THE AV INTERVIEW: JOHN MCNAUGHTON (HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, WILD THINGS, THE HARVEST)

Jim Laczkowski: So I had seen a lot of horror movies by the time I was twelve and ones that stood out for me were the more popular ones, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, but then it was in 1990 that I heard WGN’s Nick Digilio put a film in his top 10 list that I had never heard of before and it was called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Cut to months later when my parents were sound asleep, I turned on Cable TV downstairs in the basement and saw that Henry was about to come on at 1:00 in the morning. I sat there completely horrified and transfixed at the same time and it may have been one of the first films that made me rethink what the horror genre could be, because Henry was not a boogeyman or a pinhead. This was a psychopath with no empathy, and the home invasion sequence shot on a camcorder similar to the one that my family owned, I’m so creeped out by that entire sequence and the idea of two men sitting together re-watching that murder scene like it was a wedding video or pornography. And driving down Lower Wacker Drive will never be the same for me.

John McNaughton: Unfortunately, they swapped out the green light, so it’s no longer — and then Chicago lit that street for us perfectly with those green fluorescent bulbs back in the day.

Jim: Right, right. Well, I’m pleased to welcome to the show co-writer and director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and many great films, Mr. John McNaughton. Hi, John.

John: How are you doing?

Jim: Excellent. So yeah, got to give credit to Nick Digilio, who has championed your films for years now to where I would actively seek them out even if they were hard to find. So  yeah, the performances and the way you shot Henry make it feel so real while you’re watching it, land if feels like a home video, obviously, from a real life serial killer. Now, when you were initially making the movie in your mind, was one of your goals from the start to create a raw, grimy, almost subjective experience that was very different from your typical slasher film?

John: Well, yes. They offered me $100,000, so it was clear that you’re not going to get spaceships and monsters from outer space and et cetera. One thing I think filmmakers, young filmmakers, make a big mistake on, when they get their first however much money, they go out and they try to compete with the studios. You know, with independent films they’ve got $100,000 and they try and make a teen comedy — and you know teen comedies aren’t expensive to make by Warner Bros.. They’re still going to spend $18 million. And then they wind up just looking like a cheap imitation of something that they’re trying to imitate. Where with Henry, you get one chance to make a first film and we want to make something that no one will ever forget, and it seems to have been successful. It’s been in continuous release for 30 years. So I sat with Richard Fire, who referred to me by Steve Jones, who was my producer to this day. Richard, I did not — Richard was a man of the theatre, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do something so low as an exploitation film, but he elevated it. At first he was kind of ashamed he was involved in such a thing, and then later, of course, like with many people that were involved in the — I’ve watched many actors over the years that I would see come in. When they first made Henry before they saw it they didn’t put it on their resume. They considered it trash. And then I watched over the years as Henry climbed up onto their resume, and then a few years later it was the first thing on their resume.

Anyway, Richard and I decided, “Well, what’s the idea of a horror film?” We’re not that scared by horror films because the thing that protects you is fantasy. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, that was fun. I was scared.” I avoid jump scares like The Plague itself. Other people can do it and do it well. I don’t care to do that. So The idea was, let’s redefine a horror film. Words lose their meaning, and horror film comes to mean a certain thing but it isn’t necessarily — to me you’re leaving out the most horrific thing of all, real human behavior. You’re relying on fantasy and fantasy makes a safe space. So when you walk out after you’ve seen Freddy or Jason or whomever, you know they’re not really waiting out there. A lot of people are really worried about it after seeing Henry. So that was the idea. Let’s remove the fantasy. First thing we’re going to do is take out the fantasy. Second of all, let’s just drop you into this world as if you’re sitting in a chair in the corner over there. That’s going to be the shooting style. So that was the idea. You as the viewers dropped in — and I’m not going to make your moral judgements for you. You make your own.

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