Director John McNaughton's low-budget classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is now almost thirty years old. Shot in 1985 on a miniscule budget, the film's release was shelved in the United States until 1989 following numerous
post-production complications. Henry also ran into trouble in the UK when it came in for a theatrical release in 1991, and the BBFC website outlines the film's treatment at the hands of the Board in the form of a case study (which can be read
). Expanding upon that case study, this edition of Cutting Edge will be focussing on the story behind Henry's troubled release in the United States, as well as taking a detailed visual examination of the cuts made to the film for its various
British releases. With statements from director John McNaughton and those involved with the film's distribution, the analysis makes for a rather interesting story.
Realism as Inspiration
Whilst a student at Columbia College in Chicago, John McNaughton was interested in the portrayal of realism in art. He enjoyed stills photography, particularly the sort that told real-life stories showing real people going about their lives, and
he favoured taking photographs on the streets of Chicago for the grittiness, tone and unique feeling that he thought the city possessed. Following his time at college, McNaughton moved into film production, and was always trying to get a fictional
film of some sort into production whilst earning a living making documentary films.
McNaughton had been working with two producers, the brothers Waleed and Malik Ali, on the creation of a wrestling documentary. The Ali brothers had set aside $100,000 to finance the purchasing of some old wrestling footage, but the seller hiked
the price up at the last minute and the brothers backed out. As a result, Waleed suggested to McNaughton that he take the money and put it towards making a horror film instead. McNaughton quickly agreed, and the Ali brothers formed Maljack
Productions; serving as executive producers on the horror film.
McNaughton was already a fan of the horror genre, and was thus very receptive about the idea of making a horror film, but he had no idea of how to go about it. The low-budget nature of the film was a problem, and he discounted the idea of making a
creature feature or science fiction piece as any special effects costs were likely to be priced beyond the scope of the budget.
Whilst trying to come up with a treatment for the film, McNaughton spoke to a long-time friend of his who showed him an
old episode of the ABC magazine show 20/20 . The episode in question covered the exploits of Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer who once claimed to have murdered almost 400 people across the United States with the help of his friend (and
lover) Ottis Toole. McNaughton was struck by the duo, whom he later referred to as the scariest looking pair you'd ever want to see. Despite Lucas' heinous crimes, McNaughton thought he possessed a dumb, hillbilly charm that would
have enabled him to get close to his victims and McNaughton decided that someone like Lucas would make a good character around which to base a horror film.
In the August of 1985, McNaughton and his co-writer Richard Fire began work on the screenplay. Using Lucas and Toole as the inspiration for the film's two leads, McNaughton and Fire's script loosely adapted certain elements from the confessions of
the two killers (many of which were later proven to be false), but despite the use of the names Henry and Otis, the script was a completely fictional piece of work, and not intended as a verbatim account of any real-life events.
Initially, McNaughton had thought about making Henry as an exploitation piece purely for commercial reasons, but Fire wanted to do something more meaningful and with depth. With 15 years experience in the theatre, Fire brought an unwavering,
direct approach to the subject material, whilst McNaughton's interest in documenting the lives of real people also helped shape the tone of the script. The Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon also provided McNaughton with the idea of having the
characters of Henry and Otis videotape their murders. The script would become a rather stark and unsettling piece of work; as McNaughton later stated:
We tried to do something entirely new... we thought we would redefine the horror genre. If a horror film's intent is to horrify, then let's horrify to the best of our abilities.
It would be precisely this kind of approach that would cause trouble for Henry further down line.
Michael Rooker as Henry
Tom Towles as Otis
After the casting of Chicago actor Tom Towles in the role of Otis and Michael Rooker in the role of Henry (who showed up for his audition in character and wore his own clothes for the film), production got underway and the film was shot in Chicago
across 28 consecutive days. McNaughton chose to shoot the film in an unflinching documentary style, inspired heavily by the cinema vérité style of filmmaking. Being unable to afford extras or a large crew, McNaughton called upon the help of
friends and family and shot in real locations for added realism. He even continued shooting as two men argued in the street during the filming of a key sequence. Henry was never intended to be a theatrical film, with McNaughton presuming the film
would be released straight-to-video. Early in the film's production, however, the filmmakers felt that they had a solid piece of work that was worthy of a theatrical release upon its completion.
