Controversies: Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer Review

 Author: Shaun Kimber


A new series of books have just been published by Palgrave Macmillan called Controversies, each book analysing films that have been the source of much discussion and have enraged one part of society while being championed as a cult classic by another. Each book is emblazoned with a big red X and written into it cross cutting are the title of the book and the author’s name. Other books in the series include books on Straw Dogs, The Passion of Christ and A Clockwork Orange – all worthy of inclusion and all for different reasons.

Shaun Kimber’s book on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer never loses focus on the fact that this film is about the controversial nature of this film and why it is so controversial rather than the formal structure or negative qualities of the film and throughout discusses the films critical reception, detailed analyses of each video and DVD release and cuts it received on both sides of the Atlantic in both the USA and the UK and the impact those cuts have on the film. He begins his book with its inspiration taken from the real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, even though the murders themselves and much of the plot is fictitious; Lucas was only a starting point and how Kimber also looks at how Lucas’s prison life developed as the film was being made. This also created problems of categorizing the film into a genre – for example, is it a horror film (some sources quote this as one of the best horror films of all time)? He then goes into the sort of break in a career that any aspiring filmmaker could only dream of and how director John McNaughton was literally given a limited budget to make his first film as he saw fit and the usual squabble one would have with the financial backers. He then ventures into discussing the films production and why it was delayed so long; it was shot in 1986, but not given a release until 1990 and in the UK, 1991.

Throughout the book Kimber breaks the film down to several key scenes that proved controversial: the slashed body of a prostitute in a hotel room, the murder of a electrics warehouse salesman and the violent house intrusion leading to the murder of an innocent family and Henry and his accomplice Otis’s subsequent watching the murders coldly on a camcorder they stole from the salesman. Kimber explains the motivation behind each frame that was cut from the film and how the film was seen, or at least that version of the film was seen at the time of its release and even how the film is perceived today – including reviews and comments on such websites as

On reading Kimber’s book, even though it has been a few years since I have seen Henry, it left me with that same cold and sordid feeling I felt when I first viewed the film back on its initial video release. It is indeed still a shocking and troubling film, aided and abetted by its low budget and, it has to be said, the super performances McNaughton draws from the actors. In that sense Kimber has done justice to the book and the film. But where it perhaps falls down is in the perpetual quotes from other sources that Kimber makes, drawing on a variety of sources including websites that sometimes can lack editorial discretion. A lecturer in Media Studies at Bournemouth University, Kimber is rightly proud of this first monograph of the film and has produced an interesting academic study.

Chris Hick

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