Whenever anyone discusses the connection between Chicago and serial murder, the usual suspects come cascading out of the wicked woodwork. Naturally, the first famed name on everyone's lips is John Wayne Gacy, who drew on a victim pool of young men for his homosexual rape and torture fantasies. Once he completed his craven acts, he buried the corpses under his home, the stagnant smell of death wafting up from the crawlspace. Then there was Richard Speck, drifter and deviant, who broke into a Southside apartment and systematically slaughtered a group of student nurses. When the carnage was over, eight young women lie dead. From the cruel case of the Chicago Rippers (responsible for untold gruesome Satanic cannibal sacrifices in the early 80s) to the notorious escapades of Al Capone and his fellow gangsters, the history of the Windy City seems soaked in innocent blood. And thanks to a new documentary by independent filmmaker John Borowski, you can add yet another dishonorable distinction to those big broad shoulders of the nation's hog butcher.
Way back before the turn of the century, a deranged doctor with a vile desire for vivisection and a need to feed his horrible hankering for human victims landed in the Second City and built his own corrupt castle, a landmark to depravity and deception. In his lifetime, he was responsible for dozens, perhaps even hundreds of deaths. Yet it's a safe bet that very few, if any, have ever heard of him or know his exploits. Perhaps the first true serial killer in American history, H. H. Holmes set a sick standard that very few criminals can come close to matching And thanks to Borowski's film, this fiend may finally see his abhorrent day in the sun.
It was a foreboding place, a palace like structure in the middle of the suburbs. Along the bottom floor were shops and stores, including a pharmacy run by the building's owner. The top two floors consisted or living quarters, doctor's offices and dozens of rooms, perfect for boarders or individuals looking for accommodation while in the city. To everyone who passed by, or entered its doors to transact business, it was a standard, if slightly strange, place; imposing, but not totally out of place in the town. If only they had known the evil that truly dwelled within.
For you see, Herman W. Mudgett was no ordinary druggist. He was a doctor and a philanthropist. He was a bigamist and a con man. He was a teller of lies and a bringer of pain. And he was also a cold, callous, vicious murderer. Anyone unlucky enough to seek out Mudgett for medical or hospitable reasons usually did not live to recount the visit. By the time he reached the small Chicago suburb of Englewood, he was already a polished, professional butcher. And in the basement of his imposing abode lay a dungeon of death, a macabre place filled with surgical tables, torture devices and disposal pits. To the outside world, he was a genial gentleman with a soft spot for strangers. But in the privacy of his home, he was H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer.
Like uncovering a long lost volume of forgotten lore, or delving into the history happening just beyond your back door, H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer is a mesmerizing, menacing documentary. It pries open and peers into an ancient, mostly unknown chapter in Chicago, as well as American, history and tries to shine a light on the bloody pit of horror inside. Fascinating to a fault (meaning that, once it's over, you're desperate for more) and encompassing more than just Holmes life and terrible times (there is some amazing material about the Columbia Exposition and the reconstruction effort after the infamous "Fire" of 1871) it is a perfect example of what this genre of film does so well.
Indeed, H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer is as much about the country emerging out of the Civil War and reconfiguring itself as an industrial, modern nation as it is concerning one man and his disturbing atrocities against his fellow human beings. From the archival material to the recreations, we learn how a poorly equipped and trained police force, in conjunction with primitive forensics techniques allowed a seemingly sociable gentleman to use the population as his own collection of cadavers in training.
When one thinks about legendary killers from the past, Holmes is usually nowhere to be found. Lizzie Borden gets her forty whacks and White Chapel's famous Jack has several books and films formed around his exploits. But for some reason – perhaps it's the nature of the acts or the lack of a suspense-filled "whodunit" aspect to the story – Holmes is never mentioned. Naturally, like most 'out in the open' murderers, almost everything is known about Holmes' crimes...except the true victim count. The clinical, crass manner in which he went about his business and all the gruesome details, from the blueprints of his terrifying torture chamber to the manner of his menace, are more or less a matter of record. There are no hidden 'skeletons' in the closet, no unsolved facet of the acts to make them sexy or titillating. Highly dramatic and overly theatrical, Holmes and his house of horrors should be the subject of dozens of dramas, even with its baroque period setting and clinical concepts. And yet H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer is apparently the first time this maniac's story has seen the luminescence of the silver screen. Thankfully, it was worth the wait.
