual, with a penchant for deviant sexuality.

  • It is never clarified for certain exactly why he tries to rape her or what prompts him to do it when he does, but there are several indications throughout the film that something is not entirely right between him and Becky. Within an hour or two of Otis first meeting Becky at the airport (whom he has not seen for some time), he has twice made references to her stripping for a living (which, incidentally, she denies doing). Otis even goes so far as to tell Henry of her past, embarrassing both herself and Henry by doing so. The fact that Otis mentions this at all, considering he is her brother, is somewhat unusual, but actually telling his flat mate about it in front of her is even more bizarre. Furthermore, when Otis mentions Becky's past occupation, he does so with a kind of glee, as if he is proud of her, or as if he is intrigued or fascinated by her, suggesting her sexuality is something which is fascinating to him, something with which he would like to become better acquainted.

    There are two more pivotal scenes between Otis and Becky which seem to imply that Otis is sexually interested in her. Firstly, after buying the "I Love Chicago" t-shirt, Becky begins to change in the kitchen, ordering Otis and Henry to turn away. Both do so, but as she changes shirts, Otis tries to sneak a peak by slowly turning his head. Becky catches him and tells him to turn back around. Secondly, even more tellingly, just before Otis and Henry go out and murder the two prostitutes, Otis grabs Becky's arm as she hands him a beer, and seems to be pulling her towards him for a kiss, against her will, until Henry intervenes.

    When these three scenes are looked at together, the cumulative effect seems to be the implication that Otis is sexually fascinated by, and sexually interested, in Becky. The fact that she is his sister is seemingly completely irrelevant to him.

    It is also worth mentioning at this point that, as Becky tells Henry, she was sexually abused by her father when she was younger. Otis is a few years older than Becky, so he would have been, if not aware of the abuse, certainly nearby whilst it was happening. Becky says that her mother knew what her father was doing, so it's possible (although this is pure speculation) that so did Otis. If this is the case, one could argue that if the child Otis saw or knew of his father abusing Becky, then he as an adult could be incapable of seeing anything wrong in doing the same thing himself (or unwilling to see anything wrong in it). Whatever the case regarding Otis' knowledge or lack of knowledge of his father's abuse of Becky however, the film is unequivocally clear in it's presentation of him as seeing her in a sexual light.

    As to the question of what prompts him to actually rape Becky, again, any answer can only be tentative speculation, but it's possible that the rage which causes him to sexually assault her is born from sexual jealousy. Just prior to the rape, Otis purposely walks in on Becky and Henry undressing one another, and although he seems to find the scene amusing, it's possible that it awakens a sexual jealousy in him. He decides that Henry can have her, but only after he (Otis) has had her first. Again, this is speculation, but given the evidence, it is a highly plausible suggestion.

  • Becky's dismembered body. Henry has obviously murdered her and cut up her remains, similar to what we saw him doing with Otis' body after stabbing him. If you listen to the soundtrack as the camera moves in on the bag, you can hear the sounds of a struggle and a woman screaming, presumably Becky in her last moments prior to Henry killing her.

