Albert Fish was a sick man. The guy had some serious issues above and beyond the obvious child murdering and cannibalism. On top of those lovely traits, he had a tendency to indulge his many perversions on whoever he was able and had a penchant for self-flagellation and for inserting metal pins into his body. Adding to the man's completely bizarre profile was the fact that on the outside, he looked like a rather frail old man, almost like he could be that nice guy who lives around the corner from you...
Sent to an orphanage at a young age by his mother, Fish early on developed a strange taste for punishment. His Catholic upbringing got twisted in such a way that later on in his life his take on the Christian doctrine and his take on sexual relations would sort of meld together. He's best known for his multiple counts of child murder and specifically for abducting, torturing, killing and then eating a ten-year-old girl outside of New York City around the time of the Great Depression. He used his guise as a nice old man to earn the trust of children and parents alike and once he'd done that, the kids proved to be easy prey. He was finally caught when the New York City police department used a gossip columnist to post a falsified article to lure him out. It worked, he was subsequently convicted, and then he was put to death in the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison in New York.
Independent filmmaker John Borowski made a bit of a name for himself with his documentary H. H. Holmes – America's First Serial Killer. By using archival materials such as pictures and film clips as well as interviews and re-enactments he was able to successfully put together an interesting and powerful look at how that man operated. He repeats the formula here with his latest film, Albert Fish, only this time the results are more detailed, more morbidly fascinating, and much more disturbing.
Lunatic artist and owner/proprietor of The Odditorium, Joe Coleman, is one of the interviewees that Borowski lined up to appear in his documentary. Coleman explains how he came to possess the original handwritten note that Fish wrote to the parents of one of his victims as the camera leers over the faded scribblings that now lay safely behind a glass frame as part of Coleman's collection. We hear how Coleman feels about Fish, how he understands how his twisted Catholic guilt further confused him when dealing with his pedophilia, his homosexual urges, his penchant for mixing horrible brutality with sexual intercourse and love of self inflicted pain and inflicting pain on others – the younger the better. It's almost as if Fish felt he was doing his child victims a favor by taking them from this Earth before they could become corrupt like he was. Coleman's a weird guy and he adds a seriously creepy vibe to the picture, but he's also a very interesting, intelligent and well spoken man who has no problem explaining his thoughts on the subject eloquently and succinctly. More scholarly is Katherine Ramsland who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and who has studied and written extensively on psychopaths and serial killers. She explains some of the psychology behind Fish and his actions, contrasting and explaining various aspects of his personal life (he was a father of six children and a regular churchgoer) with those in his other life. Borowski allows her to explain things in a fair bit of detail and her insight her is quite valuable.
Some of the voice acting feels a little forced at times, when the newspaper bits are read in particular, but the re-enactment scenes are done well. Though they leave very little to the imagination Borowski is smart enough to make sure that he doesn't take things too far. The man who plays Fish in the documentary certainly looks the part and is rather fearless in his portrayal of some of the man's more unusual tendencies. Overall, however, Albert Fish turns out to be a very well made and well directed examination of one of American history's most unusual and depraved subjects. It's not a picture for the faint of heart but true crime buffs and those who enjoy exploring the dark side of human nature should find it a worthy excursion into the depths of one man's personal evil.
The film is made up of old photographs, re-enactments, and new interview footage and so the look is a bit uneven in spots, but it works for what the director is trying to achieve. The re-enactments have been scuffed up intentionally through the wonders of digital technology to give those particular scenes an antiquated look that works surprisingly well (Borowski used this time technique in his first feature, H. H. Holmes – America's First Serial Killer). That said, the new footage looks just fine, such as the Coleman interview clips, coming across clean and clear and while the re-enactment material is intentionally degraded it's still plenty easy to follow along with what's happening on screen without any difficulty. The transfer is crisp and clear without any problems in the compression department save for some mild edge. Other than that, this documentary looks just fine.
Believe it or not, this documentary gets a full fledged Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix (in English) that is actually quite effective as well as a scaled down Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. There are moments in the film, during the reenactments specifically, where footsteps can be heard in the rear channels as well as other ambient noises and sound effects, making these moments all the more effective. The dialogue is of course slapped front and center in the mix, as it should be, and it comes across clean and clear without any problems at all. Nicely done.
First up in terms of the supplements is a discussion with the lead singer of a heavy metal band called Macabre (eight-minutes), the first of three interviews on this disc. A so-called 'murder metal' group, this Chicago based musician talks about how they blend lyrics about true crime with more extreme music. We see some clips of the band playing live and talking to the crowd about Albert Fish, and they talk about how and why their music deals with this subject matter. He also talks about how he convinced John Wayne Gacy to do a painting of Albert Fish for him.
The second interview features Nico Claux, the self proclaimed 'Vampire of Paris.' (seven-minutes). This segment, conducted in French and presented with English subtitles, allows Nico to talk about how he was sentenced for murder and cannibalism. He discusses the spiritual aspect of eating human flesh, and how it became impulsive for him while he was working at a morgue. From there he talks about how he feels about Albert Fish and Fish has affected his artwork. Strange!
The next interview gives Borowski (twenty-three minutes) himself some screen time to discuss the project on camera. Conducted on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the theater just before the film's premiere, Borowski asks theatergoers about how they found out about the movie, and then we see him dealing with some of his actors in the film. It's more of a featurette than an actual interview but it's fairly interesting material and it gives us a look into how the man works. He talks about the various drafts and re-writes he puts his scripts through, and we see him setting up shots and talking about cutting the movie. He comes across as an intelligent man and it's obvious that he put a lot of work into this film – thankfully it shows in the finished product. There's some interesting behind the scenes footage here, we get a look at the make up effects as they were in progress and it turns out to be a well balanced look at how the movie was made.
Also included here is an interesting interactive featurette that takes a closer look at Joe Coleman's Portrait Of Albert Fish. You can use your remote to highlight parts of the painting for a closer look at them. Another option allows you to listen to the narrator read the unabridged versions of the notorious letters that he wrote to Budd and Gaffney.
Also included are a selection of interview outtakes (one for Joe Coleman at a whopping thirty-three minutes and the other for psychology professor Katherine Ramsland, PH.d. at ten minutes – both are well worth watching) and deleted scenes. The four deleted scenes are: Fritz Haarmann (1:30, a bit about a real life vampire who operated out of Hannover named Fritz Haarmann), Walter Winchell Column (0:36 seconds, covers Walter Winchell's column and how the cops used it to bait Fish), Roses (0:18 seconds, talks about how Fish would insert Roses into his penis and rectum and then eat them) and Tony Jay Reads As Fish (1:00, audio of Jay reading bizarre quotes from Fish over top of some stills of him in the recording studio).
Rounding out the supplements are a few trailers, a live performance from Macabre, an eleven minute bit that explains the history of the electric chair with a historian and which features plenty of morbid archival stills, a link to buy merchandise related to the movie, a still gallery, some animated menus and a chapter selection option. Inside the keepcase is an insert containing some brief liner notes from the director on one side and an advertisement for H. H. Holmes – America's First Serial Killer on the reverse.
John Borowski has crafted an interesting and insightful look into the life and crimes of the notorious Albert Fish that handles the ugly subject matter with the maturity that a serious take on this type of material requires. At the same time, he hasn't skimped on the details or watered things down. This makes for a film that packs a bit of a punch without feeling like exploitation or like it's going for cheap thrills and the movie makes for a fascinating watch. Facets Video has done a fine job on the audio and the video and the extras are plentiful and add a considerable amount of value to this package. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.