Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
The lights come on after the latest screening of the Chicago International Film Festival. It’s the fall of 1986, and the critics in attendance have no idea what just happened to them. Instead of the low-budget slasher they were expecting to see from first-time director John McNaughton, they were subjected to one of the most controversial films of all time. So controversial, in fact, that it would be another 3 years before the film would see a limited release.
The film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, stayed on the shelf for so long because the MPAA refused to give it an “R” rating. The governing group even suggested that there were no cuts the filmmakers could make to even get it close to a respectable, and thereby distributable rating. Due to the “X” rating it received, no distribution company would touch it. “X” ratings were mostly reserved for pornographic films, and Henry is far from that. The violence and gore can even be called tame by today’s standards. There are gorier programs being shown on network television these days, but the world’s mid-80’s sensibilities almost kept the film in the dark forever.
Luckily for us all, festivals, midnight showings and critical champions like Roger Ebert helped to get the film released. Since then, Henry has gained a huge following as one of the most chilling anti-slasher films of all time and is a staple on every horror fan’s shelf.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows the life of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker) as he is released from prison. He moves to Chicago to stay with a prison buddy of his named Otis (Tom Towles) and, soon after, Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). They all live in the same apartment and spend their time either dealing drugs (Otis), working in a beauty salon (Becky), or raping and mutilating women (Henry). Eventually, Otis becomes enamored with Henry’s power and becomes his accomplice during his bloody killings. As the depravity escalates, Henry begins to grow fond of Becky, bringing his relationship with Otis to a crossroads.
Most horror films have uncomfortable sequences peppered throughout their run time. It’s what makes them “horrific”. There are few films, however, that are as disturbing from start to finish as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It displays the crimes committed by Henry and Otis with an honesty that was shocking to audiences at the time. The director forces us to watch as these two men rape and murder with impunity, instead of trivializing or fetishizing the violence like slashers are want to do. By 1986, the public had already been fascinated with real life serial killers, some even going so far as to idolize monsters like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez. This film is a direct answer to that fascination, showing us all what a real monster looks like.
The True Story
The film is based on the crimes and confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer arrested in Texas in 1983. Early audiences were treated to a title card before Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer that informed them that the film was “based on the crimes of a man named Henry, but is a work of fiction”. Although the filmmakers took many liberties with Lucas’ story, the chilling aspects of the film perfectly mirror his heinous life.
Henry Lee Lucas never had a chance in life. His childhood reads like a recipe from the “How to Create a Serial Killer” Cookbook. Born the ninth and final child of a sex worker named Viola in a lead and cadmium-infested chicken coop in Virginia, Henry was subjected to one of the worst upbringings I’ve ever read about. His father was an alcoholic moonshiner. An alcoholic moonshiner who got so drunk one night that he fell asleep on the train tracks and lost both of his legs. He lived the rest of his life in a makeshift cart and would beat Henry with the end of a handle if the boy ever came close. To make up for the abuse, Anderson “No Legs” Lucas would shower his son with gifts of moonshine, making Henry an alcoholic by the age of 10.
Henry’s mother, Viola, was a real piece of work, you guys. Nobody can fault her for her sex work (it was the depression in Blacksburg, Virginia… So there weren’t a ton of opportunities there for a woman in her 50’s), but her cruelty and evil cannot be denied. During Henry’s entire childhood, Viola would force him to watch as she had sex with her clients. She would even go so far as to beat him or force him to wear women’s clothing to school whenever he would look away from her work. Once, after a particularly nasty day in the coop, Henry went outside to get some air. Viola became so enraged that he would look away from her and her work that she hit the boy over the head with a 2×4. After spending almost 36 hours on the floor, unconscious and neglected, Henry was finally taken to the hospital by his mother’s pimp.
As you may know, a large percentage of serial killers have a history of traumatic brain injury, and this definitely qualifies for Henry. He suffered seizures for many years after the incident and the brain damage to his frontal lobe was extensive. This, coupled with his mother’s abuse, led to intense sexual deviancy that started at a very young age. Henry would go into the woods, kill small animals and have sex with their bodies at the age of 11. He also began a sexual relationship at this time with his half-brother and other adults within their small, backwoods community.
