Even if you don’t recognize the name Tom Towles — and few outside the alcoves of esoteric horror will — you may recognize his face if you watched any television in the ’90s: broad brow, ears jutting out just slightly too far, perpetually furrowed eyes and a hooked nose hanging just above a big bushy mustache. Towles, who passed away today at the age of 65, had a singular look and a singular presence that appeared, with varying degrees of brevity, on Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, L.A. Law, ER, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and Firefly.
But those initiated into the cult of indie horror know Towles as Otis from John McNaughton’s notorious, nefarious Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Quickly shot on 16mm on an emaciated budget of $110,000 in 1985, the film didn’t soil screens until 1990, when it carved its way into horror history. Michael Rooker, then an unknown, portrays the title killer, a psychopath with an aptitude for dismemberment. Towles’s Otis was loosely based on real-life serial killer Ottis Toole (1947–1996), who was in 2008 convicted of the 1981 murder of John Walsh’s son. (Walsh created America’s Most Wanted in the wake of his son’s then-unsolved murder.)
Henry was abhorred by some, but found a surprising critical champion in Roger Ebert, and has since become accepted as one of the most realistic film depictions of psychopathy. In the film’s deeply disturbing television scene, Henry and Otis haggle with a portly black-market television salesman. They don’t like the price the salesman demands for a camcorder, so the devilish duo stabs the man with various electronic objects and strangles him with electrical chord, the synth score accompanying each jab with an apt squeal. Towles’s flannel-wearing goon acts as the straight man of the two killers, his face adorned with a dopey grin, his demeanor discernibly more placid; and yet when Henry asks Otis to plug in the TV that has been smashed atop the salesman’s head, a disquieting smile creeps across Towels’ face. He plugs it in, with glee.
Towles found a epigrammatic second wind in the retrofitted horror films of Rob Zombie, most notably in Zombie’s debut House of 1,000 Corpses, with cameos in The Devil’s Rejects (a modern classic) and Halloween (a modern mess). He also caught the eye of Michael Mann, who cast him in a bit role in his initially reviled, now revered film Miami Vice.