Actor Michael Rooker remained in character for the duration of the shoot, even off set. He didn't associate or socialize with any of the cast or crew during the month long shoot, and director John McNaughton made sure Rooker was the only person on set to have a private dressing room. According to costume designer Patricia Hart, she and Rooker would travel to the set together each day, and she never knew from one minute to the next if she was talking to Michael or to Henry as sometimes he would speak about his childhood and background not as Michael Rooker but as Henry. Indeed, so in-character did Rooker remain, that during the shoot, his wife discovered she was pregnant, but she waited until filming had stopped before she told him.
The film was shot on 16mm in 28 days with a budget of $110,000. It initially earned $600,000 on its (extremely limited) theatrical run, but has since gone on to earn millions on VHS and DVD, as well as theatrical re-releases.
Michael Rooker said he was working as a janitor when he auditioned for the part of Henry and went to the audition in his janitor uniform. He got the part, and continued to wear his uniform throughout the film shoot. He only had one jacket, though, so he took it off before he "killed" anyone so he wouldn't get blood on it.
Although completed in 1986, the film didn't get a theatrical release until 1989. It is often mistakenly claimed that this was due to its being tied up in censorship issues with the MPAA, and although this is true to a degree, the majority of the delay occurred because the executive producers, Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali were somewhat underwhelmed by the film turned in by director John McNaughton, and weren't sure it was even worth their time releasing it on VHS, let alone releasing theatrically. As McNaughton himself says, "they just put it on the shelf". Several years later, Chuck Parello (who would go on to direct Henry II: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1996)) saw the film and was deeply impressed. Parello was working for the Ali brothers at the time, and he began to lobby them to do something with it. He convinced them to let it be screened at the Chicago Film Festival in 1989, where, after getting a glowing review from the Chicago Tribune's Rick Kogan, the film was accepted into the 1989 Telluride Festival and subsequently the 1990 Splatterfest Festival, becoming the sensation of both festivals. At this point, the Ali brothers realized they had something unique on their hands and set about promoting the film for theatrical release.
The four murder scenes seen in the first few minutes of the film were all based on real life murders which Henry Lee Lucas claimed to have committed, especially the first shot, where the body of the nude woman is posed in exactly the same position as a victim in a case involving Lucas.
Even members of the filmmaking team themselves have been disturbed by the film. Composer Robert McNaughton couldn't watch the film right the way through upon first seeing it, and actor Tom Towles (Otis) has only ever seen the film once, at the Splatterfest Film Festival in 1990.
When the film was submitted to the BBFC for classification in 1990, distributor Electric Pictures removed the shot of the dead woman on the toilet without consulting director John McNaughton because they felt it would predispose the BBFC to look on the film as an exploitation piece and not a serious film.
Director John McNaughton and actor Tom Towles both considered the character of Otis to be a comic buffoon, and they consciously presented the character in a darkly humorous manner. Interestingly, Towles, a former US marine, formal training was in improvisational comedy, not dramatic acting.
Bizarrely, the origins of this film are to be found in a never-made documentary about professional wrestling. Director John McNaughton had worked for the Ali brothers (Waleed B. Ali & Malik B. Ali) as a delivery man with their video equipment rental business during the late 70s, and Waleed and McNaughton had always vowed to make a film together at some stage in the future. Several years later, the Ali brothers hired McNaughton to direct a documentary about organized crime in Chicago entitled Dealers in Death (1984). The film was well received and turned a profit, and the brothers were happy with McNaughton's directorial work. As such, they hired him to shoot a second documentary, this time about the professional wrestling in Chicago. A collection of previously thought lost VHS tapes showing wrestling in Chicago during the 1950s had been unearthed, and the brothers had agreed to purchase the tapes from the owner for use in the documentary. However, when the brothers went to buy the tapes, the owner doubled his price at the last minute, and the brothers pulled out of the deal. Waleed then had the idea to use the money set aside for the documentary to instead make a feature film, and he kept McNaughton on as director, offering him $100,000 to make a horror movie. Waleed didn't care what the film was about, he just wanted something in the horror genre. McNaughton had no idea what to write about until he saw an episode of the show 20/20 (1978) about Henry Lee Lucas, and he decided that his subject matter was not going to be a demon, a monster or an extra-terrestrial, but a normal human being.
Director John McNaughton originally intended to shoot the entire film with a hand-held camera, so as to give it the look and feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. He had hired Jean de Segonzac to work as the director of photography as de Segonzac was regarded as one of the world's foremost hand-held cameramen. However, a week before filming began, de Segonzac had to drop out of the project, and McNaughton was left without a director of photography. He subsequently hired Charlie Lieberman, who had shot a number of half hour substance abuse programs, and together, McNaughton and Lieberman decided to abandon the hand-held idea and go in the opposite direction; never using a hand-held camera at all, and ensuring very exact, very rigid framing throughout the film.
After the initial edit of the film was complete (running 147 minutes), director John McNaughton had to present it to executive producers Waleed B. Ali and Malik B. Ali. McNaughton couldn't bring them the original negatives, so he used a VHS video camera to shoot the edit as it ran on the screen on the 16mm flatbed which was used to edit the movie. According to McNaughton, when they saw this flickering, black and white two and a half hour movie with barely audible sound, the Ali brothers were far from impressed.
One of the major reasons the film did not emerge for a long time after it was finished is that the producers had expected John McNaughton to make a straightforward slasher horror film. They didn't know what to do with the darker, more complex, less violent (as hard as it was to believe, the original script was much bloodier and more violent than the final shooting draft was) film he created, and felt this version had limited box office potential because it wouldn't bring in a good-sized teenage audience.
