John McNaughton is a fascinating filmmaker who’s done everything from work with giants like De Niro and Bill Murray on Mad Dog and Glory, to exploring Beat culture with the documentary Condo Painting, to directing the ’90s cult classic Wild Things. But it all started with a horror movie so real Hollywood was afraid of it.
Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer was, for a long time, an elusive cult movie. It spent several years looking for a distributor before finally scoring a release — and both controversy and acclaim — in 1990. The film stood in stark contrast with the jokey murderers and campy hockey-masked death machines of the era’s horror movies, thanks in large part to Michael Rooker’s unnerving portrayal of the title character and McNaughton’s documentary-style filmmaking. Over time, though, the film found a devoted audience thanks to home video. It’s currently making a return to theaters thanks to a rerelease of restored 4K version just in time for Halloween. McNaughton was kind enough to speak with us about how Henry was made, and how it struggled to get seen.
This came about because a documentary fell apart, right?
I had made one documentary, actually two, but one that was remembered [Dealers In Death] and it was constructed from a lot of public domain footage and photographs. I knew somebody who had a cache of old footage of wrestling, Moose Cholak and the like, which were very popular in Chicago. There was a deal put in place, I don’t remember what the price was. But when the owners of the footage realized we had some money, they said “We didn’t mean ten, we meant twenty” and we said “get lost.” So I was going in to visit the Ali brothers [executive producers Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali], because this was going to be my living, and one of them said “I tell you what. You had this dream, I’ll give you a $100,000 to make a horror film.” This was my shot to make a film. And that was the inception.
I know there’s a lot of friends, family, and even just bystanders in the movie. How’d you explain the movie to them at the time?
I’ll have to explain it to some tonight! They’re more normal citizens of America! [Laughs.] They were all pretty good friends. They all knew that I was half-nuts and anything I did was disreputable.
I’m told the fence who gets killed was something of a legend in the video days.
The guy that gets the TV whacked over the head, Ray [Atherton] is a very interesting character in real life. From childhood, he was a film collector, and when video came around, he became a lay lawyer in public domain law. For example, Night of the Living Dead was in public domain, and everybody who was in video wanted to sell it. Ray happened to know what was in the public domain, and he would find them the best prints. He was a defendant in the first video piracy trial, because when you couldn’t duplicate film prints, nobody cared. But once you could duplicate it and make money off it, people did care. He was up on 42 counts of piracy! And won! [Laughs.]
There are some notorious stories about how bystanders got involved in the movie.
We were shooting a scene where Becky (Tracy Arnold) has her interlude walking down the street looking in the windows, and there’s a stairway that leads to the El-train. And there were two guys just standing there just yakking and yakking. If you were making a real movie, you’d pay them to leave. But we couldn’t, and they didn’t care, so they’re in the movie. And there’s a bit where this woman just walks right out of a store in an insane leopard skin coat that looks like we placed her, but we didn’t! [Laughs.]