Production wrapped around Thanksgiving time in the November of 1985, and the editing process began. The cast and the crew had confidence in their film, but unfortunately for John McNaughton, trouble was not far ahead.
Kiss of Death
With post-production on a rough cut of Henry having being completed in 1986, the film was shown to the film's distributors, MPI, in a raw assembly cut - and they were less than impressed. Following refinements and the completion of the final
cut, another company, Vestron, was interested in distributing the film, but due to legal complications with another company over the rights to Oliver Stone's Platoon, they were forced to pass on the project. It was around this time that
John McNaughton submitted Henry to the MPAA for a rating, but again he
ran into trouble - the ratings board informed
him that Henry had received an X certificate. This would seriously harm the film's revenue, as most major cinema chains would refuse to carry an X-rated film outright. Furthermore, the non-trademarked nature of the X rating mean that pornographic
filmmakers had adopted the rating for marketing adults-only sex films, creating a misinformed view in the eyes of the American public that an X rating automatically constituted films of a pornographic nature. During discussions between the MPAA
and McNaughton, the ratings board decreed that no amount of cuts could bring the film down to the less-restrictive R rating, as the issue was not only the film's violence but its moral tone (or lack thereof). McNaughton later surrendered the
rating, opting instead to press on with Henry in an unrated form. Whilst bloodier scenes of violence had been passed in R-rated films at the time, Henry was an altogether different animal. It was certainly more realistic when compared to, for
example, the fantastical slasher killers of the 1980s, as John McNaughton remarked in 1999:
Our chief device was removing fantasy, because as long as you have the buffer of fantasy then you have a level of comfort and distance; you know it's not really going to happen, you can enjoy the film for the thrills it gives you, but when you
walk of the theatre you're safe. In the case of our picture, I think when you walk out of the theatre, you feel more threatened than when you walked in.
As a director, McNaughton wanted to challenge the mainstream's representation of cinematic serial killers with Henry, as he felt that audiences were only comfortable with film violence when it was both fantastical and directed at obviously
unlikeable characters whom the audience felt had it coming. One of his aims was to get viewers actively questioning the idea of violence as entertainment, which is exemplified most notably during the so-called home invasion scene.
TV salesman had it coming
McNaughton plays up to our expectations of film violence during an earlier sequence which shows Henry and Otis murdering an unlikeable TV salesman. We as the audience know who Henry and Otis are and what they are capable of, and as the TV salesman
becomes more and more belligerent towards the killers, we know what's coming. On some level, we may feel his death is justified because he is a bad character who deserved it . But this idea of violence as entertainment is turned
completely on its head during the home invasion scene which follows a little while later.
During this lengthily and uncomfortable scene, we see Henry filming himself and Otis murdering a mother, father and son in a brutal and realistic fashion, including the sight of Otis sexually abusing the mother before and after she dies. Done
entirely in one shot with no cutaways, we are led to believe that what we are witnessing is events unfolding in real time as seen through the camcorder's viewfinder. However, at the end of the killings, McNaughton cuts to a shot of Henry and Otis
sitting on their sofa at home, watching the events on playback some time after the event. We are instantly made to feel complicit in their voyeurism; a cunning act of manipulation on McNaughton's behalf.
Henry presents its two subjects and their crimes in a cold, non-judgmental manner. It does not tell us how to feel, nor it does attempt to rationalize the behaviour of the two killers, and the film ends with no closure, moral resolution or sense
of justice. For instance, there are no members of law enforcement to be seen anywhere on-screen during the film. There are no answers proffered, and it is at once an unsettling and intelligent work which caught the censors right off guard -
particularly when it was later submitted for a rating in the UK.
