Judge Mike Pinsky thinks The Polar Express was the most terrifying movie of 2004. But this documentary is sufficiently creepy even without a dead-eyed Tom Hanks.
"I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the Devil."—H.H. Holmes
When we use the word "madness," we usually think of a lack of calculation, a loss of rationality. The "mad" behave arbitrarily; their minds wander. A mad person has no control over his actions. The mad are, by definition, unreasonable.
At the end of the 19th century, everything was reasonable. It was the Gilded Age, the ascendancy of American ingenuity and power. We could wag our fingers at England, at its Boxer Rebellions and Jack the Rippers, and say, "Those people are the past; we are the future. Look at our glorious White City."
The White City, in fact, was built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Chicago's celebrated World's Fair. Like all World's Fairs (and their natural successor, EPCOT), the Exposition attempted to sum up the wonders of the modern world, with an eye toward modeling the future and "greater and more heroic endeavor" (to quote the designers). As the Sherman Brothers would later write (for the 1964 World's Fair), "It's a great big beautiful tomorrow."
But the other side of America's future was down the street in 1893, at the corner of 63rd and Wallace. It was a modern building, with shopping at ground level (and what is more modern than a mall?), rental rooms and offices on the third floor.
And torture chambers on the second floor, with a hidden chute leading right down to a basement full of dissection tables and a furnace.
Modern horror movies rarely scare me. Well, apart from The Polar Express. Damn, that was a creepy film. Anyway. I know horror films are fiction, and I know the moves they will likely make, who will live and die, and when it will all happen to fulfill the standard narrative structure. But knowing that H.H. Holmes was real, that his castle of death was no movie set, and that such evil can prosper for so long—that is scary. H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer tells the tale of Herman Mudgett: doctor, model citizen, con artist, murderer.
The debut feature from John Borowski, H.H. Holmes has a potentially great story at its center. Herman Mudgett, well-educated and shrewd, recreates himself as a respectable doctor and pharmacist named H.H. Holmes, who secretly and systematically murders perhaps dozens of victims during the waning years of the 19th century. The high point of his cruel spree is the construction of what came to be known as the "Castle," an abattoir set comfortably in the midst of bustling Chicago. But Holmes's true passion is insurance fraud, especially getting people to sign policies that he can cheerfully cash in over their dead bodies. And then he can cash in on the dead bodies as well.
The Holmes story has been told successfully many times, from Robert Bloch's novel American Gothic to Howard Schechter's Depraved (Borowski's primary source for this doc) to Erik Larson's recent bestseller The Devil in the White City. Borowski's effort tries to go more for atmosphere than strict documentation, using scratchy, black and white recreations (look out for that skeleton!) to resemble some silent horror movie, or often more like silent-era snuff footage with its graphic details. Shakespearean actor Tony Jay provides ominous narration, with bits of Holmes's own diaries thrown in to humanize the monster.
In between the spooky stuff, Borowski offers the traditional talking heads—historians and forensic experts—to give us a sense of the state of criminology at the end of the 19th century. And what a shoddy state that was: No one quite knows how many victims fell to Holmes's schemes.
When the secrets of Holmes's "Castle" were uncovered, the bones suggested as many as fifty victims, not counting the skeletons Holmes sold to local medical schools. But his execution by hanging in 1896 came as a result of one particularly heinous case: the systematic destruction of his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, and Pitezel's children—all the result of a botched insurance scam. Indeed, that is the difference between Holmes and most recent serial killers. He was the ultimate capitalist for the Gilded Age, operating an efficient and profitable assembly line of murder. Sure, there was plenty of sadistic torture to enjoy, but that was an added bonus beyond the money. Holmes was a con artist who believed in stealing everything from his marks, taking their money, their lives, and even their bones.
But how did Holmes get this way? What makes a brilliant mind like H.H. Holmes turn into a monster? Director Borowski does not offer much psychoanalysis. We know how Holmes did it. We know the lurid details, but we never get inside his head. And the documentary talks even less about the America of the period that might produce a fiend like Holmes.
The result is a solid documentary that offers a chilling surface narrative without much depth. We learn more about 19th century forensics than we do about the social conditions that allowed a Holmes to prosper for so many years before his capture, even less about what motivates or creates such a monster. Borowski does not offer any additional insight during his workmanlike commentary track, although he does offer a straightforward primer for indie filmmakers on a making-of featurette.
H.H. Holmes was clearly a labor of love for John Borowski, and he does a respectable job with this debut feature. The film is both informative and creepy in the appropriate spots, and if it lacks sociological or psychological insight, interested viewers can turn to Howard Schechter or Erik Larson to fill in the gaps. Indeed, Borowski seems to be taking his cues from Schechter's work: His next feature will be on cannibal killer Albert Fish. I look forward to another good scare.
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