A video camera sits on the floor of the apartment as a pair of vicious serial killers massacre a mother, father, and children in front of one another -- and horrified viewers wonder how much more of this depravity they can stomach. Some run for the theater doors, while others sit entranced by the violence onscreen, almost too frozen with fear to even reach up and cover their eyes. Only then, as the camera pulls away from the image to reveal the killers from that very tape perversely reliving their former glory through the recent advent of home video, are the viewers released from the grips of the celluloid nightmare they have just witnessed to ponder the effects of the onscreen violence they see on a day-to-day basis. The power of this scene cannot be properly conveyed in written words, though perhaps knowing that the actual actress that portrayed the mother in the film went into shock immediately after the director called "Cut" might help to convey the kind of unflinching intensity the film possesses.
Although Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton may have yet to top what is undoubtedly one of the most harrowing moments in horror film history, his subsequent work has shown that this unforgettable early effort was certainly no fluke. A Chicago native whose blue-collar background fueled an intense interest in the secret lives of the working class, his experience working in factories and steel mills gave him an intimate understanding of the day-to-day life of the Everyman. McNaughton was also fascinated with crime and criminals, which lead to an early job directing the 1984 documentary Dealers in Death, which dealt with the history of American gangsters. Though the film helped the director cut his teeth in celluloid, it was Henry that truly put his name on the map. Screened at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986 to much fanfare, Henry proved a remarkably auspicious feature directorial debut for McNaughton. The film was almost too effective however, and after much difficulty finding a distributor Henry was finally released stateside in early 1990. Decried by many for its stark, somewhat removed portrayal of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, others saw the film as a masterful commentary on not only the violence endured on a daily basis by the general public, but the effects it can have on people if left unchecked. No matter how much they might try, no one who has seen the film is likely to forget it, and McNaughton's attempt to recreate the raw terror of such American horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left were undeniably effective. Though his sophomore effort The Borrower (1991) provided gore-hounds with their share of the red stuff, it fell far short from supplying the visceral chills of its predecessor that had put the director on the cinematic map.
After filming the stage version of social satirist Eric Bogosian's off-Broadway, one-man show Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll (1991), McNaughton once again explored his fascination with the criminal element by directing a handful of Homicide: Life on the Street episodes. Although his affecting drama Mad Dog and Glory (1993) provided comic actor Bill Murray with one of his most notable dramatic roles to date, it failed to find a widespread audience and quickly faded at the box office. Girls in Prison (1994) and Normal Life (1996) also did little to advance his career as a director, and just when it seemed he had hit a standstill, McNaughton took the helm for his most successful mainstream effort yet, 1998's Wild Things. An infectiously lurid thriller dealing with crime and blackmail among the high school set, the film once again teamed the director with Murray, in addition to featuring Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon in suitably sleazy roles. Despite the fact that many longtime fans were proud to see the talented filmmaker again receive recognition, his subsequent efforts Lansky (1999) and Speaking of Sex (2001) failed to rise above forgettable mediocrity. After returning to the small screen to direct episodes of Push, Nevada and Without a Trace (again focusing on his fascination with true crime), McNaughton returned to feature territory in 2004 with Redliners and The Age of Consent, the latter of which recalled Wild Things with its sordid themes of rape and deadly secrets.