For a filmmaker who rarely goes where he’s been before, John McNaughton made an exception in returning to the Chicago Film Festival a few weeks ago with his debut narrative feature, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” just as he did 30 years prior.
“A lot different than it was last time,” laughs McNaughton, said of bringing his first film back to his hometown fest. “It was good. It was a big theater, big crowd. A lot of old friends and new friends… and family that had never seen it before.”
For two years after it premiered in 1986, no one outside those initial screenings in the Windy City had seen “Henry,” which dared to soberly depict the crime spree of its titular character (a haunting Michael Rooker), a soft-spoken exterminator whose horizons are broadened by meeting the sister (Tracy Arnold) of his former cellmate Otis (Tom Towles). While the film’s grisly violence, which earned “Henry” a “X” rating after playing the festival circuit when it finally was released in 1990, seems restrained by today’s standards, it is every bit as unsettling and disquieting as ever, embracing the limitations of a meager budget to reflect Henry’s desolate view of the world, full of casual threat and the people around him as hollow as his barren living quarters.
Although “Henry” didn’t have an easy birth — its arresting opening sequence comprised of murder scenes Henry has left behind features the same actress, Mary Demas, a friend of McNaughton’s, as three different victims to save costs on the $110,000 film — its notoriety and the fact it was put into production by the home video company MPI, with a strong incentive to keep the film in circulation helped turn it into a cult classic, giving rise to two major talents in McNaughton and Rooker. No less than “Enter the Void” director Gaspar Noe could be seen wearing a “Henry” T-shirt at virtually the same moment McNaughton was introducing the film in Chicago and over the past few weeks, the director has been taking a well-deserved victory lap around the country that was previously denied to him, taking a moment to reflect here about the impact the film had on his career, his innovative use of a camcorder in conveying seemingly unmediated horror, and making films that get better with age.
Has it surprised you how enduring this film has been over the years?
It’s been in continuous video release for 30 years and a few years ago, there was the 25th [anniversary] and we didn’t do a complete restoration, but we did a color correction and audio sweetening. It lives on. It’s a continuum. It’s not like some all of the sudden it’s been rescued from some remote vault. Over the years, I get invitations to screenings and to bring it to festivals to screen it and it’s never really gone away. It’s just nice that they’ve invested the money to restore it and make sure all the elements are properly taken care of. I know, because my second film, “The Borrower,” the elements are scattered and no one has a print. The only place you can see it as on YouTube, which is kind of sad. As your career goes on, it’s nice to see the work you’ve done get preserved and held in high enough regard that somebody’s taking care of it.
Is this an interesting film to do the restoration on? You want to keep it in the best condition, but the grit of it has always been part of its constitution.
Yeah, it was 16 millimeters — it wasn’t super 16, so it’s a little more grainy, especially considering the film stocks of 30 years ago and it had that 16 millimeter immediacy. Growing up, they were using 16 millimeter to shoot the war in Vietnam in black-and-white on the spot and I don’t know at what point they made the changeover. Video cameras weren’t portable for a long time and there were still news crews shot 16 millimeters. That’s not the reason we chose 16 millimeter — we chose 16 millimeter because we couldn’t afford 35, and also our cinematographer, Charlie Lieberman, who shot commercials here in Chicago, had his own ARRI SR16 that was a state-of-the-art 16 millimeter camera of the day. Since he used it to make his living, it was immaculately maintained, and [now] I’m sure there are programs we could smooth out the grain, but that would have spoiled it. [The film] looks exactly as it was originally intended to look, but at its absolute best — no age, no fade, pristine.
Your use of a camcorder in the murders is especially effective, and now it’s commonplace because of its intimacy, but I couldn’t think of another film that did it before “Henry.”
