Since he was a boy, John McNaughton wanted to make movies. Little did he know his directorial debut would still be thrilling audiences 30 years after it’s release. It was a game-changer, a film so upsetting in its blunt depiction of an amoral murderer it made the slasher films of its time look like cartoons by comparison. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a lightning rod in heated debates about cinema and censorship but has only grown in stature since its first showing in 1986.
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is a chilling profile of a cold-blooded killer that, 30 years after its historic festival premiere, has lost none of its power to shock. The film, loosely based on a true story, has been hailed as one of the most disturbing and terrifying examinations of mass murderers ever filmed. Henry (Michael Rooker, “The Walking Dead”) is a psychopathic drifter who coldly murdered a number of people for no reason and without remorse. Leaving bodies in his wake, Henry makes his way to Chicago, where he settles into the run-down apartment of his drug-dealing former prison friend and occasional roommate Otis (Tom Towles). Also moving into the space is Otis’s younger sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who is fleeing her abusive husband. As she fends off her brother’s incestuous advances, Becky finds herself attracted to Henry – unaware he, along with Otis, are continuing their murderous rampage.
Director John McNaughton completed the film in 1986, and it was shown at that year’s Chicago International Film Festival. But it wasn’t until 1990 that a U.S. distributor gave it a wide release. Henry predates the NC-17 rating and received its predecessor, the X rating, on three separate occasions. As a result of it and related issues with Almodovar’s “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down,” Phillip Kaufman’s “Henry & June” and Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” the MPAA created the NC-17 as its replacement on Sept. 26, 1990. Henry’s current rating is “X (Surrendered)” though a renewed rating is pending. The film’s violence, and the clinical, detached portrayal of Henry by the unforgettable Michael Rooker, originally earned it the MPAA’s highly restrictive NC-17 rating.The response from critics and the public was as visceral as the film, and it went on to gain praise as one of the most compelling and disturbing films of modern cinema.
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” returns with a thrilling, cinematic presentation that cements its reputation as one of the most harrowing and original American films of all time. Dark Sky Films, a division of MPI Media Group, presents it in a brand-new 4K scan and restoration from the 16mm original camera negatives, featuring a new 5.1 audio mix from the stereo 35mm mag reels, all approved by director John McNaughton.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with John McNaughton to discuss the making of the film and how the story ripped from the headlines impacted not only it’s audience but the course of his career.
Your debut film, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” has become a cult classic. What got the ball rolling early on for you and this film?
The inspiration was my lifelong dream to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t that I had this particular idea in mind, I just had the bug! I had gone to school and making films is what I had intended to do with my life. However, life throws you curve balls occasionally. It certainly threw me a few! [laughs] I went around out on the road with a traveling carnival for a number of years in addition to living in New Orleans for a few years. I had a lot of big adventures in life that had nothing to do with filmmaking, although I did take a lot of still photographs of the carnival and my life on the road. Eventually, I found my way back to Chicago and decided that those days were behind me and it was time to really buckle down and do what it was that I had intended to do with my life. I wound up getting a job in my cousin’s bar, in the south suburbs of Chicago, so that I could have an income. I had no idea of how to get from there to a career as a filmmaker, although I had bought some film making equipment and was doing whatever I could.
One afternoon, a gentleman came into the bar and had a few extra drinks. It was a small, tight knit group of people who hung out in the bar. Many of them have grown up together and their families know each other. If you became part of that group, you pretty much knew everybody and they knew you. Everyone knew my intention was to become a movie director and they all thought I was crazy! [laughs] This guy who came into the bar, who I had never really seen before, came in wearing a trench coat and had a mustache and said, “Oh yeah! You’re the guy who wants to be in the movies, right?” I said, “Yeah?!” He threw a card on the bar that said Maljack Productions, Inc. This card was not designed by one of the world’s greatest graphic artists! He described what these guys were doing at the time. This was about a year or so before there was any such thing as home-video. They had these black plywood boxes that contained Super 8 projectors that projected a one-hour loop of Super 8 film featuring mostly public domain cartoons, old comedy shorts and Charlie Chaplin stuff. It was in the public domain so they didn’t have to pay royalties on it. It was silent because the machines did not reproduce sound and there was no sound on the Super 8 film. They had a deal going with Pizza Hut and some other chain restaurants in the suburbs where they would lease them this box. It would project on a movie screen and play this one-hour loop over and over again. Everyone loved it and it was a big novelty. The film had to be changed just like the program has to be changed at a real movie theater. You can’t play the same film forever. It was my job to go from Pizza Hut to Pizza Hut and bicycle the prints, which is what they used to call it in the film business. I would move prints from Pizza Hut A to Pizza Hut B and move them down the line. I was doing that for those guys. I did that for about a year until I left their employ and my cousin’s bar to become a union carpenter. I actually ended up remodeling Burger King’s at night. It had its charms and left me time in between Burger King’s to actually pursue my so-called film career.
