Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas.
*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.
*Although completed in 1986, the film didn't get a theatrical release until 1989. It is often mistakenly claimed that this was due to it's 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 self". Several years later, Chuck Parello (who would go on to direct Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 (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 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.
*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.
*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'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.
*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.
*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."