Based loosely on the criminal career of real-life killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer gazes at its mass murderer with sour, pseudo-documentary blankness: It’s an exploitation movie made without the usual low-rent thrills. The result is extremely hard to take — 7 of the 15 deaths are graphically shown on-screen — but it also smells faintly of artsy condescension. As we follow soft-voiced Henry (Michael Rooker) and his moronic pal-pupil Otis on their killing spree, we’re meant to see them as numbed-out products of America’s lower depths.
But while that message doesn’t wash, Henry still exudes an unnerving sense of dread, one that’s even harder to get away from on the home screen. The scene in which the killers replay a tape of one of their murders frame-by-frame is frighteningly resonant when watched on one’s own VCR. And Rooker, a mashed-faced actor who has been popping up a lot lately (Sea of Love, Days of Thunder), invests this dead-eyed spook with a sympathy that comes from the knowledge that he’s already damned. He’s a direct descendant of the tormented child killer played by Peter Lorre in 1931’s M.
Curiously, while Henry’s violence was clinical enough to get an X from the MPAA, you can’t imagine a more useful corrective to the dice-and-slice mindset. It could even be argued that the teenagers who flock to the latest Friday the 13th installment are precisely the ones who should see this movie: While the exploits of Jason and company are filmed in a pop-MTV style designed to give the audience a rush, there’s nothing remotely entertaining about death in Henry — it’s brutal, messy, and stomach-churning. That’s an approach I’m willing to endorse, even if the MPAA isn’t.