Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the great Chicago films. But it’s also one of the great horror films.
Made in 1985 for a mere $100,000, Henry is both shocking and groundbreaking.
It’s spare, documentary-like aesthetic, terrifying soundscape, and nihilistic story has become a touchstone for depictions of serial killers. Along with a handful of other controversial films, it helped establish the NC-17 rating, which has proven both blessing and curse for directors whose films blur the line between art and exploitation.
It also secured the reputation of its director, John McNaughton, a Chicago South Side native who went on to make equally compelling films, like Normal Life, Mad Dog and Glory and the deliciously disturbing Wild Things.
It’s been over a decade since McNaughton’s made a feature, but now he’s back with The Harvest, which has its world premiere Saturday at the Chicago International Film Festival.
McNaughton, like other independents, has faced some hefty challenges getting his films not only made but released. Henry was shelved for a number of years - nobody wanted to distribute a film stamped with the scarlet X of pornography. Normal Life pretty much went straight to video. And McNaughton hasn’t always helped his own cause. He sparred with Universal Pictures over a line of dialogue at the end of Mad Dog and Glory and says he hasn’t worked with the studio since.
The Harvest, which McNaughton calls a “shocker film,” stars Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton and Peter Fonda. It too was a struggle to make, from securing money and squabbling producers, to the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York just as McNaughton was finalizing his crew and preparing to head upstate to shoot the film.
Along for the ride was his long-time producer, Steven A. Jones, the man McNaughton calls the “good cop” in their relationship.
When I sat down with McNaughton and Jones recently, they talked about how they started making movies together, the inspiration for Henry, and what they love/hate about the horror genre.
The Harvest screens Saturday, Oct. 19 at the AMC River East 21.