Film Censorship: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)





Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Directed by John McNaughton / 1986 / USA / IMDb

The uncut version of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was part of a package of twenty videotape dubs that customs submitted to the OFLC in October 1991. Five were released, and fifteen were confiscated. It is worth noting that some of the tapes contained only one film that was problematic.


(Inc. the Film Censorship Board)

Please Quote 89/157290/6

Regional Manager
Collector of Customs
Australian Customs Service
GPO Box 1464

Attention: ...
Ref: ...
Dated 30 October 1991

I refer to 20 videotapes submitted by you under cover of the abovementioned memorandum /or advice regarding their status in terms of Regulation 4A of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations.

They have been examined by the Film Censorship Board and it is recommended that the following videotapes be released:







It is further recommended that the following videotapes be prohibited pursuant to Regulation 4A(1A)(a)(iii) of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations:
















19 March 1992
David A Haines



The films that were banned by the OFLC in October 1991 were uncut versions. All of the problem titles are covered in our Film Censorship Database. Their Australian classification status prior to March 1992 was as follows.

1. UP! (1976): Censored for R-rating / CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980): Banned

2. S.S. EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP (1976): Banned / EATEN ALIVE (1980): Censored for R-rating

3. THE WARRIOR (1981): Never Rated / MANIAC (1980): Censored for R-rating

4. DAVID LYNCH: THE GRANDMOTHER (1970): Never Rated / ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1979): Censored for R-rating

5. THE DRILLER KILLER (1979): Censored for R-rating / HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988): R-rated

6. THE BEYOND (1981): Censored for R-rating / ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1979): Censored for R-rating

7. EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977): Censored for R-rating / LOVE CAMP 7 (1969): Censored for R-rating

8. THE EVIL DEAD (1981): R-rated / VIOLENT SHIT (1989): Never Rated

9. MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970): Censored for R-rating / THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972): Banned / HORRIFYING EXPERIMENTS OF THE S.S. LAST DAYS (said to be BEAST IN HEAT) (1977): Never Rated

10. DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (1980): Never Rated / SATAN'S SLAVE (1976): Censored for R-rating

11. INTRUDER (1988): Censored for R-rating / HORRIFYING EXPERIMENTS OF S.S. LAST DAYS (said to be BEAST IN HEAT) (1977): Never Rated

12. ZOMBIE '90 EXTREME PESTILENCE (1991): Never Rated / MANIAC COP (1988): R-rated

13. BLOOD FRENZY (1987): Never Rated / ULTIMO MONDO CANNIBALE (aka LAST CANNIBAL WORLD) (1977): Censored for R-rating

14. NEKROMANTIK (1987): Never Rated / BEYOND DARKNESS (1979): Never Rated

15. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986): Never Rated / SOCIETY (1989): M-rated


We can almost certainly say that the following films were not themselves banned, but were double-billed with a problem title.


In the early 1990's, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was taken for a second time by the Australian Customs Service. This time it was the US laserdisc release from MPI Home Entertainment.



1992: Banned in Australia by the OFLC

In 1992, an 83m print of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was banned by the OFLC. Dendy Films was the applicant.

An appeal was made to the Film Board of Review in the hope of securing an R-rating.


Here are the comments of the Director of the OFLC on the banning of the film.

John Dickie: Incensored
We do occasionally ban films -- Henry -- Portrait of a Serial Killer for instance. That would be on the boarder, I suppose, between art house and mainstream, and that was for sexual violence. Because I think if there's been any shift at all in community attitudes and perceptions over the last ten years, it's been about a concern for violence, and the portrayal of violence; and in the violence category, any sort of mixture of sex and violence, I think people are apprehensive about. And we react pretty strongly towards that. In Henry, there were scenes in that where the sexual violence was beyond what we thought community standards would tolerate, and we said "sorry, refused classification". Normally what happens is that the distributor says "all right, what part of it was the problem?", and we'll tell them. Sometimes they might appeal, or they'll go away and edit and come back and resubmit it and we'll have a look at it afresh -- standard practice.  


Appeal to Review Board fails

In January 1992, the Film Review Board agreed with the Censorship Board and confirmed the RC-rating.


Here is what they had to say.

