The movie is based on the titular character’s confession, and dramatized. Now, most people don’t believe Lucas’ confession, believing it to be mostly fantasy, although if you do believe it, he’s one of the most prolific killers ever with, according to Wikipedia, numbers potentially into the hundreds. Neither thought is particularly appetizing.
Stylistically, the movie owes a debt to Ida Lupino’s true-crime thriller The Hitchhiker opening with a quiet, yet very disturbing montage of the killer’s victims, as he goes about his everyday business. As the audience goes from dead woman to dead woman to dead family, Henry peacefully eats breakfast at a dinner, tells the cashier she has a nice smile, and heads to his job as an exterminator. Meanwhile, his roommate (they knew each other in prison) Otis, picks up his sister, Becky, from the airport. She has left her abusive husband Leroy and will stay with Henry and Otis while she decides whether to raise her daughter in Chicago or move back in with her mother. That night as Otis goes out to sell drugs, Henry and Becky bond over their stories of parental abuse, and he tells one version of the story of how he killed his mother– the crime he was imprisoned for.
Henry casually kills people all throughout the movie. He follows women home from the mall, later gains entrance to their houses with his pest-control getup and murders them. To Otis’ dismay, he kills the hookers they picked up before either of them can have sex. He and Otis fake car trouble and kill their Good Samaritan, and later kill and rob a sleazy TV salesman, setting up an uncomfortable scene for the audience when they tape the murder of a family, which Otis constantly watches (maybe a fourth wall breach). “It’s always the same, and it’s always different,” Henry muses, with quiet menace.
Rooker gives a very quiet performance as the murderous Henry, yet the audience knows not to get too close. While he may come off better than the perverted Otis, Henry still exudes menace. His face almost never changes, even when he gets angry at Otis for sexually grabbing Becky, and he only once raises his voice, yet when he seizes Otis by the arm and makes him apologize and promise not to do it again, the scene crackles with intensity and horror. He makes simple questions such as, “Want to hear the radio?” or agreeing to play cards seem frightening. Henry loves to talk about the murders he’s committed, although he has trouble keeping the details straight, and Rooker invests them with a hungry sound, like Henry can’t wait to get out and do it again. Yet the audience half wants Henry and Becky to have a happy ending even though they know as well as Henry does that he’ll kill her.
Overall, it’s a splendid piece of acting, and it’s a shame that Rooker was typecast afterward as a psycho.