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Director John McNaughton Talks 'Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer' On 30th Anniversary

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 14, 2016 3:00PM

Michael Rooker in 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'

By Jacob Oller

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is a Chicago-steeped character study of a sociopath. The film, which was infamously slapped with an X rating upon wider release, is still capable of drawing viewers into its urban nightmare with a hypnotic sense of horror—alternatingly deadened by a blue-collar hopelessness and invigorated by explosive violence usually reserved for the climax of indie slashers.

A beautiful 4K restoration of Henry screens Friday at 9 p.m. at AMC River East as part of the Chicago International Film Festival, the same fest where the film debuted, back in 1986. Director/writer/producer (and Chicago native) John McNaughton and star Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) will both be in attendance. If you can’t catch it tonight, Henry also has a midnight run at the Music Box Theatre next weekend, Friday, Oct. 21. and Saturday, Oct. 22. McNaughton will also be at the Music box this Saturday, Oct. 15, to discuss the 1972 cult favorite Raw Meat with that film's director, fellow local Gary Sherman, as part of the Music Box of Horrors marathon.

Ahead of the anniversary screenings, Chicagoist sat down with McNaughton to talk about his unlikely route toward creating a Chicago modern classic.

CHICAGOIST: did you become the director of Henry How?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I left Chicago many years ago under a cloud, shall we say. My life had sort of collapsed. I was on a traveling carnival for a year and landed in New Orleans for a couple of years, doing many things. Building sailboats, making jewelry and running from the law every once in a while. Eventually I got into a fistfight with my best friend over a beautiful woman at 4 a.m.—like that moment in Mad Dog and Glory, that epiphany—where I said, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” So I decided I’d pack up and come home to Chicago to do what I’d always intended to do, which is become a filmmaker.

Back with your parents?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I had a ten-dollar bill and some loose change when I arrived, so I threw myself on my parents’ mercy. [My cousin] gave me a job tending bar at Lassen’s Tap in Homewood. One day a guy came in there, half drunk. And everyone knew I’d gone to film school, knew I wanted to be a director, and thought it was hilarious—that I was delusional. But he tossed a card out across the bar which said “Maljack Productions Inc”.

What did you start doing for them?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: They had these black plywood boxes with projectors that played one-hour loops of public domain cartoons and they put them in various Pizza Huts.You’d have to change the print once a week. That’s what I did.

From the Pizza Hut circuit to directing?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: For a while. By this time, [MPI was] in the VHS business. Occasionally they’d buy the rights to a horror film, which were very cheap then and rented like crazy. When I went to see Waleed [Ali, MPI co-founder and Henry exec producer] about a wrestling documentary [they’d planned on making], he said, “We’re not gonna do this wrestling stuff but I tell you what: I’ll give you a hundred grand to make a horror film. That’s it—horror film. Those are your parameters. Now beat it.”

Your work often involves examining human cruelties. Is that why you decided on a serial-killer film?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: Last night I was watching this three-part series on Hitler’s rise to power, but told through the eyes of German citizens—before they knew. Until that mask came off, he was just the guy that rebuilt Germany. That depth of depravity... it’s not that long ago. I can’t process it, but it’s fascinating. Plus, we didn’t have money for spaceships and monsters!

Has that indie ethic continued in regards to things like the MPAA rating system?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: We just resubmitted Henry and it came back X-rated. It makes me rather proud that it still has that punch. When we originally submitted, I talked to the MPAA and this woman told me, I remember very specifically, “Mr. McNaughton, there is nothing you can do to change the rating of this film. We object to the overall moral tone.”

That’s punk rock.

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: “We object to the overall moral tone.” Verbatim.