Sunday, May 11, 2008

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer—The 15-Years-Later Affair

During the early 2000s, I penned a pair of articles for MICRO-FILM, a locally produced zine edited in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois by Jason Pankoke. I didn't do as much writing for MICRO-FILM as either Jason or I would have liked, often due to my busy schedule. Besides the two articles, I also reviewed a few films on DVD. Interviews with actor Robert Forster and director Bert I. Gordon were originally intended for MICRO-FILM, but the zine's haphazard publishing schedule made the pieces out-of-date by the time they could have been published, and I eventually posted them at Mobius Home Video Forum, where I have served as a moderator for nearly a decade.

Since no one has had the opportunity to read these articles since they were originally published in MICRO-FILM, I thought it might be nice to make them available here. The following piece was included in MICRO-FILM #5, published June 2002. It's still on sale from Jason for just $3.50 and is of interest to anyone with a love for independent cinema. "HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER—The 15-Years-Later Affair" was a look back at the Illinois-lensed horror classic fifteen years after it was made (though it was more than that by the time the article was published). For historic purposes, I have left the copy as it was originally written, so please forgive any outdated information.

Many words have been used to describe HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER--intense, frightening, shocking, heartbreaking. No matter how one feels about the horror genre in general, there's no question that HENRY leaves its mark on all those who watch it. The lead character, a placid sociopath named Henry who leaves a squalid and bloody trail of corpses in his murderous wake, doesn't punctuate his kills with a groan-inducing series of one-liners like Freddy Krueger of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, nor is he a mindless, unstoppable killing machine like HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers. What makes Henry almost unique among horror movie icons is that he could--and does--exist in our own neighborhood. Henry could be the quiet neighbor next door. Or the mailman. Or the guy standing behind you in line at the convenience store. Even, as in the film, the exterminator ridding your home of rodents. HENRY is not a fun movie. But it is illuminating, fascinating and more than a little bit scary. It's also a stunning debut for those who made it, including its star Michael Rooker, producer Steven A. Jones and director John McNaughton.

The story of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER begins in 1985, when Waleed Ali, who owned a Chicago-based video distribution company called Maljack Productions, Inc. (perhaps better known as MPI), decided to make his own horror movie for MPI to distribute directly to home video, and gave McNaughton a $100,000 budget for his feature debut. McNaughton, a Chicago native who had directed a few low-budget documentaries for MPI, brought in Jones, a musician, designer and commercial animation director who had created MPI's logo. The two were inspired by a segment of ABC's 20/20 program about serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who claimed to have murdered as many as 300 people. Needing a writer, Jones brought in Richard Fire, with whom he had worked in Stuart Gordon's Organic Theater Company in Chicago.

Together, the threesome created the story of Henry, an illiterate ex-con who lives in a dingy apartment with a brutal prison buddy, Ottis, and Ottis' younger sister Becky, a former stripper fleeing from an abusive marriage. There is no plot; rather, HENRY merely displays the day-to-day existence of a man without feeling, perhaps without a soul. Henry feels no pain and no joy. He's incapable of emotion, although there is a glimmer in some of his quiet conversations with Becky. We see him go about his business very methodically, intelligently and, most frighteningly, cold-bloodedly.

To portray the tricky role of Henry, McNaughton and Jones chose an Alabama-born actor who had never before appeared in a film. "We were looking for that magic person for Henry," McNaughton told FANGORIA in 1991. "Then one day Jeff Segal, who did HENRY's makeup effects, brought Michael Rooker in. Michael was having a hard time working in Chicago theater. He was just too edgy. He was painting houses at the time. He basically came in as Henry, wearing the clothes he would wear in the movie--that jacket he wore was his own personal jacket. He was in character, and I thought, 'This is the guy! Oh, God, please let him be able to act!' As it turned out, he could act very well; he's extremely gifted." Although Rooker's performance may at first glance appear immobile, it's very clear that a lot is going on inside Henry, and Rooker does a stunning job of suggesting that inner turmoil.

35-year-old Tom Towles was chosen to play Ottis, and has remained loyal to his HENRY bosses. According to Jones, "Tommy was a member of the Organic Theater with Richard Fire, and had starred in many stage productions. We still try to find a place for him in all of our projects." Pretty Tracy Arnold nailed the role of Becky. "Tracy was another Organic person who auditioned for the role, " Jones says. "She was the first one to bolt for L.A. and she got some commercial work right away, then nothing. She's still on the west coast, but I don't believe she does much acting." It's hard to believe Arnold's career didn't flourish in Hollywood, since her turn as HENRY's only sympathetic character is equally as impressive as those of her two male co-stars.

