Although it was made in 1986, John McNaughton's Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer was shelved by its own US distributor until 1989. When the film finally emerged, it was screened without a certificate at the National Film Theatre and the Scala Cinema in London, both of whom had special permission from their respective local authorities (Southwark and Camden) to exhibit unclassified films. The film had been seen unofficially at those two venues by a number of BBFC staff, including the Board's Director, James Ferman, and it was already apparent to the film's UK distributor that the film would present difficulties for the BBFC. Perhaps as a result of that, when the film was formally submitted for classification in 1991, one shot had already been removed from the film, namely a shot of a topless and blood-streaked female corpse, sitting on a toilet with a broken bottle embedded in her face.
The film was first viewed by the BBFC, in this marginally pre-cut version, on 7 January 1991. The three examiners who saw the film felt one scene in particular posed potential difficulties. This was the scene in which Henry and Otis watch a video recording of themselves killing a family, including Otis sexually assaulting the mother, both before and after her death. Given the difficulties involved in cutting the scene effectively, as well as the violent and bleak nature of the film as a whole, a further screening took place on 25 January. Four examiners attended this second screening, with two examiners arguing for cuts and two examiners making a case for 18 without cuts. However, James Ferman was clear that cuts were required, in particular to reduce the sexualisation of the female victim, by removing shots showing the killer's hand moving to her pubic area and by reducing to a minimum the exposure and mauling of her breasts, both before and after she is killed.
On 12 February, an editor working for the film's distributor visited the BBFC's premises and worked with James Ferman to produce a cut version of the scene.
The cut scene was then projected for examiners in the BBFC's cinema, with all those present feeling that the cuts made were insufficient. As a result, two further small cuts were made and the cut version of the scene was sent back to the distributor. The whole film was viewed again, this time in the cut version, on 21 February, with examiners concluding that no further cuts should be required.
The next screening took place on 27 February, when the BBFC's President and Vice Presidents were invited to view the cut version of the film. James Ferman made the following remarks on file about that screening "General agreement that film was disturbing but not exploitative in this cut form. No firm view that further cuts were needed, but a request that the Board seek expert advice from psychiatrists/psychologists familiar with the mindset of serial killers in order to ensure that the film was not likely to influence the vulnerable in dangerous directions". In accordance with this request, the cut version of the film was screened once again on 19 March, with one psychiatrist and two psychologists in attendance. The experts agreed that the film was disturbing but also surprisingly accurate and therefore interesting. The conclusion was that the cut version of the film could be passed for cinema release, but that any subsequent video release, where scenes could be played and replayed out of context, was more likely to be a problem. The film was classified 18 for cinema release on 24 April 1991. In total, the BBFC had cut 24 seconds of material and the distributor had pre-cut 38 seconds before submission. However, the BBFC made it known that a video certificate was unlikely to be forthcoming.
Given James Ferman's publicly stated reluctance to classify the film at all for video release, which he had also conveyed informally to the film's distributor, it was some time before the film arrived at the BBFC for classification on video.
Nonetheless, by May 1992, the distributor was pushing hard for a video classification and wrote to Ferman stating that the film had now been released on video in all countries in the EEC, as well as in Switzerland and the Scandinavian counties, without any apparent ill effects, negative reaction, or censorship problems.
The distributor stressed that the film would be marketed as a 'quality movie', rather than as exploitation, and that they would be prepared to implement further cuts in order to obtain a video certificate. Accordingly, the film was officially submitted for video release in June 1992, in the cut UK cinema version, and was viewed by BBFC examiners during June and July. A mixture of views were expressed, with some examiners arguing the cut cinema version should be passed on video without further cuts, whilst other examiners argued further cuts should be made, particularly in the 'family murder' scene that had already been reduced for cinema release.
During the summer months, the film was seen by the BBFC's Presidents and by other examiners, with a majority view emerging that the video might have a negative effect on "vulnerable or susceptible adults who may seek it out for morbid or prurient reasons". Ferman in particular was concerned by the opinions from the forensic consultants who had seen the film in 1991 and who had urged caution about a video release.