Combining talking heads, some stellar staged material and a lot of graphic ingenuity, this fact based film does a remarkable job of introducing us to the USA's answer to Jack the Ripper. We hear factual accounts of his crimes, learn the layout of his maze-like manor, see newspaper versions of his inexcusable escapades and the man himself even speaks from 'beyond the grave (Holmes wrote a kind of confession in jail, excerpts of which are read aloud over the scenes). The amount of information and attention to detail is amazing, and the use of complex computer imagery and filmed material substantially spikes the authenticity and tone. By the end, we feel we have witnessed the unearthing of a terrible, tainted treasure, a wellspring of wanton behavior that draws us in with its twisted truth.
The connections between Holmes and his perverted peers are very enlightening. As a doctor and a man familiar with all aspects of anatomy, Holmes is similar to London's famed fiend in surgical precision and prowess. But whereas Jack searched the sullied streets, looking for prostitutes as his prey, Holmes sought out anyone, male or female, elderly or child, to work his miscreant magic on. The link to another Midwestern madman, the cannibal cross-dresser Ed Gein, is also clear. While divided by decades and Gein's desire to "flesh out" his corrupt sexual issues on his corpses, there is a fascination with the human form and its "inner" workings that drives both men to massacre. While Ed would end up devouring and deflowering his victims, Holmes merely cut his up, disposed of the flesh in acid baths or lime pits. The skeletons would then be cleaned and sold to local medical colleges.
Some of the most fascinating material surrounds Holmes complex, confusing house, a "castle" he constructed in the suburbs of Chicago, the better to privately ply his perverted trade. Unlike other serial killers that we've heard about over the decades, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of dementia associated with Holmes and his homicidal tendencies. Many of his crimes were based in financial, not fever dream reasons. Though he attended and completed medical school, and had several successful jobs as a pharmacist, Holmes enjoyed money and what it could give him. So he concocted elaborate scams and cons to get what he needed. Murdering the victim and then dismembering the body was often the icing on his insidious cake. True, as his bloodlust increased, so did his desire to quell it in complete secrecy. Thus, he constructed the miscreant manor that sat at a lonely corner on a rural street.
If there is one minor misstep in the whole of H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer, it's that something like Holmes' domicile of death demands further exploration. Director Borowski and his team of experts give us an idea of its intricacy and malevolence, but it merely wets our appetite for more. As building plans hint at secret passageways, body chutes and "killing" rooms, we prepare for the final denouement of death and destruction. Sadly, we are onto another aspect of his spree before we truly feel satisfied. Equally entertaining (and also somewhat underdeveloped) is the Columbia Exposition/World's Fair storyline. Holmes rented rooms to visitors coming to Chicago to experience the grandeur of this citywide celebration (the photos of the Greek forum facades and opulent constructions are just breathtaking). We learn that he had a veritable goldmine of victims for both his fraud and his "experiments in physicality" and the way in which he manipulated and cheated them are very intriguing. But with such a spectacular circumstance as a backdrop, we feel very little of the carnival, as well as the chaos, of such an international event. Indeed, H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer treats the Fair as just another aspect of the diseased doctor's modus operandi. Such a cinematic setting should have been exploited, not merely explored and set aside.
But perhaps the best material, and indeed the most developed narrative in the entire piece, is Holmes association with alcoholic "assistant" Benjamin Pitezel. Personally trading on the man's desperation for money and desire to drink, Holmes found his 'Igor' in the quiet, despondent man. He also found a fresh collection of victims in Pitezel's wife and children. The final act in Holmes' psychotic saga focuses on his manipulation of Pitezel and the eventual kidnapping and killing of many of the man's family. Working out an elaborate ruse to scam an insurance company out of the proceeds from a policy, Holmes carts Pitezel and several of his kids around the country, moving them from location to location as their mother frantically waits for word. The parallels here are sharp and concise: Holmes, via vice and crime, had a means of indulging his wanton desires. Pitezel, thanks to sin and poverty, needed to assist in the sadism to make ends meet. The horrible ending to this macabre, melancholy story does a remarkable job of setting us up for the finale - the fate of Holmes and his 'trial of the century' comeuppance.
There are other absorbing tidbits spread throughout Borowski's engrossing work, issues and elements that most of the professional pundits find captivating, and disturbing. Unlike most serial killers, Holmes married frequently, and never harmed any of his wives. The profit-oriented aspect of his personality is also explored – though it resulted more from criminal than financial acumen – it is a factor that tends to undermine the current profile for professed multiple murderers. We learn that there was no insane desire to slaughter, no unfed need to repress a sinister urge. If anything, Holmes was obsessed with death (some Monday morning psychology about a childhood trauma with a skeleton is unconvincing) and through his medical schooling and practice, he developed a taste to explore the issues surrounding mortality and the human body. While there had to have been some manner of redolent longing to destroy, he found as much fulfillment in watching people die as he did in killing them himself. In some ways, this makes Holmes less "sexy" than other murderers who rolled around in their own feces and talked to their dear departed hamster as they hacked off limbs. There is a biological curiosity and sense of exploration in his crimes, a level of logic that moves beyond the obvious torture and torment. Not only was he the country's first serial killer, but some could categorize H. H. Holmes as the first truly mad scientist as well.
