H.H. HOLMES: AMERICA’S FIRST SERIAL KILLER (director/writer: John Borowski; cinematographer: John Borowski; editor: John Borowski; music: Douglas Romayne Stevens; cast: Tony Jay (Narrator), Ed Bertagnoli, Cary Callison, Willy Laszlo, Rachelle Villarreal, Audrey Welling, Harold Schechter; Runtime: 64; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Borowski; Facets Video; 2004)
“Should be especially pleasing to crime buffs and those movie fans crazy about the serial-killer genre.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Filmmaker John Borowski (“Urban Armor”) puts together an engrossing factual black-and-white documentary based on America’s first documented serial killer H. H. Holmes, the 19th century mass murderer based in Chicago, who became known as the “Monster of 63rd Street” when it was finally discovered what a monster he was. Holmes was a contemporary of London’s infamous “Jack the Ripper,” and appeared at a time when Americans had no idea that they had a more dangerous psychopath running loose in their midst–which gave them a false sense of security that they were safer than the Londoners; that is, until Holmes was arrested in 1894 and it came to light in a circus-like trial that he constructed in the Chicago suburb of Englewood (now a part of the Windy City) a house of horrors (called by his neighbors “the Castle”) that contained such pleasantries as torture chambers, a crematorium, secret passageways, acid vats, and gas chambers. It’s revealed how this slight man, a University of Michigan medical school graduate and a prominent druggist and businessman, acted as a con artist (for one thing, he sold mineral water which was actually city water) while going on an uncontrollable murder spree of an untold number that ranges from a confirmed 9 deaths to a more accurate total that exceeds 50, from 1886 until his arrest over an insurance scam in 1894. He was hanged in 1896, and his so-called ‘true confessions’ story was serialized in the Hearst newspapers. This ghoulish look at the brilliant medical man who was unconscionably demented, who if he chose could have easily carved out a lucrative legitimate professional career, should be especially pleasing to crime buffs and those movie fans crazy about the serial-killer genre.

The film is narrated by Tony Jay, whose proper Brit-accented voice tells in an urgent way the tale of Holmes from his birth as Herman W. Mudgett, who was born to a respected wealthy traditional family of original settlers in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, to the time he embarked on his killing spree and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes. We learn of his three wives, his Edgar Allan Poe influence, how he murdered the Chicago druggist who hired him and later his wife after she sold him the business, the enjoyment he got from murdering his vics and then selling their skeletons for a huge profit to medical schools, his many scams, how he designed by himself “the Castle” with its secret chamber of horrors and that during the 1893 World’s Fair rented rooms to unsuspecting guests where as many as 50 out-of-towners were never heard from again and were presumably murdered by him.

This documentary is just the beginning of bringing to the public’s attention a serial-killer who was once well-known but has since been forgotten by most. Paramount Pictures recently bought the film rights to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City–which is about Holmes. Kathryn Bigelow is set to direct while Tom Cruise is signed on as star and producer. Also, Leonardo DiCaprio plans to star in an unrelated H.H. Holmes picture, scheduled to be released through his production company.

If you want to get in from the beginning on the expected reemergence of Holmes in the limelight, Borowski’s film is a good place to start. It’s a well-crafted and exciting work that indicates the filmmaker did his homework effectively and in a loving way for a subject he was evidently enthused about and ably conveys that to the viewer. The film has interviews with talking head experts, reenactments, on-location footage from Holmes’ past haunts, and period photographs of the subject.

H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer Poster