When the film was submitted to the MPAA and received an X rating, John McNaughton asked them what he could change to receive an R rating. The board members told him bluntly that there were no possible edits that would move the film out the X, and McNaughton decided on the spot he would not challenge the X and would instead move for the film to be released as it eventually was (unrated, with a disclaimer saying no one under 17 would be admitted to see it).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During the screening of the film at the 1989 Telluride Festival, nearly half the audience walked out during the family massacre scene. When the film finished, it was met with complete silence, as the audience were so stunned by what they had just seen and didn't know how to react. As director John McNaughton was leaving the theatre, he was approached by a distressed man who informed him: "You can't do that". McNaughton asked him what he meant, and the man explained that you couldn't make a film about a murderer who gets away in the end, without punishment or without any kind of moral resolution, reiterating "You can't do that". McNaughton thought about this for a moment, and then said to the man: "We just did".
Throughout the film, any sound of a neck breaking is really a Styrofoam cup being crushed near the microphone. The sound of Henry (Michael Rooker) cutting off Otis' (Tom Towles) head is a plastic mesh grapefruit bag being slowly torn open.
During the shooting of Becky (Tracey Arnold) emerging from the subway, two men can be seen standing at the top of the stairs having a heated discussion. These men were not extras, they were simply civilians who were really having an argument, and when the film crew arrived to shoot, they refused to move, so director John McNaughton decided to include them in the shot.
After filming the family massacre scene, actor Tom Towles (Otis) insisted that actress Lisa Temple (who plays the mother) go to the casualty department because he was convinced he had injured her neck for real when he snapped it. Temple herself was confident that no damage had been done, but for Towles' peace of mind, she did go to casualty, where she received a clean bill of health. Over time, this story has evolved into an urban myth that Temple had to go to the hospital because she was traumatized by the scene, the content of which the filmmakers had concealed from her prior to shooting. As she herself tells it in Portrait: The Making of 'Henry' (2005), there is no truth in this story whatsoever. She went to the hospital purely as a precaution.
The character of Henry is loosely based upon the real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. As in the film, Lucas was acquainted with a fellow convict named Ottis Toole (although in the film, the character's name is only given as Otis). Additionally, Lucas became the lover of Toole's 11 year old niece, Frieda Powell, who lived with Lucas and Toole for a time and often went under the pseudonym of "Becky" (although in the film, Becky is Otis' sister, rather than his niece, and is considerably older than Powell was). Also as in the film, Lucas ultimately killed Becky. Furthermore, like the fictional Henry, the real Henry's mother worked as a prostitute from her house, often forcing him to watch her whilst she had sex, and occasionally making him wear a dress. The real Henry's father had also lost both his legs in an accident, prior to which he had been a truck driver, just like the fictional character. However, the actions of the fictional Henry are inspired not by Lucas' real crimes, but by his fabricated ones. In prison, Lucas confessed to over 600 murders, claiming he committed roughly one murder a week from 1975 to 1983. Ultimately however, the vast majority of these claims turned out to be false, whilst many of the rest could not be substantiated one way or the other. Lucas was simply confessing to every unsolved murder brought before him because doing so ensured better conditions for him, as law enforcement officers would offer him incentives to 'confess'. Such confessions also increased his fame with the public. In the end, Lucas was convicted of eleven murders, and sentenced to death for the murder of Frieda Powell, although his death sentence was later commuted to life in prison by the then governor of Texas George W. Bush.
Not a single policeman is ever visible on screen during the film. This was purposely done by director John McNaughton so as to create a sense of a world without law and order, and to remove the comforting buffer zone that seeing a policeman would give an audience. There is a scene where a police car plays very prominent role. As the two ex-cons are driving on a highway after one of the more brazen murder scenes, they are passed by a squad car that speeds past without a pause. This irony serves as one of the few humorous moments in the film.
Throughout filming, the filmmakers cut costs by utilizing family and friends, as well as their own possessions, and even the crew itself, wherever they could. For example, the dead couple in the bar near the start of the film are the parents of director John McNaughton's best friend, whilst the bar itself is where McNaughton used to work.. Actress Mary Demas (a close friend of McNaughton's prior to the film) plays three different murder victims; the woman in the ditch in the opening shot; the woman with the bottle in her mouth in the toilet; and the first of the two murdered prostitutes. The four women Henry encounters outside the shopping mall were all played by close friends of McNaughton. The woman hitch hiking was a woman with whom McNaughton used to work. The clothes Michael Rooker wears throughout the film were his own clothes (apart from the shoes and socks). The car driven by Henry belonged to one of the electricians on the film. Art director Rick Paul plays the man shot in the lay-by; storyboard artist Frank Coronado plays the smaller of the attacking bums; grip Brian Graham plays the husband in the family-massacre scene; executive producer Waleed B. Ali plays the clerk serving Henry towards the end of the film.
Unlike Henry in the film, who was portrayed as flying into rages when blatant sexuality was displayed, the real Henry Lee Lucas was known to be rapist and child-molester in addition to a serial killer.
Although neither writer/director John McNaughton nor writer Richard Fire were involved in the making of Henry II: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1996), they initially had plans to make their own sequel to Henry, entitled "Henry: Superstar of Crime". The idea was based upon the fame achieved by Henry Lee Lucas after his capture. The sequel would pick up where the first film left off, with Henry arriving alone in a new town, and killing a number of people before being arrested and becoming a media celebrity. The idea never developed beyond the treatment stage however.
In the original script, the family massacre scene is longer. After the three family members have been murdered, Otis (Tom Towles) molests the body of the mother (Lisa Temple) and performs full necrophilia with it. Prior to shooting however, director John McNaughton made the decision to abandon this part of the scene.