Thanks to director Borowski, this lecture in lesser-known Chicago history is a riveting, gripping work. Utilizing several smart visual concepts – digital manipulation of images, CG backgrounds, detailed dramatic recreations – he gives us a chance to get to know the time and the place, as well as the man practicing his iniquity within it. There are some situations that could have used a more measured touch; the professionals speaking about Holmes and his story tend to be dry, or stilted in their delivery. And it's not until the pre-trial Pitezel phase where the story really comes into focus. In some ways, H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer fails to find that transcendent moment which lifts the film above its formal, factual mannerisms. The best documentaries always discover a way in which to expand beyond their subject matter to tell us something insightful about ourselves, our problems, or the human condition overall. Borowski is apparently not interested in such excessive extrapolation. Indeed, he obviously feels his story speaks for itself. And while it does so, in a very dramatic, disturbing manner, it could have been so much more. H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer could have explained how mass murder came to define the 20th Century – how a single citizens desire to destroy another for the sake of a selfish sickness signifies something important in the modern world. Unfortunately, this is one motion picture that is perfectly happy to stay within the boundaries of its boogieman.
Utilizing a mixture of mediums – news clippings, vintage photographs, film, video and archival elements – Borowski creates an authentic palette of the past for his amazing looking movie. Though we later learn what a limited budget affair this film was, the 1.33:1 full screen image is astonishingly sharp and incredibly detailed. The contrasts in the monochrome sequences (complete with a post-production produced plethora of age defects and dirt) are as expertly maintained as the color correction in the interview material. There is no flaring, bleeding or hampering halos here, and the overall transfer puts other, far more professional presentations to shame. Atmospheric, moody and incredibly artistic, this is an amazing DVD offering.
On par with the video, the auditory aspects of H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer are also stellar. With your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0, you can experience the eerie sensation of being in the murderer's secret chamber of horrors, or listen in uneasy immersion as victims die behind locked doors or thick manor walls. While the channel challenging is not always perfect – most of the material hangs around the forward front speakers - the overall effect is still very ambient and dread producing. With a first-class soundtrack (the music by Douglas Romayne Stevens is marvelous) and crystal clear dialogue, the sonic circumstances of this DVD are quite accomplished.
The final, and what many would consider to be the most important, facet of this digital presentation is the added content, and H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer does not disappoint. First up is an informative and revealing look at the making of this documentary. Focusing primarily on the building of sets and the discovery of locations, it's a fascinating look at how history exists in some of the most elusive places. A few outtakes show that mistakes can be made by even the most skilled and focused of cast and crew and the biographical material gives us a deeper understanding of the individuals responsible for the film. Along with some additional interview footage (found under the "The Story Continues..." title) and merchandising dynamics (read: posters and trailers) we get a good picture of this undertaking and its pitfalls. But the best bonus is left for last. Borowski treats us to a full-length audio commentary in which he discusses how the film was made, the amount of research and digging he had to do, and his own opinions as to why the Holmes story is not better known. Along with a few anecdotes about the production and some stories that didn't make it into the documentary, this is a fresh, fun narrative that really expands the movie and its meaning.
There is no doubt that, somewhere along the line, Hollywood will discover the H. H. Holmes story and, in it's further desire to dehumanize and derail the sinister nature of the serial killer, turn this tale into something tame and torpid. While his crimes demand that he be forgotten, not noted, such a fascinating story of fraud and foulness deserves to be acknowledged, if merely to cement Holmes' place in the pantheon of the perverted. Thankfully, H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer will go a long way toward exposing this doctor of death for the cruel, callous fiend he really was. He may never have a nursery rhyme crafted after him, or inspire the kind of campfire tales terror of a Candyman or a Mary Worth. But his reign of terror in the Midwest's foremost metropolis is something both sinister and surreal, outside the norm for a turn of the century society while hinting at the hideous shape of things to come. Thanks to the efforts of John Borowski and his amazing movie, Chicago now has another infamous name to add to its legacy of illegality. And in many ways, H. H. Holmes was the worst of all. Not because he was first, or because his acts were so vile. No, H. H. Holmes brought a new element into the concept of multiple murder. Nothing is worse than a butcher who relishes the slaughter. Holmes introduced delight to death, and sadly, the criminal mind has never looked back. He was the stuff of myth. Thanks to this film, he will forever be a fact, not a fiction.
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