Sunday, November 28, 2010

H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer (2004)

Director: John Borowski

Starring: Tony Jay (narrator)

More info: IMDb

Tagline: The Castle. The Murders. The Monster.

Plot: Torture chambers, acid vats, greased chutes and gassing rooms were just some of the devices of death designed by the Torture Doctor, H.H. Holmes in his castle of horrors. Follows Holmes' entire life as a criminal mastermind.

My rating: 8/10

Will I watch it again? Yeah.

Like most people, I had never heard of this guy until this documentary came out and I've seen it a few times since. It's amazing what this guy was able to accomplish. There's only speculation as to how many people he killed but even the low numbers of a few dozen are impressive. He could have killed many more.

The most fascinating part of his story is how he was able to build a massive castle like residence in Chicago, how he hired contractors to build a piece of the puzzle and fired them before they could see what it was they were really building. No one but Holmes knew anything more than small pieces. He had air-tight rooms with gas lines leading to them. He had hidden chutes in some of the walls that went straight down to the lowest level where he would cut them up and various other things. He had a large acid bath and would often sell the skeletons to colleges. He was certainly enterprising.

Narrator Tony Jay has a fantastic voice. The first half of this 64 minute doc is ghoulishly fascinating. The second half details his downfall. I highly recommend this to anyone with the slightest interest in crime and/or serial killers. Fuck Jack the Ripper, this guy probably ate him for breakfast. Where's the big Hollywood movie about this guy? David Fincher needs to get on this 'cause it's time for us Yanks to show the world that our serial killers are the best in the world!

UPDATE 1/28/15:  This week I finished reading the EXCELLENT book by Harold Schechter, Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago.  It's so compelling and thorough that it makes viewing this documentary frustrating. I just had to watch it again after reading Schechter's book to see how it held up.  I can only assume that director Borowski's main reason for keeping this film criminally short at barely over an hour was for budgetary reasons.  There's so much information missing that what's told feels like a plot outline rather than a fleshed out account of this incredible, true story.  It's really shocking at how much is left out.  It didn't have to be this way.  There's plenty of padding in the picture with recreations of people lurking in dark hallways and such.  Tightening up these bits would allow more time to tell more of the story or at least punch up what's there with some added detail.  That would help but it wouldn't fix the film.  It's still a fine picture but I can't recommend enough that you rush out and get Schechter's book (who's also one of the few talking heads in the film).  And that reminds me, the backdrop to Schechter's filmed bits is incredibly bland as if there was little to no thought of where they should film him.  I've seen the film several times now and while I'm really keen to get the DVD and watch the extras, I'm more inclined to read the book before watching it again.  It's an incredibly fascinating read about an equally fascinating criminal mind.  

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