Despite the initial struggles, it looked like things might take a turn for the better when Atlantic Pictures later picked up Henry for distribution, but upon learning of the X rating awarded to the film by the MPAA, they elected not to take up the
rights and Henry again fell into limbo, where it sat in the archives at MPI; completed but unreleased. Frustrated with the lack of mainstream distribution, McNaughton screened the film publically for the first time at the Chicago Film Festival in
September 1986, and Henry finally caught a break. It played to much critical acclaim, and went on to receive midnight screenings in New York. Elliott Stein, a reviewer for Village Voice, cited Henry as one of the best American films of the year,
and it later played at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in 1989, where respected film critic Roger Ebert awarded it 3.5 stars out of 4. By now the film had become, in McNaughton's words, a sensation. Audience response was mixed,
however, and many patrons walked out during the notorious home invasion scene.
Henry went on to receive further accolades from the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, the
Catalonian International Film Festival, and the Seattle International Film Festival. Following this success, Henry was finally released (without an MPAA rating) in its uncut form in January 1990 in a limited theatrical run, where it earned
$600,000 in ticket sales. Henry would go on to make more money in the American home video market in the following decades, with profitable releases on video, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray, and the film has always been available uncut in the United
At the time of Henry's release, the MPAA were aware of the public's misinformed connotations of the X rating, and in September 1990 the X was discontinued and replaced with the NC-17 rating; partly due to the issues encountered with the
classification of Henry. It hasn't made life easier for enterprising filmmakers, however; even now, a quarter of a century later, both the Hollywood studio system and American society as a whole still fail to embrace the concept of an adults-only
rating for motion pictures.
Despite the convoluted process of getting Henry released in the United States, it was some consolation to John McNaughton that his film had eventually been released uncut and had made a profit. But whatever troubles the film had encountered with
the MPAA, would pale in comparison to the film's treatment in the United Kingdom.
Henry was first seen in the UK without a BBFC certificate at the National Film Theatre and Scala Cinema in London, and it was also seen at those venues by members of the BBFC staff, including director James Ferman.
Cut Scenes: Distributor Cinema Cuts: Bottled
The distributing company, Electric Pictures, were keen to release the film nationally, and thus prepared to submit the film to the BBFC for a theatrical certificate. Wishing the censors to view Henry as a serious piece of filmmaking and not as
a cheap exploitation film, they chose to remove 38 seconds of footage from the work before submission, which featured the sight of a dead and naked woman with a broken bottle jammed into her face.
Henry was formally submitted to the BBFC for a cinema classification in this pre-cut version and was initially seen on January 7th 1991.
Cut Scenes: BBFC Cinema Cuts: Home invasion scene
The sexual violence committed by Otis during the home invasion scene was flagged up as being problematic by the BBFC examiners, and the film was seen again by the Board on January 25th. The examining team was split 50/50 between passing the
film uncut with an 18 rating and making cuts to the scene for an 18 rating. However, James Ferman decided that cuts were most definitely required, and on February 12th he worked with the distributors to make a cut version of the scene. This
cut scene was played for a team of examiners at the BBFC in Soho Square, but the edits made by Ferman were not felt to be sufficient enough to cover their concerns about sexual violence, and two further cuts were made to the scene. In all,
these changes resulted in three cuts totalling 24 seconds, with two cuts removing the sight of Otis exposing and fondling the mother's breasts (both before and after she is killed), and one cut removing the sight of Otis moving his hand
towards her pubic region.
Henry was seen again in full on February 27th, and a decision was made by the BBFC examiners that no further cuts were needed. Ferman, however, was concerned about the film's possible effect on vulnerable and disturbed individuals and sought
expert advice from professionals in the field of mental health. The film was viewed by one psychiatrist and two psychologists on March 19th, who concluded that the cut version of the film was unlikely to be problematic for a UK theatrical release.
After months of consideration, Henry was finally passed by the BBFC after 62 seconds of cuts on April 24th 1991.
Pushing for a Video Release
consults mental health experts
Following the film's UK theatrical classification, James Ferman appeared on Barry Norman's BBC 1 Film programme, where he publically stated that he could not see Henry receiving a UK home video certificate at any point in the future;
indeed, this had also been stipulated to the distributors at the time of its classification. But by the May of 1992, Electric Pictures had for some time been requesting that Ferman take another look at the film with the view to it receiving a home
video rating; even if it meant that extra cuts had to be made. Electric Pictures made a point of stating that the film had been released in other territories without issue, and eventually Ferman relented and said he would discuss the possibility
of a video release after further consultation with mental health experts.