Film and Literature Board of Review- Report on Activities 1991-92
Title: Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer
Applicant: Dendy Films
20 January 1992

Decision Reviewed: Refuse to register by the Film Censorship Board

Decision: "The subject of this appeal was a low-budget independent American film made in 1986, which has been screened, sometimes with modifications, in various countries and at various festivals, attracting widespread critical and public notoriety. Some American and English critics, not necessarily the most esteemed, have called it a masterpiece; all have agreed that it is a film of extraordinary power and cinematic interest. As the title suggests, it's a study of a serial killer, a young man called Henry, who murders people for pleasure. Henry shares a flat with another man, Otis and Otis's sister Becky, and persuades Otis to join him on his killing sprees. Altogether there are sixteen murders, but only a minority are depicted explicitly and directly. Some of the victims are shown post mortem (we see only their bodies); in other cases the murders are shot from a distance or in a shadow; in the most notorious scene they are depicted on video replay watched by the killers themselves. The final murder, that of Becky, is no more than implied.

The film contains a graphic depiction of the rape of Becky by her brother. Even in the more extreme and explicit episodes, however the tone is detached and matter of fact. the violence itself occupies something less than ten minutes of screen time in a film of only 83 minutes duration. Most of the film consists of low-key conversations between the three characters. It is nevertheless, in its entirety, deeply shocking and unsettling for many reasons, and the Film Censorship Board decided by majority that it should be refused registration pursuant to sub-regulation 13(1)(a) of the Customs (Cinematograph) Regulations.

The appellants, Dendy Films, were represented by Ms Lynn McCarthy and Mr Graeme Tubbenhauer. They presented a closely argued and detailed submission in favour of an 'R' classification. They contended that the film in no way glamorised its violent events or its central character, and indeed provoked suitable feelings of horror and revulsion. It was pointed out that the film had been wildly acclaimed and honoured by overseas critics and audiences. Although the subject matter was disturbing, there was no attempt to sensationalise it or to render it alluring or even entertaining in any conventional way: the treatment was extremely clinical. A letter was tendered from the critic David Stratton, a former director if the Sydney Film Festival, stating his opinion that Henry was more honest and less sensational than 'The Silence of the Lambs': 'I can't imagine it being in the least stimulating. It's a study of a sick man who seems to be oblivious of normal society or of the forces of law and order'

The appeal presented the Board of Review with unusual difficulties. All of us found Henry deeply disturbing. All of us recognised that it is a film of unusual interest, and by no means a routine thriller designed to shock audiences and exploit its themes of aberrant behaviour and abnormal criminal psychology.

All of us had misgivings about refusing registration and in effect preventing Australian audiences from seeing the film in the form which it was made; equally we had difficulty with the idea of specifying cuts as a condition of approval. We found ourselves divided between those favouring confirmation of the original refusal and those leaning towards registering the film with an 'R' for cinema release. In the event a majority was persuaded that certain scenes-especially the videotaped murder of the family and the rape of Becky-went well beyond the bounds of acceptability, and that the Film Censorship Board's decision should be upheld.

The Chairman for the minority, argued that an 'R' classification was appropriate, and that it was precisely material of this kind-admittedly strong but serious films with a claim to artistic merit - that the 'R' classification was intended. The Chairman maintained that the degree of violence -much of it depicted obliquely -could be accommodated within the 'R' classification, and that the strong reactions to the film owed more to the unemotional behaviour of the protagonists than to the nature of the violence actually shown.

Although this view was not accepted by the majority, all members agreed that it would be unfortunate if the film were banned for Australian audiences in its entirety. Notwithstanding their reluctance to specify cuts, they agreed that the Chairman should write to the appellants suggesting that, in view of the film's distinctive quality and artistic merit the appellants might wish to apply to the Chief Censor for permission to reconstruct the film under Regulation 22 of the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations. It was the Board's understanding that a modified version had been approved for cinema exhibition in Britain, and that a similar version might be acceptable in Australia. A letter to Ms Lynn McCarthy, suggesting this course was forwarded on 24 January 1992 and the appeal against the decision of the Film Censorship Board to refuse to register Henry-Portrait of a Serial Killer in the form submitted was accordingly dismissed.




Kevin Walter, spent 25 years as a NSW Magistrate, and was the State Coroner of NSW from 1988 until he retired in January 1992.

In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, he wrote about HENRY, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and why he believed our fascination with serial killers was dangerous.


Read the book, see the movie, wait for the real-life killing, March 9, 1992 we have Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This little gem, which runs for only an hour and 25 minutes, less 90 seconds thoughtfully cut out by the Film Censorship Board, begins by showing the viewer the results of Henry's depredations. We see six bodies, five female and one male. Two of the females have been mutilated. Two victims were shot during a robbery. One was garrotted, one possibly drowned, and two slashed or stabbed to death. There are sound-effects of screams and grunts accompanying these tableaux.

Henry later explains to Otis, his temporary sidekick, that no-one takes any notice of killings, and that "nothing will happen" as long as death is not occasioned in the same way.

