“We as Filmmakers Entertain You with Violence”: John McNaughton on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The phrase “1980s horror” connotes a certain VHS aisle of franchised faces: Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Michael Myers, Pinhead. Far from that pack, like the anti-social loner of John McNaughton’s 1986 landmark film, we have Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Henry looks like a guy you’d actually see on a police lineup, intimidating but anonymous. As conceived by McNaughton and co-screenwriter Richard Fire, Henry lives in a nondescript Chicago apartment, works part time as an exterminator, and, in his spare time, kills people with nauseating ease. McNaughton films the carnage with a radical matter-of-factness, stripping an ostensible horror film of its usual perverse pleasures. We get the boobs and blood, but we sure don’t feel good about it.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer marked the start of McNaughton’s directorial career, which has gone on to include a subversive sleaze classic (Wild Things), formidable work in TV (Homicide: Life on the Street), and a macabre fairy tale (2013’s The Harvest, his latest). The film also introduced us to Michael Rooker, whose sunken eyes and craggy face have haunted more than 100 films and TV shows since his icy turn as Henry. Down the line, Henry served as the starting point for a number of now veterans: editor Elena Maganini (Dexter), DP Charlie Lieberman (Heroes), and producer Malik B. Ali (The House of the Devil).
Below, McNaughton speaks with Filmmaker about the film’s legacy 30 years later. McNaughton touches on the film’s infamous home invasion scene, implicating the audience for its bloodlust and himself as a “purveyor of violence,” and how he sought to “redefine the horror film” with a $100,000 indie. Dark Sky Films will release a new 4K restoration of Henry this fall to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary.
Filmmaker: In 1986, did you feel like you were making something that was in response to or a critique of the more popcorn slasher films of the ’80s?
McNaughton: [Executive producer] Waleed Ali gave me $100,000 and said “Make a horror film.” And I was like “About anything in particular?” and he said “No, I don’t care. We can sell a horror film.” So I walked down the hall of his building to tell an old friend of mine that he’d given me $100,000 to make a film, and he happened to show me a segment of the news show 20/20 on Henry Lee Lucas. I realized immediately that he would be our subject. I didn’t have any ideology at that point. So then when [co-screenwriter] Richard Fire and I sat down we decided to redefine the horror film. If the idea of a horror film is to horrify you, how could we best do that? Our conclusion was we could best do that by removing the fantasy. No ooga-booga, no monsters from outer space, no Freddy, no supernatural element. Pure realism. The greatest horror of all is, you know, human beings.
Filmmaker: Did you grow up watching horror, thinking your first feature might someday be a horror film?
McNaughton: Not necessarily (laughs). I think I was fortunate in that respect; horror is kind of a good place to start. Because I made Henry I was recruited to do Masters of Horror, the Showtime series. It was me, John Landis, John Carpenter, Joe Dante. Most of those guys grew up being horror fanatics, going every Saturday to see horror films. I was not a horror fanatic. I really liked noir. I liked darkness; any film shot at night appealed to me. I liked social realism, especially the films that came out of New York in the postwar era where the actors were mostly from [Lee] Strasberg’s Actors Studio. I was always attracted to any movie based on a Tennessee Williams play because they were always so dark and twisted.
Filmmaker: Has anyone ever approached you about adapting Henry for the stage?
McNaughton: That one I’ve never heard before (laughs). Although it’s an interesting idea.
Filmmaker: So much of the film takes place in that apartment with those three leads.
McNaughton: That’s true. It could be done. I don’t know if I’d want to see it, though.
Filmmaker: Do you think of Henry as a horror film?
McNaughton: Henry’s called a horror film, a slasher film. I don’t recall anyone particularly getting slashed. I think they stabbed Otis a number of times. The term “slasher film” to me never really applied. He wasn’t like a Freddy or a Jason going around with a sharp instrument slashing people. It was a character study about people who did very horrific things. So in that sense you can say it’s a film about horror, but not so much a horror film, in my opinion.
Filmmaker: I’m always curious which elements of a film are more aesthetically driven and which are more budgetary. For example, at the start of Henry we see a number of static dead bodies and hear their murders on the soundtrack. It’s very effective, and it’s also very economical. Were decisions like this driven by an aesthetic choice or your budgetary constraints?
McNaughton: You know, both. When we were writing the script, Richard Fire and I knew it’d be about Henry Lee Lucas, but we couldn’t go online and just Google Henry Lee Lucas. There was no online. So we had the 20/20 episode, which showed the real guys, the real Henry, the real Ottis – his real name, with the double t; we thought it’d roll more drippingly off the tongue to name him Otis. There were also various magazine articles. When we were looking for a beginning to the film, there was this victim that supposedly Henry Lee Lucas had killed, a woman who’d been dumped in the dirt by the side of a road. All she was wearing was orange socks. They never ID’d her, so her name was forevermore “orange socks.” We saw a photograph of her in the documentary footage, and Richard Fire said “That’s it. That’s our beginning.” So we made [the static murders] a series. There’s actually a couple we cut in the final film. So this wasn’t necessarily a budget thing. To me the whole idea was that Henry has a lot of jobs, and one of them, which is probably the most literal thing in the film, is that he’s an exterminator. This came from the William S. Burroughs book Exterminator! So his avocation is murder. Each of those shots is like a tableau, almost like an installation piece. It’s his work, his calling.
Filmmaker: What do you think compels Henry and Otis to record the acts, to become filmmakers in a way?