Benefiting from a sharp, clinical directorial approach and three exceptional performances, HENRY is a great horror movie--truly disturbing and one of the most fascinating character studies of Evil ever filmed. As Rooker told the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS' Phantom of the Movies, "I didn't want to make Henry just this badass killer. I didn't want to play him 'big'. I wanted to play him as a person who'd been drained of almost all emotion...I think Henry reacts to situations...but Henry can also be very calculating. The first time I saw (HENRY), I came out with a real empty feeling in my gut...It's a very dark piece." McNaughton and Jones knew HENRY was a success on an artistic level right away, even if their financial benefactors didn't. "I wasn't so much surprised as gratified that the audiences felt something," Jones says. "When we left the first screening at Chicago's Music Box Theater, two women walked out ahead of John and I. One said, 'That was really great!' The other said, 'Whattaya mean it was great--it sucked!' That told me that something good was happening."

HENRY's most notorious scene involves Henry and Ottis videotaping their slaughter of an entire family in their victims' suburban living room, and then watching the tape at home in slow motion. The entire incident is seen only from the video camera's point of view, and it's one of cinema's most vivid examples of the senseless destruction of precious human life. Its filming was a raw experience for its participants. Jones relates, "The footage was actually shot by Michael Rooker, who then enters his own scene." Jones also confirms a shocking story that has long been rumored about this notorious scene. "The actress (Lisa Temple) who plays the wife required some kind of medical attention for a bit of a breakdown she suffered during filming. According to John, she's fine now!" The scene, which was partially improvised by Rooker and Towles, is grueling to watch, and perhaps more so when one realizes that the emotions of the woman being ravaged by Henry and Ottis are similar to those of the actress.

Although finished in the spring of 1986 after a 28-day shooting schedule and a final cost of $112,000 (the additional $12,000 was the cost of transferring the film negative to 1" videotape--no theatrical release was originally planned), HENRY sat on MPI's shelf for four years. Waleed Ali and his brother Malik, who owned MPI, were expecting a typical slasher film in the HALLOWEEN vein. "They didn't like it at all, so they gave up on it," says Jones. Chuck Parello, MPI's publicity director at the time, states succinctly, "I wasn't there when the Alis first saw the film, so I can't really say what they were thinking. But I don't think anything can prepare you for the impact of watching a film like HENRY for the first time, especially when it was being viewed in 1986, way before films and television became as violent as they are today. I suppose that the brothers may have expected something a little more conventional. This was their first time investing in the making of a feature film, and they were probably worried about making their money back, as most producers are apt to do." Tim Lucas, whose VIDEO WATCHDOG publication is perhaps the "bible" on science fiction, fantasy and horror films, says, "I had some connections at MPI Video while the film was in production, and for awhile afterwards, and I remember them sending me screeners dubbed over cassettes of HENRY a year or two before it was even released. The film would run out, and there would be the bathtub scene or whatever. They had no idea what they had, that the movie would be so well-received, and they actually had some fairly savvy film people working there at the time."

HENRY was also saddled with an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, and since the X was due to the movie's general tone, and not to any individual moments of sex or violence, there was no way to recut it for an R. So it sat quietly in MPI's vaults. McNaughton, Jones and Fire moved on to do THE BORROWER, a science fiction/horror movie starring Rae Dawn Chong as a detective chasing an alien that decapitates people and possesses their bodies that was eventually released directly to video by Cannon (Towles and Arnold also appear in supporting roles).

HENRY's story is just beginning, however. "I had been working at MPI for about a year when John and I started to talk about ways to get HENRY off the shelf," says Parello. "I started showing it to film critics I knew and arranged screenings of it in New York." Among the screenings was a film festival run by infamous performance artist Joe Coleman and his wife. That's where Elliot Stein of THE VILLAGE VOICE saw it. "He went on to call HENRY 'the best American film of the year'. Then Peter Travers wrote a rave in ROLLING STONE, and the ball started rolling from there." Noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE) saw a 16mm print of HENRY, and chose it to screen at 1989's Telluride Film Festival. With HENRY's word-of-mouth spreading every day, distributors started calling MPI with offers to release HENRY, and it eventually received a small city-by-city release with no MPAA rating attached. "It wasn't a huge financial success," says Parello, "but the release helped the film generate tons of publicity."

Enough to awaken the sensibilities of no less a Hollywood genius than Martin Scorsese, who marveled at the way HENRY's creators had made its title monster sympathetic. He hired McNaughton to direct MAD DOG AND GLORY, which Scorsese was producing. Executive producer and screenwriter Richard Price (CLOCKERS) told CHICAGO TRIBUNE MAGAZINE in 1993, "When Marty saw HENRY, he told me he thought it was the best debut of a director he's seen in ten years." McNaughton brought along Jones as co-producer and Parello as his assistant.

