If you crossed The Last House on the Left with Little House on the Prairie, you’d get a movie very similar in tone to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the current Friday midnight show at the Music Box Theatre. Henry was made two years ago, filmed on Chicago streets by local actors and a local crew. It has earned some striking reviews–for its pristine direction, unorthodox attitude, and shocking content–but it has never been officially released because of the motion picture ratings board’s isistence on giving it an unsalable X rating. Henry is not pornography, and the rating is not attributable to any particular scene; rather, in what the director says may be a unique situation, the X was given as “a matter of general tone.”
Henry grew out of the friendship of director John McNaughton, then a documentary maker, and Waleed and Malik Ali, brothers and part owners of a fledgling local home video company, VCI. (VCI, which has since become MPI, was an early player in the video field: its first offering, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, is said to be among the first home videos ever released.) Back in the early days, McNaughton and the Ali brothers sat around and “talked about your lofty plans and dreams,” as McNaughton puts it. One of those dreams was to make a slasher movie for theatrical distribution, and when the company began to enjoy some success they decided to try it. Someone unearthed a tape of a news show on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and they were off.
McNaughton had a budget of $120,000. He got his three primary actors and began several weeks of rehearsal. Each actor constructed an elaborate “back story” for his character, and these were incorporated into the script by McNaughton and coscenarist Richard Fire of the Organic Theater. They put Henry’s apartment in Wicker Park, near the corner of North and Wood. One of Henry’s victims works at a hairstyling shop in the Bel-Ray Hotel at Belmont and Racine. A drug deal takes place at New Trier West High School in Northfield, two prostitutes are murdered in a Bucktown alley, Henry cruises Clark Street looking for prey, and a breathtakingly innocent man is gunned down in cold blood on Lower Wacker Drive.
“It’s a great place to work,” says McNaughton of Chicago, “at least for a low-budget picture.” McNaughton is currently working on his second film in Los Angeles, a much different scene. “In Chicago you have a large pool of actors; [in LA] they get spoiled very quickly. I had a 16-year-old kid out here the other day. I needed him for one hour to do a close-up. He was going to get paid $400 for an hour’s work, and he was holding out for eight.”
McNaughton goes out of his way to credit his collaborators on the film, notably producer Steven Jones (“He did as much work as I did”) and cinematographer Charlie Leiberman (“I’ve been getting credit for shots that were his idea”). “Filmmaking is a team sport,” he says. “Richard Fire had the primary responsibility for the approach to the story–it was very noncheap, nonexploitative. We wanted an interesting story.”
McNaughton and crew brought the film back to MPI on budget, and the company immediately started looking for a distributor. Vestron, McNaughton said, “loved it,” but required that the producers acquire liability insurance, since the movie was based on a true story. This ended up taking eight months, and Vestron lost interest. “It gave them time to go cool,” says McNaughton. “Then we went to Atlantic Entertainment, who gave us as good a deal as Vestron. We got the ad campaign together, the posters, and sent it to the MPAA, and it came back with an X. Now, the MPAA always gives a selection of proposed cuts whenever they give an X rating. They didn’t give us any; when we asked they said it was ‘a matter of general tone.’ It was like a hologram or something. Every fragment was tainted. They said it was impossible to cut it to give it an R.
“We appealed, and it came back with another X. And I have to say that I agree with them; it is impossible to cut the film. On the other hand, I think it was easy for them to get self-righteous about a $100,000 film. Steven Spielberg can show a heart being ripped out of someone’s chest, but that’s going to make $100 million.”
Henry doesn’t have any hearts being ripped out, but it does feature an icepick in an eye, a fairly graphic dismemberment, and chillingly random murder. Beyond its violent scenes, however, Henry has a special edge. Some have said that the movie’s unusual power comes from its refusal to pass judgment on Henry, and to some extent this is true. But its most disturbing aspect is that the title character, serenely played by Michael Rooker, is simply the nicest guy in the movie. Henry’s the hero.
“We wanted to make the point that he was able to walk among us,” says McNaughton. “He had a certain charm, he was able to get people to trust him. We all have murderous impulses, but we each have a little gate that keeps us from crossing the line. Henry doesn’t have one.”
McNaughton talks about Henry in the present tense because as far as the movie is concerned, Henry (unlike Henry Lee Lucas, on whom the film ends up being only remotely based) is still out on the road. There’s no comeuppance for the killer, as there is in almost every other serious horror film. McNaughton and Fire tried to go against the grain whenever they could. “In most movies they set someone up as an asshole,” McNaughton says. “Then they rip him limb from limb and it’s all right. And we do that too: the television guy in the film; he’s such an asshole, and it’s, ‘Go get him, Henry!’ You try to give the audience some of the same urges the killer has. But then we say, OK, you’ve experienced the urge, now let’s turn it around, and here’s what it’s really like: an innocent family slaughtered. What do you think of that?”