A twisted Shocktober: theater features 1986 serial killer film


By Jamie Hahn, buzz writer

It’s the time of the year for Shocktober at The Art Theater. Every October, the theater releases a string of haunting movies in the Halloween spirit. The weather might not have made up its mind to be cold, but at the theater, you’re guaranteed to get a shiver.

The films range from crime to monsters, to the supernatural.  Last Thursday’s film was “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” After watching the 10 p.m. screening, I found that serial killer genre houses the most disturbing films. Despite the plethora of witch, zombie and other fantastical costumes that crop up during Halloween, the creepiest sight is one you may not think should scare you: an ordinary-looking person with a gruesome extracurricular activity.

This disturbing thought is amplified when film scripts are based on real-life monsters, as is the case for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” The film chronicles the life of Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer active from 1960-1983. In this 23-year span of time, Lucas has claimed to have killed over 3,000 individuals. While this fact has been debated due to inconsistencies in his confessions, the film makes sure we see plenty sorry fellows meeting an ill fate at his hands.

The screening was preceded with a note by Chuck Koplinski from The News-Gazette. Koplinski stated that “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was “one of the first movies to really explore the inner mind of a serial killer,” resulting in “a film that isn’t easy to shake, even thirty years and countless serial killer films later.”

On the actors’ performances, Koplinksi noted, “Tom Towles puts in an indelibly slimy performance as Otis, Henry’s roommate, and Tracy Arnold is pitch-perfect as Tracy, the sister who drives a sexually charged wedge between these already volatile men.”

The film doesn’t rely on gore as a way to depict Henry’s volatile personality. In fact, director John McNaughton had a budget of only around $100,000 to work with. Instead of showy special effects, McNaughton utilized off-kilter camera angles, shadowy lighting and the superb performances of the cast to set the tone for Henry’s disturbing hobby.

The beginning of the film actually seems slightly tame, making the R-rating seem questionable as the first victims are revealed without a cause of death, simply draped onto upended furniture with blood that is almost laughably fake, in part due to the advent of modern special effects having changed our perspectives when watching older films.

But then Otis, Henry’s friend from their shared time in jail, arrives. Otis and Henry meet up with Otis’ sister, Becky, who has just escaped the claws of an abusive relationship and seems to take an interest in Henry. And so it begins.

Henry, now a veteran at killing, reveals his pastime to Otis who joins him with impunity. At first, Otis must be cajoled into keeping Henry’s secret after Henry explains, “It’s either you or them, one way or the other. Ain’t that right.” This gives us insight into Henry’s kill-or-be-killed outlook on people and perhaps implying that Otis himself will be killed if he does not align with Henry.

Becky is a source of hope in the film, letting us question if it is possible for Henry to have an exception to his rule of killing with abandon. Will Henry give in to Becky’s romantic overtures? Is it possible for a serial killer like Henry to have intimate emotions? Becky’s appearance in Otis and Henry’s lives also poses other psychological questions such as whether or not childhood trauma can be overcome.

It is clear both Becky and Henry have experienced immense pain when they were younger, but how they coped with it and what patterns they fell into were vastly different. While not explicitly stated, it is inferred that Henry’s adult mind was at least partially twisted by his mother’s abuse when he was a child, drudging up the age-old question of nature vs. nurture.

“A triumph of indie cinema,” Koplinski calls the film.

“Today it is rightly regarded as a classic and a pioneer in the serial killer sub-genre, its documentary feel and 16 mm grit often imitated but never replicated. Sure to send shivers of mortal dread through a whole new generation of moviegoers, this amazing new transfer puts Henry firmly back into the vanguard of contemporary cinematic horror,” Koplinski said.

A great pick for fans of psychological thrillers, and a refreshingly subtle yet satisfyingly creepy film for a horror genre typically over-saturated with gore, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is a good film to get viewers embroiled in the spirit of Halloween.


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