Ever seen the movie Zodiac? I bet a number of you are furiously nodding your heads, but I’m referring to, specifically, the 2007 incarnation. If you’re still agreeing then you have my platform; my foundation for which I judge every serial killer biopic ever made post or pre-Zodiac.
For me, it doesn’t get much better than Zodiac – its delicacy, its attention to detail, its appreciation of accuracy coupled with beautifully executed cinematic techniques make it the unparalleled in the finely tuned genre. This brings me to yet another title that aimed to give the viewer some insight into the twisted mind of a prolific serial killer – Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
Writer Director John McNaughton would have to work extremely hard to convince me that I am, not merely witnessing a sensationalised reconstruction of the events, but that I can identify with it and vicariously live the ordeal as I did with Zodiac. Already possessing a media-tinged familiarity of Henry’s crimes and the timeline in which they transpired, I had every digit and limb crossed hoping for the best but unsure what to expect.
The premise is simple: It is the fact-inspired retelling of the life of infamous drifter Henry Lee Lucas (Michael Rooker), his partner in crime, Ottis Toole and Ottis’s little sister, Becky. It sets about making its intentions clear early on. We witness a flurry of murders but not distastefully enacted.
This is not a horror film with some masked maniac and McNaughton knows that. His method of displaying the imagery of the carnage coupled with the imposition of audio from the victim’s struggle insinuates ferocity and garishness whilst allowing you to fill in the middle parts. It’s something right out of the John Carpenter handbook of subtlety – we don’t have to actually see the acts of violence in order to visualise it. It’s all about utilising several techniques to garner the desired effect – imagery, sound and implication. It was a great instance of the director working hard to make the cinematic techniques perform for the story rather than the other way around.
We were off to a great start when things were done as cunningly as that. My hopes blossomed that this was a film fascinated by narrative substance. Alas, this short-lived high was juxtaposed by the short sharp shock of reality as Henry and Ottis drop a TV set onto the head of a fence. Suddenly, it was as if Sean Cunningham was pulling the production strings. I’ve checked the records shallowly; at no point do they mention that Henry embarks on a cartoonish killing spree, so I never expected to see it.
Soon, there are electrical shocks and sharp instruments through eyes. The blood literally starts flying everywhere. The film ultimately made the unnervingly early decision to surrender its accuracy in favour of splatter entertainment values and because of this it never becomes the film it could have been.
Who in their right mind would attempt to better David Fincher’s Zodiac? Conversely, I can see a number of production teams attempting to resuscitate the Lucas story till it is done appropriately – and they have. Contrary to opinion, the educated audience don’t want to watch a true-life tragedy that is graphic more than it is biographic.
Consequently, the random acts of violence consume the screen time and the film invests little revelation into the psychology of these characters. The furthest it ventures into their psychoses is a short scene in which Henry explains to Ottis the particulars of optimising operations so to speak. They discuss methods of becoming more efficient murderers and Henry seems artistically invested into what he has learned. That’s genuine insight that develops our understanding of him as a person and not merely a programmed killing machine.
Other than that, there is nothing…unless you count the blood-tainted still frame of Henry staring passively through himself in a mirror that you only get on the menu of the DVD. In essence, there is just not enough story; instead it’s a chronicle of kills that may or may not have happened in the way that they were shown.
Read up just a little on Lucas and you find out just how many deviances have been made to the actuality of the thing. It’s about as far away from the truth as you can get whilst still maintaining biopic status. Even worse is the fact that, substituting this for what McNaughton believed was more entertaining, backfired.