Following these discussions, Henry was submitted to the BBFC for a video classification in June 1992 in its pre-cut UK cinema version, and the film was viewed by more BBFC examiners and the Board's Presidents throughout the months of June and
July. Again opinions varied, with some examiners arguing that the UK cinema version was acceptable for home video, whilst others suggested making further cuts. In the end, the decision was made to make additional cuts in order to make the film safe
for viewing in the home.
James Ferman later invited two staff members from Electric Pictures to the BBFC offices in order to show them visual examples of his proposed cuts. One of these two members of staff was a gentleman named Ian Gilchrist, who later wrote about some
of his experiences with the BBFC on HeyUGuys.com. He recalls his visit on the day of the viewing, where Ferman had the contentious scenes from Henry ready for playback in his office.
Cut Scenes: BBFC VHS Cuts: TV salesman
To begin with, a minor trim had been made to the aforementioned murder of the TV salesman, with Ferman requesting:
Reduce killing of TV warehouse man after flex is wrapped around his throat by cutting away sooner from long shot of repeated stabbing in abdomen, resuming on Henry's face as he stabs.
In effect, this removed some of the overt brutality of the scene, with Henry's stabbing of the TV salesman now played largely off-screen.
Cut Scenes: BBFC VHS Cuts: Home invasion scene
The majority of cuts, however, had been made to the already-censored home invasion scene. As Ian Gilchrist later wrote:
After some explanation that this was the most troublesome sequence in the film for him and for his experts, Mr. Ferman cued up the scene on his monitor and we sat back to watch. I am sure I was unable to completely hide my shock at what I
saw; the power of the scene had been greatly diminished. I felt then, and still do, that it was a betrayal of the director and the weakening of a pivotal moment in the film.
Gilchrist's shock was due to Ferman's heavy tampering with the home invasion scene; it had not only been re-edited but resequenced, with further cuts made to remove the onscreen killing of the mother and the son. In order to interrupt what he
saw as masturbatory potential , Ferman had elected to cut to Henry and Otis watching the video playback on the couch much earlier in the scene, thus destroying and undermining John McNaughton's intended meaning.
It would become one of Ferman's most infamous decisions during his time at the BBFC; a decision that put him on the receiving end of a lot of well-deserved criticism. Former BBFC examiner Ros Hodgkiss later recounted Ferman's methodology in an
interview with The Guardian newspaper:
Ferman loved to fiddle, snip and trim, like an enthusiastic barber [and] intelligent interpretation could be overridden by the biological assumptions of the chief censor. The audience could not be credited with complex responses.
Ferman's changes to the home invasion scene were outlined in detail in the cuts list that was sent to the distributors, stipulating that the editing of the scene was to be undertaken thus:
Considerably reduce camcorder record of family massacre by cutting away from Otis pulling off woman's bra to remove sight of him mauling her bare breast and body, resuming on panning shot from feet of bound man on floor left to his head.
To rearrange the scene, Ferman then instructed the distributors:
After son is thrown to floor by Henry, remove in-vision killing of son and mother by cutting away to Henry and Otis watching on sofa; then, after camera tracks in on them, cut back to video screen immediately after woman's neck is broken to
see Henry rise.
A further cut towards the end of the sequence was also required:
After Henry leaves shot and Otis starts to abuse woman's dead body, remove track in to his playing with body and caressing breast, jump-cutting instead to tighter shot of him starting to kiss breast just before Henry stops him.
With the video cuts made on top of the distributor pre-cuts and BBFC cinema cuts, Henry was eventually classified 18 following six months of deliberation on January 26th 1993 after 113 seconds worth of cuts. These included:
38 seconds of the sight of the naked woman on the toilet
4 seconds of the TV salesman's murder
71 seconds of the home invasion scene
John McNaughton was naturally annoyed at the changes, and actually considered Henry's censorship to be rather ironic, as he later stated in an interview with Bizarre magazine:
My intention was to implicate the audience in the everyday practice of entertaining ourselves with the slaughter of human beings. But the censors changed the edit, castrating the film's moral statement and making the violence worse!