  • At its most basic level, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is just that; a portrait of a serial killer, a portrayal of a murderer. In Portrait: The Making of 'Henry' (2005), co-writer Richard Fire calls the film "a real week in the life of a sociopath, unadorned by social commentary." When director/co-writer John McNaughton was given $100,000 by the Ali brothers (Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali), the only mandate they set him was that they wanted a horror movie with plenty of blood in it. McNaughton and Fire quickly decided they weren't going to do a story about a monster or a demon or an alien, but about a flesh and blood man. As McNaughton explains, The relatively new phenomenon of random serial murder was the core idea for our story because it was more horrific than any fantasy could be. In the end, we know, at least it's doubtful, there are monsters from outer space visiting the earth. Freddy and Jason and those type of demonic horror characters, you know, you can go and have fun at the movies watching these characters do their dirty work, but in the end when you walk outside of the theatre, you know Freddy's not really going to be waiting for you, nor is a monster from Mars, or what have you. But indeed, there could be some stranger lurking out there, looking for a victim [...] Richard Fire and I sort of set ourselves the task of redefining the horror film. Our chief device was removing fantasy, because as long as you have the buffer of fantasy, you have a level of comfort and distance; you know it's not really going to happen, you can enjoy the film for the thrills it gives you, and when you walk out of the theatre, you're safe. The basis of our picture is that when you walk out of the theatre, you feel more threatened than when you walked in. [1999 commentary to UK Full Uncut Edition DVD]McNaughton has also commented, We tried to do something entirely new, and we came up with a couple of concepts; when you're making a horror film, you often involve monsters, but of course we didn't have the money or the inclination to do some sort of outer space monster movie. However, the character, as based on the true person, is indeed a monster, but also a human being. We also thought we would redefine the horror genre; yes, we were trying to make a horror film, but we're going to make one unlike any other, and go to the root of the idea; a horror film's intent is to horrify, then let's horrify in the extreme. [1999 Interview on UK Full Uncut Edition DVD] As critic Roger Ebert said in his review of the film, The film uses a slice-of-life approach to create a docudrama of chilling horror. Unlike typical "slasher" movies, "Henry" does not employ humor, campy in-jokes or a colorful anti-hero. Filmed in the gray slush and wet winter nights of Chicago's back alleys, honky-tonk bars and drab apartments, it tells of a drifter who kills strangers, efficiently and without remorse. The movie contains scenes of heartless and shocking violence, committed by characters who seem to lack the ordinary feelings of common humanity. It's justified because of its uncompromising honesty in a world where most horror films cheapen death by trivializing it.

    ["Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Review", Chicago Sun Times, (September 14th, 1990); available here] As such, the film is very much about a monster, it just so happens to be about a monster who is human, one who could very legitimately exist in the real world. In this sense then, the film is about demystification; taking horror in a new direction, returning a sense of realism to the genre, and illustrating to an audience that the evil in humanity can be just as terrifying (perhaps moreso) than the evil of monsters and demons.

    However, not only is the film about a flesh and blood man rather than a monster or an alien, but the story is actually told from that man's point of view. It is a film about a serial killer which is told from the serial killer's perspective, rather than from the police's or the victim's, which was how it was usually done up to that time. For example, Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, and Michael Mann's film adaptation Manhunter (1986), both of which McNaughton has cited as major influences on Henry, were predominately told from the point of view of the leading FBI agent, Will Graham. And although the killer in both novel and film, Francis Dollarhyde, was characterized to a degree, and whose point of view was presented from time to time, the story was very much Graham's story, not Dollarhyde's. In Henry, Henry is very much the protagonist, it is his story throughout. McNaughton and Fire were not interested in telling the story of how a policeman attempts to catch a murderer (whether he succeeds or fails). Instead, they were more interested in looking at how a murderer goes about his life. As McNaughton argues, Henry is really a character study, as the subtitle, Portrait of a Serial Killer, implies; Henry, in some odd way, is sympathetic, which is part of the point. In any dramatic story, or film especially, the audience is looking for a sympathetic character, the character it can identify with, and one of the great tricks of the audience in this picture is you come to realize the one you're supposed to feel sympathy for is Henry, and then, by the time you get there, you already know he's a murderer, so it's a very conflicting thing to feel, that moral ambiguity makes the audience feel awkward. This movie very much challenges an audience, their receipt belief. [2005 Commentary to 20th Anniversary Edition DVD] However, there is more to the film than a character study where the protagonist just so happens to be a killer. One of the other major themes, as McNaughton hints at above in his use of the phrase "receipt belief", is forcing the audience to interrogate itself, particularly its acceptance of, demand for and assimilation of filmic violence. Two scenes are pivotal in this respect, the two scenes which McNaughton argues are the most important scenes in the movie: the murder of the TV salesman (Ray Atherton) and the massacre of the family. McNaughton has spoken at length about these two scenes and their inherent importance in the film, and below are two illustrative quotations where he discusses these key scenes.