After a while I got a call from Waleed Ali. The Ali Brothers had gotten into the video business and they wanted to talk to me about some ideas. I went out there and wound up working with a guy named Ray Atherton, who appears in “Henry” as a guy who gets the TV smashed on his head. Ray was a wheeler-dealer and kind of a nefarious character! [laughs] He was a very bright man and had been one of the original video pirates. He had been a film collector as a kid and it’s a very odd group in those days because they collected prints. Back in those days, you could buy prints of TV shows for $10. Prints of movies? I don’t know but they weren’t that expensive because once they had their initial run they were often ground-up because they were not considered to be of any value. There were certain people, especially in Hollywood, that love the movies and they would collect prints. They have screening rooms and they would show them. Even though it was copy written material, they were only showing it to six or 12 friends in their screening room in Bel Air, so no one was going to arrest them! [laughs] Once home video came in, you could not duplicate these things and sell them if they were in the public domain. You will be surprised what fell into the public domain. People like MPI, in their initial business, were dealing in a fair amount of public domain. They will acquire the rights to whatever they could afford but there’re a lot of things I didn’t have to acquire the rights to. For instance, “Night of The Living Dead” had fallen through the cracks. Their copyright was improperly registered and it fell out of copyright as did a few other valuable properties. If you could duplicate it, you could sell it because it wasn’t copywritten!
Every wheeler-dealer thought they could get rich in the video distribution business because it was a Wild West market in the beginning. It then became a matter of who had the best print to duplicate from. A lot of it was just really bad. Ray, being a film collector, knew all the other film collectors of which there really weren’t that many in America. He could always locate the best prints, so he worked with those guys, got them the prints, advised them on public domain and what they had to buy. It got to the point where they were buying the rights to old B horror films. They were doing very well because a lot of those films had not been seen in years. They weren’t showing them on TV because they were too sleazy. Although they were big hits in the theaters, they were very popular rental items. The Ali brothers were buying the rights but as they became more and more popular the cost to buy the rights became more and more prohibitive. At that point, Waleed decided they would make their own horror film and would own all rights until perpetuity. He offered me $100,000 to make a horror film. It didn’t matter what it was and there was no supervision whatsoever! No creative interference ever on that film!
How did the story of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole come onto your radar? What type of research did you do to flesh this idea out?
This was before the Internet, so we went as deep as we could. Right after Waleed had offered me the $100,000, I left his office without knowing what I was going to make the film about. I had no idea! [laughs] I walked about 20 feet to an office two doors down from his wherein was an old friend of mine named Gus Kavooras. We went to grammar school and high school together. I had gotten him the job there because I was friends with the Ali Brothers. Gus had this odd job of being a connoisseur and collector of arcane, crazy, dark, weird stuff that they would try to turn into things that they could sell. He had his office just piled with video cassettes of all this stuff that he had gleaned. I walked in and said, “Gus, Waleed just offered me 100 grand to make a movie.” He said, “A movie about what?” I said, “I have no fucking idea! Horror but that is the only parameter.” [laughs] He reached over and grabbed a VHS cassette and popped it in the VHS player. Up comes the news show “20/20,” which is a one-hour newsmagazine with three segments. I don’t remember what the other two segments were about but the one that he showed me was about Henry Lee Lucas. As I say, I have always been a true crime aficionado and I’m pretty well brushed up on all the major crimes and criminals. I, to this day, watch true crime documentaries on TruTV, et cetera, et cetera. It was presented that this guy was a serial killer and that the whole idea of serial killing was something new. I hadn’t heard the term. I found out years later that the term was exactly two years old and had been coined by the FBI two years prior because it was something they hadn’t been experiencing before — random murder!
