John McNaughton looks back on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Also from last month’s Clash.
John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer linked early realist crime-horrors Psycho and Peeping Tom with subsequent psychological terrors such as Silence of the Lambs and Man Bites Dog. McNaughton’s depiction of the extremes of human behaviour placed in a suburban setting continues to be an influence, notably throughout the work of Michael Haneke.
Henry was conceived when McNaughton met with producer Waleed B. Ali to discuss a project that had fallen through. Ali nonetheless made McNaughton an offer: to direct an unspecified horror with a budget of $100,000. After a fortuitous meeting with a friend who worked in the same building, McNaughton opted to create a film loosely based on the notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
“Now you have the Internet so you can go out and find every last scrap that there is to know about him if you’re so inclined, but we had none of that,” explains McNaughton. “We had the 20/20 show [a news magazine program] which had an interview with him, interviews with the police and perhaps seven magazines articles that you could pick some info out of.” Even with what little information there was, Lucas proved to be a highly unreliable autobiographer leaving McNaughton to base his story around the elements that remained constant.
McNaughton summarises the film as “a very dark character study about people who do extremely horrific things.” It is, he says, the antithesis of horrors focusing on monsters and the supernatural. “We don’t know for sure that there isn’t a psychopath lurking around the next corner as we walk home on a dark night. The greatest horror of all is the horror that human beings can concoct.”
The film’s release was problematic. Finished in 1986, it didn’t see the light of day until 1990 and its financiers demanded the addition of film’s subtitle to give its buyers some guidance as to its subject matter (recent Brit thriller Tony took the opposing route). Here, it fought a running battle with the BBFC and its first fully uncut release followed in 2003.
While Peeping Tom effectively ruined the career of director Michael Powell, McNaughton flourished with films including Wild Things, one of the last mainstream erotic thrillers, and Mad Dog and Glory which starred Robert De Niro and Bill Murray. His next movie will be Shoedog, penned by The Wire’s George Pelecanos and featuring Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Heather Graham.