    The murder of the salesman is how movie violence is usually practiced: You've got your two heroes, Henry and Otis, and the audience knows who they are by now, they're killers. And you've got this guy who's foolish enough and rude enough to be insulting to them, and you set him up as a despicable character, and this is a normal cinematic way to allow violence. So by the time we get to the murder, the audience is rooting to see him get what he's got coming, and there's a certain amount of humor in the scene, it's played for, not laughs per se, but just to set the audience up in one direction only to reverse the direction later when they see the family slaughtered. This is silly and it's funny, smash a TV over his head; this is how usually violence and mayhem is presented to us, it's deserved by a despicable character so it's okay [2005 Commentary to 20th Anniversary Edition DVD] Of the family murder scene, McNaughton says, The scene that disturbs me the most is the scene of the slaughter of the family which they videotape and then later play back for their entertainment, and that's the key scene in the picture and one of the key things the picture is about. We were trying to do something entirely different in terms of the horror film, and in terms of portraying violence, although we were portraying violence. I find that often in horror films and action films, and we did it earlier in Henry, you set up a character as a bad guy, and then you just have this person do all sorts of terrible things to the lead character, or his wife, or his child, or whatever, or a dog, just to show what a horrid person this is. So by the time it comes for this character to get their comeuppance from the hero of the film, the audience is rooting to see this person killed, this person beaten, maimed, because he's got it coming, and it's sort of a purging thing. In the real world, violence has a different face, it's very ugly, and we set up in the early part of the film, here's your typical way violence is portrayed; Henry and Otis go to buy a hot TV because they've kicked theirs in, and the big guy sitting there, Ray Atherton, repeatedly insults these guys. Of course, he doesn't know who they are, but the audience knows who they are; they're murderous killers. So, he's rude, he's abusive, he's insulting, and little by little, you're looking at this guy, and the audience knows. And finally the guy becomes so reprehensible, the audience is saying "Get him Henry, let him have it", and we do this set piece with the TV over the head, and it's violence as entertainment, it's even funny. But it's murder, it's cold blooded, brutal murder. This is violence as entertainment. However, fifteen minutes later, let's have these two guys walk into a home full of completely innocent people, a family, and just brutally slaughter them, and let's shoot it from this little video camera. And then they play it back while they're sitting on their couch, watching it as if it were home entertainment. Something is being said there. And the way it was filmed, you see the setup, then you see the camera, then you start to witness the act, but you're witnessing it on video tape, and you assume you're witnessing it through the eyepiece as it's happening, but then you realize it's not the eyepiece, it's the playback later, and then you see Henry and Otis, and you're there with them watching it, you're participating in watching this and being entertained by it, but it's no longer fun. It's a really, really hideous and repulsive act, and it's a very uncomfortable moment. [1999 Interview on UK Full Uncut Edition DVD] Taking McNaughton's comments into consideration then, the film is very much about duping the audience; showing them something which they are encouraged to enjoy even though it's barbaric and vile, and then showing them something else barbaric and vile, which they shouldn't be enjoying, but because of the way the scene is shot, that is exactly what they find themselves doing, sitting on the couch with Henry and Otis being entertained by the murder of an innocent family, just as they had been by the comedic murder of an unpleasant salesman. Beyond it's straightforward depiction of a serial killer, the film has a much deeper theme; it forces the audience to interrogate their own desire for violence and their own capacity to view violence as entertainment.

  • When the film was submitted by Electric Pictures for content advisory classification for home video release in 1992, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) classified it as 18, and waived all the edits which they had demanded to the family massacre scene for its theatrical release (see here for more details). However, BBFC director James Ferman overruled his own board, and demanded that the scene be trimmed down to almost nothing, removing 71 seconds of footage. That, however, was not the controversial part. As well as cutting the scene, Ferman also reedited its structure, cutting to the shot of Henry and Otis watching TV midway through the scene rather than at the end. Many argued at the time that this went well beyond censorship and that Ferman had no right to literally reedit the film. In 2002, director John McNaughton explicitly commented on this incident: The idea was to implicate the audience, you're now sitting next to them on their sofa, and you're watching the playback of this horror, and you're watching it as a form of entertainment. The idea is to cause you to think about it, about how entertaining is violence; it's one thing to see action pictures and to see the bad guys dispatched in a bloody manner, but it's another thing to see something this horrific, which may be more like the real thing. When we pull back and see Henry and Otis watching their handiwork, it's meant to be a shocking moment for the audience; this is what real violence looks like, and we're sitting here with these two deranged humans watching it right along with them. So, to rearrange that scene is to relieve the audience of the responsibility that is intended to be built into the scene, which is what most movies do anyway. Violence as fantasy. [Altered Scenes Discussion with Nigel Floyd on UK Fully Uncut Edition DVD] For a detailed examination of the film's history with the BBFC, see here.

