McNaughton-Rooker horror film gets a new life at 30

When 85-minute low-budget indie “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — an art film masked as an exploitation film and shot in 16mm — was released in fall of 1986, its chances of theatrical success seemed unlikely.

The cards were stacked against it. Everyone connected with it was unknown. The budget was so low that family and friends were brought on as actors using their own possessions. And its highly-restrictive MPAA X-rating limited its commerciality.

“Henry” was directed and co-written by John McNaughton and the late Richard Fire and produced by Steven A. Jones. Executive producers were Malik Ali and his late brother Waleed of MPI Media Group, which they founded in 1976 and grew to become one of the biggest and most successful movie producers and distributors.

McNaughton was an MPI employee whom the Ali brothers tapped as director for their collective first feature endeavor.

They gave him a $110,000 budget to produce “a horror film with lots of blood,” which he shot in 28 days throughout Chicago in summer of 1986 and was released in October, 1986, says Todd Wieneke, MPI Media’s producer and archivist since 1997.

"Henry" writer/director John McNaughton“Henry,” brilliantly portrayed by Michael Rooker, a Goodman Theatre graduate who was eager to appear in a film, was loosely based on horrific true life serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, who introduces his roommate and his roommate’s sister to randomly murdering selected people. Roger Ebert called it “a docudrama of chilling horror.”

“’Henry’ had a long hard road,” recalled Wieneke. “But like any great horror films, it found its way in homes and had built a loyal fan base following.”

While it never achieved mass theater release, “Henry” earned millions from VHS and DVD sales. Today it is considered one of the best low-budget horror films in cinematic history. It also launched Michael Rooker’s lengthy and successful film career.

When it was first screened, the MPAA took umbrage with the film and gave it an X rating. “Before the rating became synonymous with pornography, it meant something else — that the film was not suitable for children,” notes Wieneke.

“Labeling it ‘X’ limited its distribution. ‘Henry’ couldn’t be shown in general theaters. We couldn’t advertise it in newspapers. So its supporters relied on underground showings and film festivals. After the Village Voice film critic Elliott Stone reviewed the film, it began to pick up steam.”

Now “Henry” is on its way back to shock and entertain a new generation of horror fans. In celebration of its 30th anniversary in October, Dark Sky Films, MPI Media’s horror film distribution arm, is having the film restored in digital 4K.

The company also is appealing “Henry’s” original X-rating, although Wieneke didn’t mention what type of rating they’re seeking. A revised MPAA rating would be significant, especially for the history of this film.

“Henry” hasn’t been subjected to a rating review since 1989. A rating better than X would give Dark Sky Films a wider release and capture younger audiences. It would also significantly improve its DVD and VOD sales.

NOLO Digital Films began “Henry’s” restoration last August and is scheduled to finish within a month. “When we’re done, the colors will be more vibrant, the sound crisper and the details more pronounced,” says NOLO senior colorist/partner Mike Matusek.

In layman’s speak, “Henry” just might be even more disturbing and horrific to watch.

See the original 1987 trailer here.