Henry (Michael Rooker) spends his days drifting across the United States, driving around, settling for a while, then moving on - he has to, really, so he will not get caught. For Henry may apparently make his living as an exterminator of household pests, but actually what he likes to do is kill people, although liking perhaps does not come into it, it's simply a compulsion that has stuck with him since he murdered his mother years ago. He has left a string of dead bodies across the land, but is it time to settle down at last?
Probably not, as although writer and director John McNaughton largely refrained from gloating over too much violence, we were in little doubt it was going on. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer resembled a painting where you had been told there was a loaded gun in the room shown; with the lead character present in almost every scene, the dread elicited was always a matter of when he was going to kick off and continue his spree. A lot of that atmosphere of menace was down to Rooker's superb performance, as his Henry could come across as perfectly polite and gracious, except we knew he wouldn't stay like that forever.
But then, the whole film oozed with a mixture of sinister despair, its hapless trio of people we concentrate on pitiable if two of them were not so despicable. The innocent in this is Becky (Tracy Arnold), already a victim of sorts when she turns up to stay with her scummy brother Otis (Tom Towles) having fled her abusive husband and left their daughter with her mother. She is the one who works a civilising presence on Henry, accepting his story, coaxed out over a late night game of cards, that he murdered his mother even if the details seem to be escaping him, and may not be true at all. He's a mercurial figure who we find the only concrete, defining aspect of his life to be his crimes.
Before long Otis has been recruited as a sidekick when Henry goes to stay with his old cellmate, only in a curious, almost blackly comic morality, it is this newcomer to the murder business who ends up being the most hateful person here. Henry, bizarrely, is almost the anti-hero thanks to his patent mental unbalance, not so much carrying out these atrocities because he loves to, but because he cannot think of any alternative path through life thanks to his abusive childhood, yet Otis is has the zeal of the convert, and when he gets a video camera to replay the murders in the comfort of his own home McNaugton holds his own camera up to those who take pleasure in the most lurid parts of television reportage, poring over the horrifying details in a barely acknowledged prurience.
What made this all the more disquieting was that it was inspired by truth, the actual serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who had a habit of confessing to murders even if he had nothing to do with them, meaning nobody truly knew how many people he had killed; it was over ten, that was certain. McNaughton took this alienated world and conveyed it with such cold and unflinching candour that his film was controversial around the world, and in Britain head censor James Ferman took it upon himself to re-edit the home invasion sequence in one of the more notorious acts of his "Ferman knows best" policies. Now you can see the film uncut, its icy power is undiminished as there's no emotion here other than what you bring to it as a viewer, with Becky the only genuinely sympathetic note in a setting that treats her with ghastly callousness. It was interesting that a decade which put fictional serial killers on an entertainment pedestal should give rise to a film which all too vividly illustrated the real thing was no fun at all. Music by Robert McNaughton and others, although it might have been better off without it.
[Optimum's Blu-ray presents a clear, if understandably grainy given the low budget source, print with a wealth of extras, including a special featurette on the making of the film from the US DVD, another on its censorship troubles, and interviews with McNaughton.]