Henry: Portrait Of An 18 Certificate

Thursday, October 20 2011
Henry: Portrait Of An 18 Certificate

Its now almost 20 years since Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer made its video debut, in a heavily censored form. Now, ahead of its Blu-ray bow courtesy of Studiocanal (it looks great and has lost none of its power), sometime Raygun contributor Ian Gilchrist, who worked on its original release looks back on the battle to release the film, negotiations with the BBFC and how James Ferman recut the film himself…

 In 1992, the distributor I worked for, Electric Pictures, had purchased the UK theatrical and video rights for John McNaughton’s terrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Our owner was quite rightfully determined to get it out on VHS, where the film’s potential profits clearly lay (it had been shown initially in the UK at London’s Scala Cinema without a certificate, which the Scala could do as it charged a membership fee to all patrons, a legal loophole which allows club cinemas to sidestep the certification law).

BBFC Director James Ferman had previously announced on Barry Norman’s flagship BBC film programme that he could not envision Henry ever being granted a video certificate as it was simply too disturbing (meaning likely to inflict damage on susceptible viewers) to be viewed at home. However, my employer had quietly persisted in her attempts to get Henry certified for video, and asked Mr. Ferman if he might be willing to discuss possible cuts that could be made which would allow the film to be certified for a video release. After repeatedly rebuffing her entreaties, he reconsidered his position and said that he would consult with experts in criminal or aberrant psychology and get back to her.

After a time, Mr Ferman contacted my employer to say that he had concluded his consultations, had made cuts in accordance with his experts’ opinions and recommendations, and was willing to meet with us to discuss what had to be done in order to get our video certification.  The day of the meeting, ensconced in Mr. Ferman’s office, we made polite small talk until, niceties over with, we got down to the business at hand. The trims and cuts that needed to be made to some of the more graphic shots and acts of violence were outlined in detail, before we moved on to the piece de resistance, the changes that had been made to one of the key sequences in the film. This sequence begins with Henry and his murderous partner parking in a quiet suburban neighbourhood to select a home to invade. The scene cuts to a shot of Otis molesting a terrified woman while Henry, off camera, offers Otis encouragement, until Otis finally ends the torment by snapping her neck with a sickening crunch. After a few more moments of murderous depravity with the family, the scene cuts to a tracking shot of a seated Henry and Otis, which reveals to the viewer that he has not been watching the murders in real time through the viewfinder of Henry’s video camera, but with (as it were) Henry and Otis as they watch the tape of their heinous crime. It is a brilliant bit of manipulation on the part of director McNaughton; the viewer is voyeuristically implicated in the perverse pleasure that the killers are taking in reliving their actions, and by extension in the pleasure that many viewers generally derive from watching the stylised actions of killers on screen.

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. Although it was many years ago, I am sure I was unable to completely hide my shock at what I saw; the power of the scene had been greatly diminished as part of the shot of the two killers on the couch had been inserted much earlier in the scene, thus alerting the viewer that he was watching a video playback. I remained speechless as instructed, but I felt then, and still do, that it was a betrayal of the director and the weakening of a pivotal moment in the film. 

Those who don’t understand Henry fail to grasp that the film is a serious statement about the status and presentation of serial killers in popular culture, particularly in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter was portrayed as an evil genius with a great line in quips, who sashays off in the last shot of The Silence Of The Lambs in pursuit of his next victim after delivering a neat final bon mot on the phone to Clarice Starling. Henry ends on a shot of a suitcase on the side of a road, which the viewer is aware contains the body of his latest victim. There is no comeuppance for Henry and Otis, and the random nature of the killings means that they easily elude detection; thus there is not even a cop in pursuit of Henry to provide the viewer with a neat moral anchor. The squalid ugliness of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and its refusal to pander to narrative conventions and viewer expectations are what makes it the minor masterpiece that it is, and the film has many esteemed admirers, including Martin Scorsese. However, as is often the case with transgressive art, many are initially appalled and fearful, or uncertain how to react, so the default reaction is rejection of the work as dangerous or morally unacceptable. This is precisely why Henry fell foul of the BBFC. 

With its Blu-ray release the film is now available at last, as far as I am aware, complete and uncut (I will be watching the film this weekend in order to write a joint review of it and Manhunter for another site), possibly for the first time on a home format in the UK. Mores and the role of moral guardians change over time; brilliant art does not.

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