Asking the new film censor for a rethink on DVD
James Ferman retired from the BBFC in 1999, and following the appointment of his successor Robin Duval, Henry was resubmitted by Universal Pictures for a new UK video classification in 2000, this time in its complete and unrated version as
released in the United States. Examiners at the Board were once again divided in their opinions, with some feeling the film could be passed uncut and others feeling that some cuts were still required; albeit in a lesser capacity than those
implemented in 1993 for the film's original video release. The notion of cuts won out once again, although the changes made were far less extensive than those made to the cinema- and VHS releases.
Cut Scenes: BBFC DVD Cuts: Bottled
The first change demanded by the BBFC was to the sequence showing the dead woman on the toilet with the broken bottle in her face, which the BBFC felt was eroticised and gratuitous . As a result, the BBFC requested the removal of 17
seconds of footage from this scene, which partially restored some footage in comparison to previous UK releases; all of which had omitted the scene completely:
After camera moves past partition to reveal female corpse on toilet, cut before camera starts moving in on corpse.
Since this change would have resulted in a noticeable jump in the film's soundtrack, Universal elected to remove the scene entirely as per the cinema and VHS versions, which resulted in an additional 21 seconds of footage being removed.
Cut Scenes: BBFC DVD Cuts: Home invasion scene
The home invasion scene once again caused problems, with the BBFC cuts stating:
Remove all sight of man pulling off woman's bra and mauling her bare breasts.
This cut amounted to 10 seconds of footage, and replicated one of the original UK cinema version cuts. Ferman's drastic re-organizing of the sequence was undone entirely, although John McNaughton's effect of watching a real time recording was
still ruined due to the jump cut that was noticeably present in the sequence. The second cut to the scene that was originally demanded on video - showing Otis kissing the dead mother - was waived, along with the four seconds of cuts made
earlier in the film to the killing of the TV salesman.
This version of Henry was classified 18 after 48 seconds of cuts on April 20th 2001 and was the version first released on DVD in the UK.
The Uncut Version
The film came before the BBFC again for a cinema classification two years later in 2003, and the BBFC now considered (or perhaps realised is a better word) that the film's intention was to horrify instead of titillate, and that the home invasion
scene was an important part of the film's narrative. Coupled with their public research into the portrayal of sexual violence on film, the BBFC felt that they could no longer justify making cuts to such a serious and critically acclaimed work, and
Henry was passed uncut for a UK theatrical re-release on February 20th 2003. The film was quickly resubmitted for a new DVD classification by Optimum Releasing, and was passed uncut with an 18 rating on March 19th 2003 for:
Strong violence and horror.
Despite excising material less than two years before which they had felt was eroticised and gratuitous , the BBFC's reasoning behind passing Henry uncut was now somewhat contradictory:
Whilst remaining a powerful film with the potential to shock some viewers, none of the previously cut material eroticised or endorsed the violence visited upon female victims by the central characters.
In the June of 2003, the BBFC discussed its decision to classify Henry with its Consultative Council; a group the Board meets with thrice a year that includes representatives from the broadcasting and video industries, figures from local
government and persons of individual distinction and expertise . According to the BBFC, the Council provides the Board with advice across a broad range of classification-related issues. The BBFC later outlined the events of the
Members noted that the film showed the consequences, rather than the process, of violence... The meeting discussed whether the film was likely to be harmful and whether it might stimulate anti-social behaviour in vulnerable or disturbed people.
It seemed unlikely that anything in this work would trigger harmful activity. It was agreed, with one dissenting voice, that the decision to pass the film uncut was the correct one.
It is a little odd that material once found to be unacceptable for home viewing could suddenly be permitted a little under two years later, but the BBFC's decision to pass the film uncut was welcomed by fans and was long overdue. Henry: Portrait
of a Serial Killer has thus been completely uncut in the UK since 2003, and is the version now widely available on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Cutting Edge Video: Episode 17: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional
help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC
for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.