Having warmed the audience up by presenting the bodies, the director gets down to the essential action - more stabbing, kickings, shootings, strangulations, with even a little necrophilia thrown in.

The denouement is equally charming. Otis rapes his sister Becky, who loves Henry. After a fight in which Becky wounds Otis, he is kilted, then dismembered, by Henry. Henry then kills Becky. He drives off into the night. Finis.

At no time is there any intervention or interest shown by police, neighbours or media. The wanton violence takes place in a seemingly normal and apathetic environment. The killer lives to kill another day.

Well, so what?

I have, of course, quite deliberately given the storyline away. I have this touching faith that even if I have sent those who normally read the editorial section slavering to the movie-house, they are not the sort who are so tuned-in and turned-on by depictions of violence that they themselves will be tempted to wreak havoc on some poor innocent

Just why the Film Censorship Board is willing to unleash this depraved example of cinematography on the public is lost on me. The film does nothing but pander to the violent, instinct present, but controlled, in most of us, and straining to burst loose in a few. Its values are perverted, its presentation cynical.

The worry is that some inadequate person, with a deprived and possibly abused background, and attracted by the power over life and death employed by Henry, will try to copy him. Is this likely? Is that possibility such that our sacred right to see and hear what we please should be infringed?



HENRY in the NSW Parliament

Following the publication of Kevin Walter's article, Elaine Nile from the Christian Democratic Party called for HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER to be banned in NSW.

Edward Pickering, the Liberal Government's Minister for Police and Emergency Services responded.


Film "Henry - The Study Of A Serial Killer
NSW Legislative Council
The Hon. Elaine Nile
The Hon. Edward Pickering
11th March 1992

The Hon. ELAINE NILE: I wish to ask the Minister for Police and Emergency Services and Vice-President of the Executive Council a question without notice. Is it a fact that the extremely violent film entitled "Henry - The Study of a Serial Killer", which was banned in the United States of America, has been finally passed for screening in Sydney theatres? In view of the warnings of former coroner Kevin Waller, what action will the Government take under its own film censorship powers to prohibit this film, which is a chilling instruction film for potential serial killers on how to abduct, rape, mutilate and kill young women and how to avoid police detection by various diabolical means?

The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: The honourable member raises a matter worthy of mature consideration by the community.

The Hon. P. F. O'Grady: The issue of its screening or the broader issue?

The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: With respect to the broader issue. The film has been passed for public exhibition in New South Wales. I am not sure whether that was done by New South Wales.

The Hon. Franca Arena: It has been cut considerably.

The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: It certainly has been cut. I am not sure whether that was done by the State or the Commonwealth, and I am not particularly interested in that at this point. There is evidence - and I do not put it any higher than that - to suggest that there may be a relationship between violence in our community and the level of violence portrayed in some of the visual media presented particularly to young people and the more impressionable adults. Clearly, there must be a balance between the rights of people to view material and the rights of the community to be protected from any adverse reaction from that material. I recognise that debate can proceed beyond the question of violence into the debate into pornography.

The Hon. Ann Symonds: But it is the censored version that has been released.

The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: Had the honourable member listened she would have heard me say that. Confining my comment to the question of violent material, as a father and as a grandfather I am genuinely concerned about the possibility - and I do not put it any higher than that - that our society may be adversely affected by the increasing level of extraordinarily violent material to which young people are subjected. One of the strange things I have noticed is that when young people watch violent material they do not appear to be horrified by it; they often appear to be amused. I find that reaction difficult to comprehend and it should sound a note of warning to adult society that possibly we are involved in something that should be looked at more carefully. I know that my colleague the Hon. Dr Marlene Goldsmith is trying to advance the cause of having this matter investigated - I say no more than that - to determine whether we are adversely subjecting our young people in particular -

The Hon. Ann Symonds: Is the Minister concerned about the violence of Stormin' Norman?

The Hon. E. P. PICKERING: I did not really want to extend my comments to the Gulf War or to war in general. I should have thought that honourable members in this Chamber would be opposed to war. I know I am. I do not think there is a member of this House who is not opposed to war. No one wants war, for goodness' sake. I suppose the history of mankind has shown that wars occur, no matter whether we like it or not. I was not addressing the question of war. I shall not be drawn by the honourable member. I was trying to address a concern in my mind - and I put it no higher than that - that certain material in society today is explicitly violent and I am concerned about its impact upon young people. I do not know as an individual whether it has an adverse impact, but that is worthy of mature consideration.



