Made before found footage movies became standard, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is almost a found footage film. It has some of the characteristics: a first person look at the characters, acting rather biographical and up front and personal. Henry is a mass murdering psychopath who happens to hook up with Otis and his sister, two people who really have no idea who he is or what he is doing. Slowly though Otis uncovers the truth, and instead of running away chooses to become Henry’s disciple and engage in killing and mayhem.
Few horror films have ever been, to quote the great horror critic Bleeding Critic, “Damaging,” not to mention absolutely brutal and unrelenting. In fact my one criticism of this film is that by the end you so numb to what happened that the damage has already been done, that the film is spinning its wheels by the final shot. That’s rather disturbing, although that criticism was my same issue with another cult horror film/drama classic, Man Bites Dog, which came along later and was probably in many ways influenced by Henry. In the case of Henry the film is helped greatly by Michael Rooker’s disturbing and stark, brilliant and unflinching performance which is the dark heart of this film.
Still there are plenty of nasty and brutal scenes to be found, chief among them the murder of a family that Otis chooses to document, a moment that is defiantly found footage style material. The worst part about that entire scene though is that Otis not only captured every horrible detail, but that he chooses to rewind and watch all of what him and Henry did all over again. That is beyond the pale-two men who have no conscience, no remorse for what they have done. Since both Henry and Otis were real people its quite chilling to think about if your next door neighbor is really a homicidal manic who will kill you and those you love without even thinking twice.
Could elements of this movie have been pure fiction? Sure, as Hollywood has a legacy of bending facts for dramatic impact. What cannot be denied though is that Henry did murder endless numbers of people, and that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a window into his black soul. Henry can be seen as a shark, a creature of habit that killed for no reason, moving from place to place, staying ahead of the authorities hunting him. Films like this one cover real life monsters that get the viewer too close, like being able to wander into the lion cage at the zoo or being in a shark cage in the shark tank as a great white circles past.