Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: Separating the Fact from the Fiction

Described by the BBC as “Quite possibly the most harrowing real-life serial killer movie ever made,” John McNaughton’s 1986 directorial debut Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, presents a raw, unrelenting ‘documentary-style’ depiction of the sordid activities undertaken by its titular, sexually psychotic subject. Michael Rooker brings that murderous character to terrifying life with an unnerving, faintly ‘heroic’ breakthrough lead performance. But just how much artistic license was taken in the film’s making?

Most tellingly the film commences with a (no doubt legally obligatory) pre-title disclosure that states: “This is a fictional dramatization of certain events” which isn’t intended “to be an accurate portrayal of a true story” but is “Based on confessions of a person named Henry. Many of which he later recanted.”

In actuality that person – notorious, convicted Texas serial killer Henry Lee Lucas – was known as the ‘confession killer’ due to his willingness to help police tie up unsolved crimes by confessing to them. In total Lucas confessed to 600 murders, claiming he murdered one a week between 1975 up until his arrest in 1983. He craved the fame and attention that his notoriety gave him and even pencil-drew victims to aid police in identifying them.

Most of his confessions later turned out to be false and in the end he was convicted of killing 11 people, (but some believe he committed three) including the murder of an unidentified woman simply known as ‘Orange Socks’.

Henry Lee Lucas, the killer who inspired the movie
Henry Lee Lucas, the killer who inspired the movie

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is essentially a three-hander between Henry, his roommate and later partner-in-crime Otis (Tom Towles) and his oblivious 20-something sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who Henry grows to admire and ultimately become very protective of. Although the pre-titles disclosure concludes by stating: “As to Otis and Becky, the film is fictional” Lucas’ real partner-in-crime was a man named Ottis Toole and there was indeed a girl, Frieda Powell, who went by the preferred name of Becky and lived with Lucas for many years, however she was in fact Ottis’ niece.

Apart from the considerably altered age difference, the most harrowing contrast from the movie is that, although Lucas ‘liked’ Becky a lot, (and ultimately raised her) instead of protecting her he in fact sexually abused the girl from the age of nine. In the film Becky discloses that she was sexually molested as a child by her father.

Instrumentally the actors were encouraged by their director to sketch out their own character backgrounds prior to the film’s production. In an early kitchen tête-à-tête with Becky, Henry reveals his abusive childhood background, which does indeed mirror quite closely Lucas’ own. This includes the admission that he killed his ‘whore’ mother, which landed him in jail and that it was out of retaliation for her abusing and humiliating him as a child; including locking him up in a cupboard, dressing him up in women’s clothing and forcing him to watch her have sex with men – all of which stem from reality.

Henry Lee Lucas understandably harnessed bitter feelings toward his mother, who worked as a prostitute and brought her clients to their home. True-to-life she prevented him from having relationships with other women and as a morbid substitute ‘taught’ her son how to have sex with dead animals instead. He ultimately murdered her by stabbing her in the neck during an argument.

Michael Rooker as the titular Henry
Michael Rooker as the titular Henry

The kitchen-confession scene was a crucial one for director John McNaughton as it also demonstrated the unreliability of Lucas’ stories which, similar to Henry’s, alter throughout his discourse. “[At first he] claims to have stabbed his mother, then later says he shot her…” says McNaughton during a 1999-recorded DVD commentary. “The basis of that scene is on the real Henry Lee Lucas – he would tell these stories and there would be many similarities but each time he told them there would often by differences; as if he couldn’t remember himself. You could never be sure whether he was telling the truth or not.”

Significantly the relationship between Henry and Otis, (who we’re led to believe met in prison) was not as platonic as depicted in the film. In reality the two were in fact homosexual lovers but this detail is completely absent from the film and isn’t even hinted at. Interestingly a major love scene between the two characters was in fact shot, however the director decided to ultimately cut it from the movie as he considered it just “too ludicrous”. There is, nevertheless, an insight into Otis’ sexuality – including an altercation in a car where he attempts to fondle one of his male drug-dealing clients. In reality Ottis Toole was a green-eyed lover who would become jealous when Lucas had sex with the mutilated corpses of their victims.

In the film the duo embark on a killing spree that is contained within Chicago and includes (among other off-screen murders) a couple of women they meet and have sex with one evening, an obnoxious ‘hot TV’ salesman, an innocent bystander who offers to help fix their car and, most disturbingly, a suburban family who are brutally murdered in their own home – caught on camera by the killers.

The late Tom Towles as Otis
The late Tom Towles as Otis

In reality Henry and Ottis crossed state lines to prevent themselves from being discovered, however in the film Henry does suggest to Otis that they should alter their modus operandi to prevent any crime comparisons and also suggests that they leave town for a while to avoid detection: “The most important thing is to keep moving!” he advises.

Other significant changes include the aforementioned relationship between Becky and Henry. In the film it’s Becky who makes a move on Henry, who noticeably resists her sexual advances. In reality, as previously mentioned, Henry slept with Becky from the age of nine. In addition, during the infamous filmed family home invasion sequence, Otis noticeably enjoys fondling a dead corpse – much to the utter distain of Henry. In reality it was Lucas who had the compulsion to make love to the dead. But as we were warned at the beginning “As to Otis and Becky, the film is fictional.”

“We set ourselves the objective of re-defying the horror film – removing the fantasy, removing that comfort and distance,” reflected McNaughton. “In our case you {leave} the theatre and you feel more threatened than when you went in.”

Whether all the depicted events actually occurred or not, there is no question this deeply unnerving film does indeed achieve its objective and remains a harrowing experience nearly thirty years after its conception.

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