What happened next was one of the most controversial decisions of James Ferman's time at the BBFC. Ferman was aware that the scene needed further reductions for video. However, he was also aware there was only so much footage that could be removed without damaging a crucial scene and rendering it meaningless. Mindful that the difficulty with the scene was that it might arouse damaged or vulnerable viewers, he decided that an acceptable alternative would be to 'interrupt' the flow of scene by inserting a shot of Henry and Otis watching the video into the middle of the sequence. Although this certainly helped to interrupt the flow for any vulnerable viewers who might be viewing the scene out of context, it also altered the meaning of the scene in a crucial way. In the original version, although the viewer is aware they are watching a video tape, they do not become aware they are watching Henry and Otis watching a video tape, as opposed to witnessing 'live' footage of their murders, until the end of the scene. By interfering with the structure of the scene in question, Ferman had also interfered with the meaning of the sequence and the questions it deliberately raised for the audience, regarding voyeurism and their own complicity. It also changed the carefully controlled look of the scene, with its single static video image. Nonetheless, the distributor was becoming desperate for a version of the film they could release on video and they therefore acceded to Ferman's request. In addition to the 'interruption' of the family murder scene, Ferman also removed some extra seconds from that scene (notably sight of the woman's legs struggling), as well as making an additional cut to a sadistic stabbing during another scene in which a TV warehouse man is killed by Henry. In total, the version of Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer that was finally classified for video release in January 1993 was missing one minute 53 seconds of footage, including the distributor's pre-cuts, the BBFC's cinema cuts, and the BBFC's additional cuts for video.
Ferman's re-editing of the film aroused a great deal of hostility and ridicule from film critics and academics. Several commentators argued that the BBFC had no right to re-edit other people's work in such a way as to change their fundamental meaning and that Ferman was behaving in the manner of a Golden Era Hollywood studio executive. Although much of this criticism was overstated, since it was hardly the first time the BBFC had altered the flow or meaning of a scene, whether intentionally or otherwise, it came as no surprise that this contentious decision was overturned by Ferman's successor, Robin Duval, when the film was resubmitted for DVD release in 2000. Examiners who saw the film in 2000 were divided between those who argued Henry should be passed at 18 uncut and those who felt cuts should be maintained, albeit far more limited cuts than those implemented in 1991-1992. In the end, it was agreed that the video cut to the stabbing of the TV warehouse man could be waived, that the number of cuts required to the family murder scene could be reduced, and that Ferman's re-editing of that scene should be undone. However, the Board's Director and Presidents decided to uphold a limited number of the other cuts.
Firstly, they decided the scene that had been pre-cut by the film's own distributor, for both cinema and video release, could only be partially reinstated. Whereas the entire scene had been removed on previous submissions to the BBFC, on this occasion it was decided that initial sight of the woman's dead body slumped on the toilet could remain, cutting away only as the camera began to slowly zoom into her bloody breasts and face. This was considered to be unacceptably eroticised and gratuitous. Secondly, they decided that the mauling of the woman's breast in the family murder scene was still unacceptably eroticised and comparable to material that had recently been cut from other video works. In accordance with prevailing BBFC policies, 48 seconds of cuts were made for the film's first DVD release, whilst one minute and three seconds of previous cuts were reinstated.
Then, in 2003, the BBFC was presented with a proposed cinema re-release for the film. Given that cuts had been required for DVD release only two years previously, it initially seemed unlikely that the Board would be willing to take a significantly different view of the film so soon after its recent decision. In particular, the specific tests of the Board's sexual violence policy had not changed. However, what had changed was that the BBFC had classified a handful of far more brutal, graphic and shocking scenes of sexual violence since it had last considered Henry, notably those in Baise-Moi, Irreversible, and the belated DVD release of Straw Dogs. Given what had been permitted in those films, as well as the evidence the BBFC had gleaned from a recent survey of public attitudes into sexual violence, it seemed increasingly inconsistent to require cuts to Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer. The predominant effect of the scenes in question seemed to be to horrify rather than to arouse, any erotic elements were minimal and almost incidental, and the scenes served an important narrative and thematic significance within what was a carefully constructed and acclaimed feature. Examiners also noted that the cuts made in 2001 seemed relatively arbitrary in that it could easily be argued that some of the material the Board had reinstated was stronger than the material that had been cut. With regard to the initial concerns that the film might have a negative effect on disturbed individuals, it was conceded that the Board cannot base its decisions at the adult level on the possible reactions of the most disturbed and unpredictable viewers, as this was a disproportionate form of intervention under the Human Rights Act. Therefore, it was concluded that Henry - Portrait Of A Serial Killer could finally be passed 18 uncut for cinema release on 20 February 2003. Shortly afterwards, the film was resubmitted for DVD release and the DVD version was also passed 18 uncut.