There was Henry! He was speaking to the camera and it was like, “Holy geez!” He had a wandering eye and as scary as he was to look at in some ways he had an ease and slow charm where he was able to get close enough to kill them. They didn’t have video of Ottis but they did have pictures of him. When you saw this guy walking down the street, unless you were blind, you would run! They also had photos of Becky. They told Henry’s story on that segment. We had footage of him in various photographs that were gleaned by the group who put together that show. We also had various magazine articles and newspaper articles from the time. Like I said, there was no Internet at the time so there was no Google! We amassed a little portfolio and that’s what we worked from!
The actors in the film gave tremendous performances. As a first-time director, what did the cast bring to the table you might not have expected?
It is really starting to occur to me now, many years later, now that I have actually done some theater what they brought from that world. Tom Towles was a member of The Organic Theater Company, along with Richard Fire, Joey Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina and Stuart Gordon was the artistic director. They had some really big successful plays in Chicago and they were really gifted people. They had all been trained in theater arts. Tom Towles, I believe, had trained at Second City and came from an improvisational comedy background. Tracy Arnold was originally from Texas and I think she went to school to study drama. Michael Rooker studied drama at The Goodman School. Michael had worked in theater, along with the rest of them. Tommy had extensive theater background. While they had almost no movie credits, they certainly had experience.
One could argue Chicago is the fourth lead character in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Many films are shot in Chicago but few are able to capture it. What was it like capturing the grittiness of the city where you grew up in your first feature film and did you experience any blowback from the public for capturing a dark side of your hometown?
No. I think Chicago was just happy to be photographed! [laughs] I often tell people that I didn’t go to film school but I did go to art school. I did study hard at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana for two-and-a-half years. By the time I got the film and television, I switched schools and came back to Columbia College of Chicago and took television production as a major and still photography as a minor. My passion was still photography because it was an art form. I love the streets of Chicago because I grew up on them and I’ve spent a lot of time photographing things on the streets of Chicago. Some stuff I still have! I quit taking photographs for quite a number of years, especially when I got into the movies and had people to do it for me, but once I got my first iPhone I got back into it. I have 35,000 photographs on my laptop right now! I just love taking pictures again! I don’t even use my iPhone as a phone that much, I use it more than anything as a camera! It’s just so convenient. A lot of those places in the movie were places that I had put a pin in, so to speak, thinking, “Someday!” When it came time to pick the locations for the film, I knew I would shoot something there because they were such great locations. Other locations we had to find like the motel at the end of the movie. At the screening the other night someone came up to me and said that The Sunset Motel is still there in a town on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. When I first got on Facebook, I was putting up Chicago pictures from my iPhone and I had mentioned that my opinion of Chicago is that it’s one of the most photogenic cities that I’ve ever been in and I have lived in numerous! Someone immediately said, “Well, have you ever been to Paris?” It’s like, “Yeah, I have been to Paris numerous times. Everything is absolutely beautiful. When you go to press the doorbell, the little sconce around the doorbell is like a prize. It’s a beautiful little art nouveau work of art. Everything in Paris is gorgeous, no doubt about it!” However, I didn’t say Chicago was the most beautiful city, I said it was the most photogenic city! It is. You can almost hold up the camera, click it without looking and bring it down and say, “Wow! Look at that!” It’s got everything from some of the greatest modern architecture in the world to the worst slums available, in the United States at any rate, and everything in-between. It’s just a wonderful city to shoot in!
How did the making of the film impact your future work?