“I hated all my life. I hated everybody […] I was beaten. I was made to do things that no human bein’ would want to do.” -Henry Lee Lucas
Henry, like the version of him depicted in the film, went to prison in 1960 for the murder of his mother. After a vicious argument with Viola after she broke off his first engagement to a young woman and pen pal (honestly, sis, you dodged a bullet here) Henry slapped his mother across the neck with his pocket knife in his hand, nicking her throat. Henry ran back to her home in Virginia, not knowing if his mother was okay. Viola was left alone to bleed out for the next 14 hours, and eventually died 48 hours later in the hospital. Henry, traveling back to Michigan because he was “worried about his mother”, was arrested in Ohio and sentenced to 20-40 years in prison for second degree murder. Only 10 years of this sentence was served, however, due to Michigan’s overcrowded penal system (good thing they kept all those petty thieves and marijuana dealers locked up, though).
After a few more brushes with the law (a divorce due to the molestation of his step-daughters and five more years spent in jail for the attempted kidnapping of a 15-year old girl) Henry fell in with Ottis Toole, the man who would become his accomplice for the next 5 years of his life. Like in the film, Ottis had a relative (a niece in real life, a sister in the film) named Becky who accompanied them on their cross-country adventure. Becky, who was only 11 when this all started, was abused and groomed by Henry constantly throughout this time, and even tried to pass herself off as his “wife”. This did not keep Becky safe, however, as she became Henry’s last known victim. In a scene that parallels the film, Henry took Becky away from Ottis, killed her, raped and dismembered her body, stuffed her in a pillowcase and left her by the side of the road. At least Rooker’s Henry had the good sense to use a suitcase.
“Killing someone is just like walking outdoors. If I wanted a victim, I’d go and get one.” -Henry Lee Lucas
Henry and Ottis shared an unnatural fascination with rape and murder, just like in the film. They would take road trips to different parts of the country, murdering and desecrating corpses along the way. They would pick up hitch-hikers, like the girl with the guitar in the film, kill them and rape their dead bodies. Interestingly enough, the murder that Lucas was eventually given the death sentence for was of a hitchhiker known only as “Orange Socks”, which the girl with the guitar in the film was also wearing. To make ends meet, the two men (who also become lovers) would rob and kill convenience store clerks, sometimes drinking beers across the street and watching the police investigate the scene. During this time, Henry and Ottis believe that they averaged one murder a week.
Or did they? Henry Lee Lucas eventually confessed to the murder of over 3,000 people, but there are only a handful that can be verified. We know for certain that he killed his mother, his child bride Becky, and the older woman they were looking after in Texas named Kate Rich. The details line up pretty well for “Orange Socks”, but the timing was weird. There are many in the law enforcement world who believe that “Orange Socks” was just another false confession that Lucas gave for attention and cigarettes. This led to Texas revoking his death sentence in favor of life without parole. Eventually, after finding religion, Lucas would recant all of his confessions and claim, like many serial killers before him, that he never killed anyone.
Henry Lee Lucas was a liar. A pathological one, in fact. He lied so much and so well that none of the polygraph tests he was given could determine exactly was was the truth and what was a lie. They were all over the place, just like Rooker’s Henry in the film. As he tell his story to Becky at the kitchen table, he first claims that he stabbed his mother to death. A few minutes later, he says that he “shot her dead”. He told Otis that he killed her with a baseball bat. This is exactly what became Lucas’ legacy in the criminal world. He is now known as “The Confession Killer” thanks to his love of the interrogation room. Even he never knew if he was telling the truth or not, much like the character portrayed in the film.
That’s what makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer one off the finest horror films of all time. McNaughton announced at the beginning of the film that it is a work of fiction, which is true, but in another way it isn’t. Sure, the events of the film are not the specific crimes that Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole committed from 1978-1983. Besides some similarities (drifter lifestyle, ‘Orange Socks”, changing of M.O. to avoid detection) the film doesn’t try to follow the true story of these two disgusting men. Instead, John McNaughton and his crew capture the fantasy world that Henry Lee lived in. They captured the way he viewed himself; as a savior, a protector, a real man. The thing that makes this film so chilling is not that it was based on the true crimes of these two men, but that it is based on the mindset and fantasy life of one very demented man.
At the end of the day, the lives and crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole are nothing to admire. Their actions are nothing to immortalize. They deserve no memorial, no honor, no retrospective. What they do deserve, however, is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s a film that forced the critics of the Chicago International Film Festival in 1986 to walk home with an extra urgency in their step and an eye over their shoulder. It made them put their backs against the wall on the train and watch everyone around them very closely. It’s makes us all realize that there are worse men out there than Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, and that the real stories behind this film contain actual monsters that are everywhere around you.
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