Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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Date: 1991

Region: Europe

Subject::Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Film Video


Artist: John McNaughton

Confronting Bodies: British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)

Dates of Action: 1991

Location: England

Description of Artwork: Henry is loosely based on the exploits of serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. Although containing scenes of extreme violence, its controversy comes from it being shot in such a manner so that the viewer sees the violence in the film with the same cold detached view of a serial killer. It has been described as "a morally blank film"

The Incident: The film (which was created in 1986) had already faced trouble before going to Britain. In the United States, it had been given the "X" rating and no opportunity for cutting. This would doom it to failure, not even seeing wide release on video. It had also been completely banned in countries such as Switzerland and New Zealand.

In Britain, the BBFC decided not to ban the movie completely, although the director of the board thought that would be the best move. They began by removing any scene that would associate sex with violence, explaining that this would dehumanize women in the minds of the viewers. However, after interviewing forensic psychiatrists who explained that the film reflects the same lack of morals that serial killers operate under, the board decided more would need to be cut for the video release.

Results of Incident: The BBFC not only made many extra cuts to the video version, but rearranged a scene of Henry and his sidekick watching a video they took of themselves invading a home. McNaughton describes this as the "key scene of the picture." The board explained that they believed watching the scene of a video taping on a video would make it seem considerably more real than being on a film screen. This would allow a small proportion of viewers, they say, to live out their sick fantasies over and over again. As a result, the video of Henry is more censored than the film version in Britain. Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Ed. Derek Jones. Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.