McNaughton: The real people never did. That was stolen from Thomas Harris. Did you ever read Red Dragon?
Filmmaker: I did, long ago.
McNaughton: Francis Dolarhyde [the book’s antagonist] worked in a film processing lab. He was disfigured, so he liked to stay in the dark, out of people’s eyesight. He was an orphan and treated very cruelly by the family that raised him. As a film processor in the darkroom he would come across photos of families that resembled the family he was raised by. He would then drive out to wherever they lived, kill them, and photograph them. That was his revenge. I just thought that was very creepy. The idea of using photography in such a perverse way was fascinating. So we notched it up to home video cameras, which were just emerging.
Filmmaker: How did you go about selecting the type of camera that Henry and Otis use to film the murders?
McNaughton: I can remember the camera itself quite well. We got that one because it was cheap. The camera was still a big expense for us. Someone gave us a dummy, so when Otis throws it out the window, he’s throwing out an empty shell. I think that camera was about $900 at the time, which was close to 1% of the budget. It was not something we could afford to destroy.
Filmmaker: It certainly adds a layer of aesthetic grime to the film. Was that partially what you were going for?
McNaughton: Absolutely. In my college days I studied television production, which was video cameras, not film cameras. To me, there’s an absolute difference between the quality of the image between video and film. Film is much more beautiful. Film to me always implies a distance in time. If you shoot on film, you can shoot a western or a costume drama and it’ll be believable. If you shoot it on video, it’ll look like you’re shooting people dressed up in costumes. It’s more real than film. So I knew that the video image would be much more realistic and brutal. It’s emotional – it’s not an intellectual thing – the way we register it.
In the film there’s two scenes that play against each other. The first one is where the big, heavyset guy, Ray, get the TV over the head. As an audience, it’s like Rambo. He keeps insulting [Henry and Otis], and you’re rooting for Rambo to kill him, or at least maim him. Because he’s bad. We played it that way: In the Hitchcockian sense, we know who Henry and Otis are, so that makes the tension rise, because Ray doesn’t know who they are. He keeps insulting them, and we know it’s only a matter of time. By the time he gets to his peak, the audience is basically saying “Kill him, Henry! Kill him!” And it’s played for laughs. And it’s sort of like “Wow, wasn’t that fun? We entertain ourselves with violence. We as filmmakers entertain you with violence.” And it’s quite successful. People love it.
So then 20 minutes later we say “OK, so here’s what it might really look like. How entertaining is this?” The great trick is you’re seeing [the home invasion scene] thinking you’re watching the camera image as it happens. Michael [Rooker] actually shot the beginning of that scene while Otis was murdering the woman. But then Michael has to drop the camera to attack the kid, so the DP grabbed the camera and laid it on the ground in a beneficial angle to shoot the rest of the scene. While you’re watching it, you think you’re watching it as it happens, but then you realize what you’re watching is playback on their television. And indeed, you’re sitting with them watching it as entertainment. It’s very much implicating the audience. The intent was to implicate we, the filmmakers, as purveyors of violence for a living. The unexpected result was we implicated the audience right along with us.
Filmmaker: In revisiting Henry, I kept thinking of the films that have come since. A few years later there was the French film Man Bites Dog, and then of course the scores of found footage horror films. How do you think Henry has influenced filmmakers in the last 30 years?
McNaughton: You know, who can say? Every once in a while I’ll see something and go “That’s a direct grab from Henry.” Other times I’ll see something and go “Is that, or is it not? I don’t know.” I made a movie called Mad Dog and Glory for Martin Scorsese. In it, Bill Murray’s gangster character drives this kind of big, big Oldsmobile, a model they no longer make. It was gigantic. And I got some flack from people who said, “These guys are gangsters, they would have a Mercedes!” And I went, “This is Chicago; they would not have a Mercedes.” So when I saw The Departed I saw Jack Nicholson and his driver character driving the identical car. It’s a car, especially by that time, you don’t see very often. And Marty was the producer on Mad Dog and Glory, so I thought “Did Marty steal that from us?” You know, I don’t know. It kind of tickled me. I was hoping he was influenced.
Filmmaker: I snuck into Wild Things when I was 14 years old. As a kid, there was no satire going on in that film. I’d never heard a phrase like “implicating the audience.” I just wanted to see it for the nudity. Do you think, over the decades, some viewers have been drawn to Henry simply for the raw brutality of it?
McNaughton: You know, I’ve never heard of one incident of that. The whole idea with Henry and the particular home invasion scene was that it was not gratifying. I never heard of anyone being turned on by that scene or wanting to go out and mimic it. I just don’t think it functions in that way. If you go out and see a real slasher film, you get off on the violence. We tried to say “Here’s what you think you like, and here’s real violence. Do you like this?” I never had anyone say “Yes!” to that question.
Filmmaker: If you were going to make an ultra low-budget film today, how would you do it differently?
McNaughton: The problem is that at some point in your life you need to make a living. Henry was barely a living for any of us. Today, it might be a little easier. We had to buy 16mm stock and process it; I can go out and shoot on my iPhone today. We also had to rent a flatbed editing machine; you can do it on your Mac today. So certain costs have reduced greatly. But with Henry it was a point of honor to pay everyone something. Before I did Henry, I made some music videos where I didn’t pay people, and when they got fed up they would walk away. You’re hung out to dry. That’s the way life works: I work, you pay me. So yes, you can make a low-budget film and not pay anybody, and these days you don’t have to buy film or pay for the processing, but you still need to pay people to engender a little bit of loyalty.