I’ve long had a fascination with the subject of serial killers. Now, before you start thinking I’m some kind of sicko myself, I assure you I am not. It’s more that I have a strong interest in psychology and I’ve longed to understand the mind of someone who can commit such horrendous atrocities. No matter how I try, I simply cannot fathom how anyone could bring themselves to commit cruel, cold-blooded murder, not just once, but over and over again. For years I’ve read books on the subject as well as watched numerous documentaries and films. I’m all too familiar with names like Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Of course, to say I hold a special interest for those whose identities remain a mystery, such as Jack the Ripper.
As familiar as I am with an incredibly long list of serial killers, I was actually surprised to learn the name of one I had never heard of before. His name was Henry Howard Holmes and he is credited as being America’s First Serial Killer.
Recently I watched a film on H.H. Holmes, and now that I am a bit more familiar with the extent and scope of his crimes I am hard-pressed to understand how in the world I had missed him with as much as I’ve read on the subject.
The film in question is called “H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer.” Coming in at just over an hour, it is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on any serial killer. Through the use of archival photos and meticulously filmed re-creations, it follows the life and crimes of Holmes as it focuses on some of the main life-changing events in his life. Some of the most chilling sequences recall what was to be the culmination of his career, a hotel built with a labyrinth of corridors leading to hidden torture chambers and a crematorium. I cannot even begin to describe the carnage that took place within these walls. That is for this film to do.
“H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer” is the result of a three year odyssey for filmmaker John Borowski, and all of the hard work shows. There is a wealth of information about Holmes offered within the confines of a single hour, but it is all so well edited that it never feels bloated. I would compare the film to those I’ve seen on the History Channel or Arts & Entertainment, but I have to admit this documentary is far superior to many of those. Where re-creations are often poorly done or are so slick that they pull the viewer out of the story, Borowski’s are so well-produced that they serve to draw your attention even further into the events as they occurred. Of course, they also offer an unflinching look at Holmes' crimes, and while you are drawn into the story… you are most certainly equally repulsed.
Borowski also made a great choice when it came down to who would narrate his film. He chose master vocal artist Tony Jay, who is probably best known as the voice of Judge Frollo in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Jay’s voice is one that is quite familiar to me as it has graced numerous projects, my personal favorite being that of the villain Megabyte in the highly underappreciated animated series, “Reboot.”
This independently produced documentary has been making the Film Festival circuit, but fortunately it is also available on DVD to anyone who wishes to see it. It is available on the website listed below, and I highly recommend ordering one while they are still available. Much as the film itself is superior to many high-dollar documentaries, the DVD release far outshines many of those offered by the big studios. The transfer of the film is terrific, and I was caught off-guard by the awesome Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound that was available. I had my surround sound system turned on while I was watching it, and I often had to look over my shoulder to make sure some of the sounds weren’t actually coming from any uninvited guests who might have been sharing the room with me.
The DVD of “H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer” offers up much more than just the film itself, and includes a 20 minute “Making of’…’’ featurette that is a must watch. I was amazed to see just how much work went into the making of a film like this and amateur filmmakers will certainly find some of the information to be of special note. There are also some outtakes that were cut from the film for timing reasons, all of which are well worth watching. You’ll also find some information about some of the events that transpired since Holmes’ capture that make for a useful follow-up.
Borowski offers up a director’s commentary that, unlike many commentaries, is actually quite interesting. He touches upon a lot of the smaller details of what it took to make the film, and what it meant to him. There are also some of the obligatory trailers and bios that are standard fare on most DVD releases.
I have the opportunity to see a lot of independently produced projects, and for the most part, most of them are better left unseen. But occasionally there are films that are so good as to rise above a lot of the work coming out of the big budget studios. “H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer”, is one of those films.
Directed by: John Borowski
Extras: Director Commentary Behind the Scenes Featurette, Outtakes, Trailer, Poster Designs
Specifications: Full Screen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Release Date: Available
MPAA Rating: NR