I couldn’t either. [laughs] Actually, where I stole the idea from was Thomas Harris’ book “Red Dragon.” Francis Dolarhyde was the disfigured murderer who was adopted as a young boy and he was taken into a family. He was horribly mistreated, and where Harris picks him up in “Red Dragon,” he’s an adult and he’s working in a film processing laboratory — this is before digital photography where people shot family pictures, and brought it to their local drugstore like Walgreens — and what he liked about the job was it was in the dark so no one could see him, because he was ashamed of his disfigurement. Since they printed the film, too, he would look it over, and when he saw a family portrayed that was identical to the family that raised him who were really cruel to him — the mom, dad, and however many brothers and/or sisters he had, and a dog — he would jump in his car, drive to these people’s houses and break in, murder them and photograph it, and take back the photographs and then savor the photographs. I thought that was a really twisted idea, so I stole it, except that we made one change to the medium since it was just the beginning of home camcorders to make them motion pictures.
This feels like it sets up your style well for later films with the static framing and the slow pans. Did you actually feel like you found your visual style here?
I try to get the visual style film by film, but I’m sure, unbeknownst to me there are threads of similarities. I was just thinking on a film that I did a couple films later, “Mad Dog and Glory,” Martin Scorsese was the producer and I spent a fair amount of time with him. Martin’s mind runs twice as fast as anyone else’s — if you watch Martin, if he’s looking [around], you see his eyes and he’s constantly scanning and you look at his visual style, it reflects that. It’s very energetic. I tend to stand and stare in the world and look at something. I think it has something to do with our personalities and how we look at things in the world.
In creating all these horrific images that have stayed with people, was this actually a hard one to shake off for you after it was over?
No. It’s been 30 years, but I remember that particular scene of the murders in the video, there was only, the actors, myself, Charlie Lieberman, and one assistant in the room. We shot two takes, and afterwards take two, and I knew that was the take we were going to use, I just looked at the people assembled and I said, “None of us are going to heaven after shooting this scene.” [laughs] A lot of it, killing Otis at the end [for example], part of it’s funny, because Tom Towles is inherently a funny human being and a lot of fun, so when you see somebody pulling a rubber head covered in blood out of a bathtub, I think you have to suppress laughter. But stabbing him in the eye was a difficult scene technically. We shot 28 days with no days off, and there was one day when we shot for 24 straight hours. I was probably physically and emotionally just drained, and I hit the couch for two weeks [after shooting]. I would get up, make coffee, and then just go collapse on the couch and lay there and groan for most of the day. It took a lot out of me.
Is it true that Michael Rooker was in character as Henry the entire time on set?
Michael’s a really likable person, so myself and the actors got along quite well. I didn’t remember it myself, but when Michael was in town for the [anniversary] screening, we got interviewed together and I’m hearing it from his side again and he’s [said he] was in character all day, because to go in and out between scenes and clown with the crew and stuff, it was just too hard to get back. He had a room often that he would just go and isolate himself. Then he would let the character go in the evenings when he went home to his wife. They’re still married, I’m happy to say. Interestingly, Margot, his wife was pregnant with their first daughter and she wouldn’t tell him until he was done filming.
With how hard it was to get “Henry” out into the world, did it prepare you well for everything that came after in your career?
Yeah, it certainly did. I read numerous years ago a saying that “There’s no greater road to unhappiness than to be ahead of your time.” I went to art school for two-and-a-half years. I didn’t go to film school. Then I changed my major to television production and still photography, and having studied art and loving art, the great artists to me always broke new ground. Whatever the rules were, it was their job to break them, to violate it and to move forward into new territory, whatever was in good taste. That was certainly the idea we had with “Henry,” the idea of not just doing what we’ve already seen before. Michael [Rooker] was just talking about having kids and how when they’re little babies and you do something to pleases them, and they just look up their eyes and they go, “Again! Again!” He was making the point that adults are like that, too. When there’s something you find gratifying, you want to do it over and over and over again. What I’ve pretty much made a career of is defying expectations. There’s a price to pay, but in time, I say my films are often like good, fine wine. They’re raw for the first couple years and then they settle in. Usually, it takes a couple years for my films to appear normal.