I first met John McNaughton in 1967, when he was dressed like a Carnaby-street mod and sported a rock’n’roll shag haircut while playing organ during the neighborhood jam sessions with his high school buddy Robert Brandel, who also performed professionally as the guitarist for an otherwise black soul band called the Gaypoppers back in the mid-1960s in Illinois.
After getting a degree in communications with a minor in art, he ended up studying television and photography before landing a entry position with an advertising agency in Chicago, where he was instantly known as the best-dressed dude in the agency, despite being lowest on the totem pole. Right before he moved to Chicago, he’d been driving a Jaguar and dating the hottest rock’n’roll diva in town, and it seemed like the sky was the limit.
But John didn’t appreciate life inside an ad agency and he ended up hitting the road with a carnival for a year while taking thousands of photos. He eventually landed in New Orleans, where his immense rolls of film were placed into a refrigerator as he could not afford to develop them. There was a whole group of counterculture refugees in New Orleans who were training to become deep sea divers. This was a wild bunch known for tearing up the town in between long stints sitting in decompression chambers somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. John was paying the rent designing jewelry at the time. I remember coveting a silver lightning-bolt pin he designed and I wonder if any of this amazing jewelry has survived.
When I landed a Hollywood film deal with Beat Street, John was working with a somewhat sleazy video distributor on a plan to turn the story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas into a low budget slasher film. John called and asked me if I wanted to co-write the script, but I had to admit violence wasn’t my forte. John ended up finding the perfect writer in Chicago, because the film they came up with became one of the greatest horror films of all time, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which was made for less than $100,000 and contained some of the best acting of the decade.
I did mange to make my mark on the film, however, because I strongly suggested John consider putting the song Psycho by the Sonics into the film. At this time, the Sonics were mostly forgotten (although they just relaunched with a new album), but I knew they played a big and as yet undiscovered role in the punk movement that came out of CBGB’s. But it was John’s genius that used the song as the soundtrack for a snuff film made by the demented and sadistic killers, a video they watch over and over. It is the creepiest moment of a very creepy film.
After Henry, John was fast-tracking up the ladder to the tippy-top of Hollywood and soon had a production deal with Martin Scorcese, and was hanging out with Robert De Niro, Bill Murray and Uma Thurman. But to succeed in that game takes a lot of finesse, and much luck, and although John made a string of notable films, including Wild Things, when the industry crashed economically, like most directors he found himself suddenly wanting for projects as nothing was getting funded for many years.
John went back to Chicago to take care of his ailing parents and dove into that mission for a decade before reemerging last year with a new film called The Harvest. This is a truly disturbing film that is guaranteed to take you on a wild psychological voyage to places you didn’t expect to discover. It’s really a modern re-make of the Hansel and Gretel myth, with an unexpected twist on the witch role.
The film opened simultaneously yesterday in theaters and on IFC in-demand, and instantly zoomed to number two on the list. I predict this film will soon be elevated to cult status, so you might want to check it out.
There’s another facet to John that almost nobody knows about: he was the original organist for the Soul Assassins and performed at their first public concert, a High Times Christmas party in New York City (that’s him on the far left with the band just before we took the stage). Someday the band will hold an epic reunion, we just don’t know when.