John McNaughton on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s 30 Year Anniversary

Thirty years ago, John McNaughton directed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a provocative portrayal of a pair of sick and twisted murderers – it continues to shock and disturb viewers to this day. The movie made an impression in the 80s because that was the era of the fictional slasher: Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky. But Henry Lee Lucas was all too real. It continues to resonate thanks to the unique style of the filmmakers and the committed portrayals by the actors.

Michael Rooker gives a bone-chilling performance as Henry, the dangerous drifter who leads his dimwitted ex-jail mate Otis (Tim Towles), on a cruel killing spree through the sordid streets of Chicago. Choosing their victims at random, they vary their gruesome methods of murder in order to avoid detection by the police. Meanwhile, Otis’ unsuspecting sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), starts falling in love with Henry, which creates a bizarre love triangle and family dynamic.

Henry is currently making the rounds in film festivals on a revival screening tour which will culminate in the release of a brand new, remastered Blu-ray released by MPI. McNaughton has been hands-on in the process, and we had the chance to talk with him about now only what’s new but also how the film’s legacy has affected his own life and career.

Dread Central: Wow, here we are 30 years later talking about Henry. Has there been a lot of work and build up to this anniversary?

John McNaughton: Well, not really for me… I don’t own the film so I was informed a month or two ago to come in and supervise the color correction and the audio. I can’t say re-mixed because the original mix was lost so whatever we did, re-tweaking the original mix. Then they mentioned they were going to have this big premieres, like at the Chicago Film Festival which was great because that’s where it premiered thirty years ago and that Michael [Rooker] was coming in. I’d hadn’t seen Michael for a little while, and we like to hang out so I had a lot of fun with him. So they asked me if I was available to do this stuff for the Blu-ray and it was all planned by the MPI group. It’s interesting to see, what they were thirty years ago to what they are today, different entirely. Now they’re a film production unit, they make small horror films but for most of the years I knew them they were strictly in acquisitions for Henry and Henry 2 and an unfortunate film called Death Spa. Anyway, I’m glad to see it’s been in continued release for thirty years. They’re restoring it just so it’s preserved, and the original is put away even though the sound elements are gone.

DC: Horror movies rely a lot on visuals and jump scares and stuff like that, but one thing that sets Henry apart is the sound – especially in the beginning, as the camera sweeps over the body of a murdered woman in a field and all is quiet, except for the auditory memory of her screams being played over the image of her silent corpse. Tell us how that idea came about.

JM: I’d had great experiences as a writer, I put together an outline, info on some characters, some ideas for scenes. Steven Jones has been my producer starting with that film to today, he was more wired into the Chicago scene than I was, he’d work with people from the organic theatre which was Stuart Gordon’s company, people like Joe Montegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina, were members of that acting company including Richard Player, Tom Towles who plays Otis and Tracey Arnold who plays Becky. So anyways, I probably had a more straight-up exploitation movie in mind but when Richard Fire came in to be co-writer, he sort of said ‘No, we’re going to do something elevated.’ Under his tutelage we did and like I said, we were a great combo, I would make reference to Herschel Gordon Lewis and he would make reference to the Aristotelian Unity of Time, Space and Action, so we were coming from two different points of view. But we became great pals. He died last year, I miss him, he was a really crazy guy, a wild character and fun. So right now, I’ve got the original storyboard here and it’s the very first shot which you just mentioned: an actress named Mary Demas is lying there because it was based on a crime scene photo from the real Henry, a nude woman, unidentified, wearing only orange socks and dead in the dirt. They called her Orange Socks because they had no name and no ID. When we were watching footage of Henry Lee Lucas and whatever we could put together, this is before there was Google and internet, the crime scene photo came on, and Richard said ‘That’s it, that’s our beginning.’ Once we had that we then predicated, as I’ve often said because it’s true, I didn’t go to film school, I went to art school, and to me these were Henry’s works, creating these corpses and so they sort of became his works of art. We approached those opening shots and realized it would be more artistic and more effective if we just show this tableau and recreate the actual action with sound. You can dismember somebody on screen so many ways with effects but what we tried to do with Henry was you take the shots that lead you up, you see the knife, you see the person, you know they’re going to cut this person’s head off but just as the knife makes its move you cut away and put the sound effect in, and perhaps you’ve got a wide shot and see the head roll off into the shadow. It’s almost always better to let each individual complete it in their own mind then it will be more horrific than what someone else shows you.

DC: Those screams are so chilling.

JM: Yeah. The man who did our original mix who died, his name is Rick Koken, and he was kind of the premier guy in Chicago, a really great guy and sweet to us when we had no money, and we’re trying to pull it together. Rick worked ceaselessly and did a fantastic job. Anyway, I was really moved and touched deeply because when we went to do the new audio we went into this nice, swanky facility and the young man who was our mixer was Rick Koken’s son. It was just such a nice completion of the circle. He was a great guy, he did a great job, it was a great experience for him too, to pick up the torch from his father’s work so I really enjoyed that part of it.

DC: The film has been on tour. Are you finding there are new, young fans coming to it, or is it just the original fanbase?

JM: I really don’t know. I don’t know if this film will draw a teenage audience, it might, it might not I don’t know. The other night in Chicago, I went to the bar actually. I’ve seen this movie a few hundred times so I don’t often sit through, and I sat through it numerous times through the color correction and audio work. I will say this, one thing that I did notice was a big difference: Back in the day when it was screened there was no laughter, none, people were too shocked and numb. But I always told people, if you watch this movie three times, about the third time you’ll start to laugh because there’s a lot of comedy in it. People are too shocked and too afraid that they laughed at something like this, but it’s really OK. Tom Towles, his background was improv comedy here in Chicago and he’s playing a clown, a buffoon, and he’s really funny in the movie. I call it the poetry of idiocy. I was on Facebook today and there’s a goofy guy holding up a sign with a mullet haircut, and it said Hillary Clinton Supporters are ‘Morans’, so there’s that kind of humor, of people’s gross stupidity. That’s one of my favorite lines in the movie, when Becky comes in with a shirt that says I

DC: I guess, but it does seem like audiences are laughing at all the classics, now. Even The Exorcist.

JM: Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t want to get political. I think I feel a little sad about the state of the human condition. Our goofy human race, especially during this presidential election has been coarsened beyond redemption in certain ways. Again, I do not watch reality TV, it does not interest me at all, but to reach for the absolute lowest at every moment, it’s interesting. Ken Burns did a Civil War series years ago, which was based on letters that various people of the time had written. A friend of mine, a novelist who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, pointed out they were all conversant with the King James Bible, which is one of the most beautiful uses of the English language, and when they would read those letters from common soldiers using gorgeous, beautifully written English, it really made an impression. And I’m thinking of when we made the movie Wild Things around that same time, you had to read the preview cards where people get those pieces of paper, ‘What do you like, what don’t you like?’ and people were barely literate. In response to ‘What do you like about this movie,’ it was basically, ‘I like Uma Thurman’s tits cause I like tits,’ and they can’t spell tits. It’s just depressing. Of course, as we get older we think, ‘Oh these kids today, blah, blah, blah,’ but there does seem to be a coarsening of the general level of discourse in our society.

John McNaughton Henry

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