Well, it affected my future work in that I think the folks that funded it were kind of shocked by it. I think what they were looking for was genre exploitation and this was their worst nightmare — an art film! [laughs] They didn’t know what to do with it and they didn’t think they were going to be able to sell it. They just kind of put it away and figured they would make a real genre horror film and when they sold that they would make them take “Henry.” That was their plan but it didn’t work out that way! It took a while for the film to pick up some momentum. I went 18 months without any income. I had the money I had made from making Henry, I had credit cards and I had a free place to stay at my cousin’s house across from the bar where I had been working. Eventually, because they were a video business and they had a young man named Chuck Parello doing their PR and because I knew a lot of people, I would just keep having him send out cassettes until it got shown a few places. It finally hit a critical mass at the Chicago Film Festival 30 years ago. There was also a little screening in New York where a critic from the “Village Voice” went all out and wrote a two-page piece saying it was the best film of the year. Then it went to Telluride, where Roger Ebert saw the film and boom, that was it! At that point I started to get offers of very bad horror films to direct! [laughs] But it did begin a career for me and that was a good thing!
How do audiences respond to this film 30 years later and how does it differ from the initial reaction?
There is something I hadn’t expected. Since “Henry,” I have written a lot. I worked with Richard Fire writing the original script for “Henry” and he had come from years in the theater. He had been writing for years and I had not. I learned so much from him. It seems when I’m not correcting I am almost always writing something or rewriting something. When I sit all alone writing, I make things funny so that I can amuse myself. If I can make myself laugh at least I’ve accomplished something! [laughs] Richard had a great sense of humor and was a wild, wild character. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. Thirty years ago when we showed the movie, we would usually lose 10 percent of the audience. Ten percent of the audience would go flying out the door, especially during the home invasion scene. No one laughed. There was never a peep of laughter. I always tell people, “Watch that movie three times and once the shock wears off, it’s pretty funny, especially Tom Towles!” Tom Towles studied improvisational comedy and he is basically playing a comedic role as Otis: a buffoon, a clown! At the screening Friday night, there was quite a bit of laughter! I don’t know if we’ve just become numbed or more coarsened in the last 30 years or what. Someone asked during the Q&A how many people have never seen the movie before and well over 50 percent of the people in the room raised their hand. They did not have the benefit of having the initial shock wear off and they were laughing at the funny stuff, which I found to be quite a change from 30 years ago.
A successful filmmaker, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
[laughs] Well, as my father often told me and I never listened and as I often tell young people, “Become a dentist!” [laughs] It’s a much more guaranteed way to make a good living. I don’t know what to say. Some of the breaks have to fall your way. I had a lot of bad breaks fall my way. As I often say, my late cousin whose bar I worked at had Polio very young. He was pretty disabled from it but he was the luckiest man I have ever known. He would get in the football pool, he would win. When he played cards, he would win. When it was just pure luck, he would win but he was not terribly fortunate and he eventually ended his life. He had something called Post-Polio Syndrome where people who had polio as children would have it come back on them in their 40s and disable them severely. He ended his life because he was losing mobility. I have never been lucky at all. I never win anything but I’ve been very fortunate. To recognize the difference between good luck and good fortune is important and I’ve been very fortunate.
What else is in the cards for you in the near future? Last time we spoke you mentioned getting your fourth feature with Bill Murray off the ground. Where do we stand with that and everything else you have going on?
That movie has been up-and-down I don’t know how many times. We have been working on it for eight years. It seems like we’ve been making these little baby steps but we are still working on it. We have Linda Cardellini, who gave Bill that script over eight years ago. Interestingly in this business, she was going to play the girl and now she’s going to play the girl’s mother eight years later. [laughs] We also have Josh Hutcherson involved and for a short while we had Miley Cyrus on board but the money just didn’t come together and Miley had a career to maintain, so she had to leave. So, we need a girl and we are working on that. I think we get a little closer month by month. A couple of things happened and for the first time I can sort of feel that we’ll get a girl pretty soon and then I think we’ll be able to go. I’m looking forward to that! I’m getting ready to open the doors of the little company that I have put together that is in control of eight to 10 scripts that I have either written, co-written or own the rights to. It’s called Mr. Punch Productions, which is based upon Punch and Judy, which is something very dear to me! I will be trying to get those projects out into the marketplace, get them set up and made! I’m hoping that “The King of Counterfeit,” which is the Bill Murray project, will happen as well!
That’s awesome! Thank you so much for your time today, John! I wish you continued success wherever the journey takes you!
[laughs] I have no idea, I never have, so we will see!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.