  • The R2 UK Full Uncut Version DVD released by Optimum Releasing in 2004 contains the following special features:

    A feature length commentary with writer/director John McNaughton, recorded in 1999.

    A 30-minute interview with writer/director John McNaughton, recorded in 1999.

    "Censorship History Timeline", an in-depth look at the censorship saga of the film in the UK (text).

    3 scenes censored by the BBFC in 1989 when the film was first released (the woman with the bottle in her neck; the TV smashing over the salesman's head; the family massacre). The 3 scenes are shown both censored and uncensored, and audio commentary is included by writer/director John McNaughton and film journalist Nigel Floyd.

    A 22-minute interview between writer/director John McNaughton and film journalist Nigel Floyd, recorded specifically for this DVD in 2004.

    "The True Story of Henry"; a biography of Henry Lee Lucas (text).

    A stills gallery.

    The UK theatrical trailer

    The R1 US 2-Disc 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD released by Dark Sky Films in 2005 contains the following special features:

    A feature length commentary with writer/director John McNaughton and moderator David Gregory (NOTE: this is a different commentary to the one on the Optimum UK disc).

    The US theatrical trailer

    A stills gallery

    Portrait: The Making of 'Henry' (2005); a 53-minute making-of documentary.

    "Henry Lee Lucas: The Confession Killer"; a 26-minute featurette looking at the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas.

    21 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary from writer/director John McNaughton and David Gregory (see below for more information on these scenes). Note: The original sound for the scenes has been lost, so the commentary is forced.

    Complete storyboards for the film.

  • Rather than having a number of separate deleted scenes, the 20th Anniversary DVD Edition of the film has a 21-minute block of scenes. Because the original ¼-inch sound elements have been lost, the scenes feature forced commentary from director John McNaughton and documentarian David Gregory. In total, there are 12 scenes in the clip:

    Two different angles of a scene set just prior to Henry and Becky playing cards, where they come into the living room to watch TV but find the TV broken, so they return to the kitchen to play cards. McNaughton and editor Elena Maganini removed the scene because it was unnecessary and simply returned the characters to where they initially started (ie the kitchen), hence serving no purpose in the narrative whatsoever.

    The infamous "love scene" between Henry and Otis. This would have occurred after Henry's "them or us" speech. He and Otis embrace and collapse back onto the couch kissing. This scene was removed because McNaughton felt it was too unbelievable, and simply not very good.

    A shot of a severed hand on a golf course with the body of a woman nearby. This was an additional scene for the tableaux sequence which opens the film.

    Various different takes of the opening shot of the film, with the body in different positions.

    A scene of a garbage man picking up a bag of trash with blood seeping out from the bottom. Again, this was to be part of the opening tableaux.

    A continuation of the scene where Otis shoots the man who pulls over to help on Lower Wacker Drive. After killing him, Otis places the gun in the man's hand, gleefully telling Henry that it will look like suicide (despite the man being shot twice in the chest and once in the face). The scene was removed because it was considered to be too laugh-out-loud funny.

    Several takes of Henry fishing on a pier. McNaughton removed this scene because it simply didn't accomplish anything.

    A scene where a rapist breaks into Otis flat and is about to rape Becky, when Otis and Henry return. They beat the man up and throw him out of the window. Again, this scene was cut because it was considered to be far too comical.

    An alternate version of the scene where Otis films Henry and Becky dancing.

    A scene of a preacher (played by Neil Flynn, best known as Janitor on the TV show Scrubs (2001)) standing on the street and preaching about the Bible as Becky walks by on her way to work. It was removed because McNaughton felt it was too heavy handed (the passage which had been chosen from the Bible was directly applicable to Becky's situation).

    A scene where Henry comforts Becky after the attempted rape, whilst Otis watches.

    A shot of a man in a car with his throat hacked open. This was to be part of the opening tableaux.

  • Yes it is. Both the US edition, released in 2009, and the UK Special Edition, released in 2011, include "Portrait: The Making of Henry", The Serial Killers episode "Henry Lee Lucas: The Confession Killer", the 1999 interview with John McNaughton, the conversation between McNaughton and Nigel Floyd and the commentary track from the 2004 Uncut UK Edition, as well as the deleted scenes from the 2005 20th Anniversary US Edition. However, the UK edition also includes the censorship history and the storyboards, as well as a DVD copy of the film.


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