Although HENRY's primary benefactors had long since moved on to more lucrative pastures--Rooker had appeared in nearly ten features, including MISSISSIPPI BURNING and EIGHT MEN OUT, by the time HENRY received its 1990 release--HENRY's story wasn't yet over. Parello, who had graduated from promoting video releases at MPI to working on big studio movies with McNaughton, was getting the itch to direct. "I was running John and Steve's development company in Chicago, when I went back to my old bosses in Chicago to see if they were interested in making another film. I knew they would be interested in a HENRY sequel, because by then they had to have been enjoying the handsome profits that the film was generating. Making a sequel to one of the highest regarded scare pictures of all time would not have been my first choice of a project, but I knew that it would speak to MPI's bottom line, and they worshipped me at that company as 'the man who saved HENRY.' So I started to write a script that I hoped would be true to the original, and it wasn't until much later that I was asked to also direct the piece."

With the blessing of both McNaughton and Jones, Parello set about capturing lightning in a bottle twice. His first hurdle was landing Henry himself, Michael Rooker. "Michael would express interest in doing a HENRY sequel only when some other project had fallen through, although he would never admit that. When I became involved and it started to feel like a real movie might get made, he all of a sudden became very interested in doing it, but only if he could control everything. Michael's usually a very nice guy, but, like Henry, he has a dark side. I remember getting a nasty message from him on my answering machine where he cursed a blue streak because he didn't feel like he was getting his way. Then he sent his handlers in to negotiate his deal, and they were equally difficult. It seemed like they wanted Michael to get paid as much or more than he would make on some huge budget film, and that just wasn't possible on a film budgeted at $1,000,000. So ultimately the decision was made to hire Neil Giuntoli, which I liked because Michael would have never allowed me to direct him." Giuntoli played a major role in THE BORROWER as a rapist who stalks the cop played by Rae Dawn Chong. "It's interesting to me that people remark on Neil and Michael's physical resemblance. That was a nice bonus, but I cast Neil because he's a damned good actor, and I knew he could play a chilling psycho in his sleep."

Although less celebrated than its predecessor, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER 2 was released in 1996, and received several positive reviews from such sources as VIDEO WATCHDOG, FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL and THE NEW YORK TIMES. Parello then directed ED GEIN, which played the 2000 film festival circuit and starred Steve Railsback (THE STUNT MAN) as the notorious Wisconsin serial killer whose life reportedly served as Robert Bloch's inspiration for his novel PSYCHO. Railsback first gained fame as Charles Manson in the acclaimed '70s TV-movie HELTER SKELTER. "Steve is a great guy, very warm, unpretentious and down to earth. I think he could easily play other roles that don't require him to be evil or weird, but that's what Hollywood seems to expect from him."

Parello is currently working on a werewolf movie for Filmax International, an independent production company run by Brian Yuzna (RE-ANIMATOR). "ROMASANTA is the true story of a peddler who in 1852 in the North of Spain was tried for up to 12 murders and claimed he wasn't accountable for his actions because he was under the spell of an ancient family curse that turned him into a werewolf. It's an amazing story because it seems like it would have more likely taken place in medieval times, rather than in Spain 150 years ago. Barcelona is a wonderful city so I'm looking forward to spending a lot more time there. We'll be shooting there and in Gallicia, the part of Northern Spain where the story took place."

McNaughton and Jones have continued to work together on several Hollywood features, including WILD THINGS with Kevin Bacon and Neve Campbell (which became notorious for its onscreen menage a trois involving Campbell, Matt Dillon and Denise Richards). Surprisingly, they choose to remain based in Chicago. "John and I saw no reason to move west and become part of 'The Business'", says Jones. "We both thought, perhaps naively, that after our initial success, the projects would come our way. We were wrong on all counts, but we still got projects offered to us, although not as many as we would have liked. This is a roundabout way of saying that I never intended to be a 'Hollywood' filmmaker and that hasn't changed. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to get and work on any film projects from here. As a producer of films which have for the most part been more critical and artistic successes than financial ones, projects are not flying to my mailbox."

The duo's latest project, SPEAKING OF SEX with James Spader and Bill Murray, remains unreleased. "SPEAKING OF SEX is a much stranger story, more like the history of most of our other films. We made the film we intended to make, but the people who brought it to Studio Canal and got the $11 million for us to make it have been unable to find a distribution deal to their liking. It is a shame. We showed it at the Chicago International Film Festival to a sold-out crowd of 700 people who absolutely roared, then got a rave review in the Hollywood Reporter. The other producers refuse to communicate with John or me, so once again we have a good film in limbo."

Michael Rooker remains a busy working actor, appearing in more than thirty features since HENRY, including his most recent, REPLICANT, in which he co-stars with Jean-Claude Van Damme. All involved with HENRY have impressive resumes and undoubtedly more wonderful works of art to come, but it appears unlikely that any of them will produce one that clicks as strongly as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, one of the best horror films ever made.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent piece. It's on the same list as Raging Bull, Hunger, Requiem for a Dream, Hour of the Wolf, and some others, the list of films that you deem great but hard to watch (and for that reason diffcult to recommend. Well, not difficult, but you know that most people won't get them). The sequel - different personnel in all areas - is not as good, but contains many scenes of great power. Its ending has haunted me for fifteen years.