Comments from the Review Board

Evan Williams-Chairman
Film and Literature Board of Review- Report on Activities 1991-92

In matters of film classification, we found ourselves more frequently in agreement than in previous years with the decisions of the Film Censorship Board. In no case were we prepared to uphold an appeal against an 'R' classification accorded on the grounds of violence. It is possible that this reflected greater concern on the part of Board members with the extremes of violence depicted in many contemporary films and a keener awareness of community reactions to it. On the other hand, it seemed that in most of the violent films submitted to us the issues were clear-cut, and it was rare for the members to be divided. With one exception, none of the violent films we considered could claim any special artistic merit or cinematic distinction, as was the case last year with The Silence of the Lambs.

The exception was Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, which had been refused registration by the Film Censorship Board. This low-budget American production, made in 1986, had become a cause celebre, with censorship authorities around the world divided in their attitudes to it. It had been widely shown at international festivals, and it was argued strongly by the Australian distributors that it should be shown uncut in this country. A majority of the Board upheld the decision to refuse to register the film in its uncut form; a minority felt that it should receive an 'R' classification. A reconstructed version was subsequently classified 'R' by the Film Censorship Board and screened in Australia.

In all matters before us, we were obliged to weigh a range of conflicting arguments and seek a reasonable course between the interests of different parties with frequently irreconcilable philosophical positions. Our starting point has been the view adopted by the Chief Censor and enunciated in the classification guidelines that adults in a free society should be at liberty, subject to certain agreed constraints, to see, hear and read what they please. Whether our decisions were reasonable may be judged from the reports in the following pages; in all cases they were taken after great deliberation and with a conscientious regard record my indebtedness to my fellow members of the Board, and to the staff of the Office of Film and Literature Classification.



Theatrical release censored for an R-rating

With the appeal dismissed, approximately 90s of footage was censored and an R18+ (High level violence) rating granted for a theatrical release.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Dendy Films [au] Flyer



Complaints to the OFLC

Office of Film and Literature Classification- Report on Activities 1991-92

Two hundred and forty-one written and fifty-five oral complaints were received during the year.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (8 Letters)



Censored VHS release

In July 1992, Columbia Tristar Home Video was awarded an R18+ (High level violence) rating for a 77:48 (PAL) VHS.

The cover promoted the tape as 'THE FILM THEY TRIED TO BAN!', but unsurprisingly failed to mention that it was censored.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Columbia Tristar [au] VHS




The Columbia Tristar Home Video release was missing the following footage.



At 04:53 - Approximately 15s was censored from the close up of the dead woman on the toilet. It removed the sound of the bottle smashing, and Henry shouting "Die Bitch Die".



At 15:20 -Approximately 25s removed from the close up of the dead woman on the couch. It eliminated the sound of her struggling



At 51:48 - Approximately 15s removed of Otis sitting down with the mother on top of him. Henry tells him to remove the woman's bra and skirt.

The Australian version then cuts to the struggling father on the floor who is kicked by Henry.

At 52m -Approximately 15s was censored of the woman struggling and pleading.

The Australian version then showed the son arriving home and being killed by Henry, while Otis kills his mother.

At 52:42 - Approximately 15s was censored of Otis kissing the dead woman, with the sound of Henry killing the father off camera.

The Australian version then showed Otis waving the dead woman's hand to the camera.

At 52:57 -Approximately 5s was removed of Otis sucking the dead woman's breast



DVD release: Uncut at last

It would be thirteen years before the HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER came back before the Classification Board. This time it had no problems.

In June 2005, the full-uncut version was rated R18+ (High level violence). The DVD was released on Paramount's Rialto Entertainment label in October 2005 with a running time of 82:29 (NTSC).

In March 2010, a 263m special edition of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was passed with an R18+ (High level violence) rating. Umbrella Entertainment released the DVD in May 2010.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Paramount Rialto Entertainment [au] DVDHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Umbrella Entertainment [au] DVD



2014: Censored Australian TV Premiere

In March 2014, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was screened on the World Movies channel as part of their MORE FILMS THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD season.


The stories behind the scandalous ‘More Films That Shocked The World’
March 17, 2014

Due to popular demand, World Movies is bringing you another week of unforgettable films that changed the film industry forever. More Films That Shocked The World starts tonight at 9.30pm and is set to push the boundaries of controversial cinema further than ever before.

From an outrageously twisted cult-classic to a violent look at a real-life serial killer, these are the films that have shocked, outraged and been banned around the world.

Before the week kicks off, let’s take a look at why these films were so scandalous.

Wednesday 19 March 9.30pm
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (United Kingdom) – Australian Television Premiere



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