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H.H. Holmes - America's First Serial Killer
HH Holmes - America's First Serial Killer
Actors: Tony Jay, Harold Schechter, Thomas Cronin, Marian Caporusso, Ed Bertagnoli
Director: John Borowski
Genres: Indie & Art House, Documentary, Mystery & Suspense
UR     2004     1hr 4min

Erik Larson?s bestselling book The Devil in the White City introduced America to one of the most horrific but little-known episodes in our nation?s criminal history. When the shocking exploits of the mysterious Dr. H. H. H...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Tony Jay, Harold Schechter, Thomas Cronin, Marian Caporusso, Ed Bertagnoli
Director: John Borowski
Creators: Frey Hoffman, John Borowski, Dimas Estrada
Genres: Indie & Art House, Documentary, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Biography, Crime & Conspiracy, Mystery & Suspense
Format: DVD - Black and White,Color,Full Screen
DVD Release Date: 10/19/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 1hr 4min
Screens: Black and White,Color,Full Screen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 7
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

A monster revealed
Jeffrey Leach | Omaha, NE USA | 10/30/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"I think it's safe to say that we can separate serial killers into two categories--let's call them "A" and "B"--when discussing their name recognition. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, Jeffrey Dahmer, Henry Lee Lucas, Jack the Ripper, and Charles Starkweather would definitely fall in the former. Thanks to the media, the public is all too aware of these vicious killers. Numerous books, articles, documentaries, and movies describe their exploits in nauseating detail. The second tier murderers, no less appalling in their capacity to take human lives, would draw mostly blanks if you dropped their names into polite conversation. Albert Fish, Beck and Fernandez, William Bonin, and dozens of others fall into this category. One name that, until recently, also garnered blank stares was Dr. Herman W. Mudgett aka Henry Holmes aka H. H. Holmes. Thanks to a best-selling book entitled "The Devil in the White City," Holmes is finally receiving his due. I haven't read Erik Larson's treatment, but I have read dozens of serial killer compilations over the years. Holmes made the grade in all of them. I decided to reacquaint myself with this monster recently by watching John Borowski's documentary "H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer."

Borowski's production, which runs a scant sixty-four minutes, gives the viewer everything they ever wanted to know about this notorious butcher. Holmes grew up in New Hampshire in the 1860s and 1870s, a brilliant but troubled child who eventually attended medical school. After running an insurance scam involving stolen cadavers from school, Holmes disappeared for a number of years before popping up again in Chicago in 1885. Then the nightmares began in earnest. He bounced around the city running numerous scams and running up debts before beginning construction on an enormous mansion across the street from a drugstore he owned. An odd structure indeed, this castle, considering that it boasted close to sixty rooms and a most unusual floor plan. Moreover, Holmes continually hired and then fired workers laboring on the building. One reason was to get out of paying for services rendered. Another reason, and a far more ominous one considering what would soon take place in the mansion, was Holmes's fervent desire that no one but himself would now the ins and outs of the building's design. You see, Dr. Holmes had a specific purpose in mind for his new domicile, a purpose that involved trapdoors, slides, and a murder pit in the basement.

Over the next four years, Holmes lured dozens upon dozens of women to the castle. Some came to rent rooms from the good doctor, others seeking employment. No one really knows how many women H. H. Holmes killed. It is generally acknowledged what he did with the bodies, however. After dispatching a victim, the murderer would send their body down to the basement where pits full of acid and quicklime ensured that all traces of the corpse would vanish--after he sold the victims' skeletons to medical schools across the country, that is. Holmes's murderous career started to unravel after police arrested him for running a con in St. Louis. While in jail there he swindled famed train robber Marion Hedgepeth, a swindle that came back to bite him later on when Holmes reneged on a promise to pay the criminal money for securing legal assistance. Hedgepeth eventually rolled over on the doctor, reporting to the authorities an insurance scam Holmes planned on running once out of jail. The Pinkerton Detective Agency got involved in the case, and the rest, as they say, is history. The horrors of the Chicago mansion soon came to light, and H. H. Holmes eventually went to the gallows for his terrifying crimes.

Whew! Boy, am I leaving a bunch of stuff out! I could go on and on about H.H. Holmes, about his numerous affairs with women, his cons, and his treatment of the Pietzel family. The fact that Borowski managed to stuff this much information about Holmes's activities into sixty minutes is an impressive feat indeed. The documentary looks like something you might see on A&E or the History Channel. It shows us the pictures of places and people central to the story of Holmes, contains interviews with serial killer experts like Harold Schechter, boasts several black and white reenactments of significant events, and even has Tony Jay doing the narration. If you don't know this guy's name, don't worry; you'll certainly recognize his voice. He's one of Hollywood's premier voiceover talents, having worked on dozens upon dozens of shows, movies, and videogames. Definitely a great choice to tell the creepy story of one of America's worst serial killers! My only problem with the picture is the title. Sorry, but H.H. Holmes wasn't America's first serial killer. Jesse Pomeroy killed numerous victims several years before Holmes was born. Moreover, serial killers existed in Europe long before America became a country. Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory are just two examples.

Extras on the DVD consist of a commentary track with John Borowski, an informative making of featurette, several trailers, and a photo gallery showing how the places involved in Holmes's crimes have changed in the last hundred plus years. Good stuff. So why isn't Holmes as well known as Bundy, Starkweather, Gacy, and the rest? The documentary answers that question indirectly by having to rely on recreations of the crimes. Holmes operated in a time before television and film could capture the crime scene and the trial. Modern Americans need to see the horror, see the killer marching by on their television sets, for it to register. Nonetheless, I think Borowski's documentary does much to elevate Holmes to the ranks of the "A" grade serial killers.
A Murderous Masterpiece
Amanda Howard | Sydney, NSW Australia | 09/27/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"With overtones of Murnau's Nosferatu, this documentary/film about the life and crimes of HH Holmes is one not to be missed. It is a highly polished independant production that rivals the big studios. Borowski has done his research and takes the viewer on a journey into the dark annals of Chicago in the late-nineteenth century.

The eerie black and white re-enactments brings the case to life, with the suspense of the old monster films of the turn of the century. The haunting voice-over by esteemed actor Tony Jay gives the film it's final touch.

I look forward to future projects by John Borowski.

Amanda Howard
Author, River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims.

HOUDINI'S MOM | ST. LOUIS, MO USA | 09/02/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I am one of Benjamin's great-grandaughters (baby Wharton was my g-pa) and my family waited 2 years for John's film. To state we were all very pleased, would be a gross understatement! John has told the story in a way that greatly exceeded our expectations, it was definitely worth the wait. The research he did is an accomplishment in itself, and John just could not have presented the story better, I often felt like I was "back in time" while watching, because of his meticulous eye for detail. The film flowed so well, better than most "major motion pictures" playing these days, and stuck to the facts of the story, which shows me just what a master John is in the art of film making, and in staying true to making a documentary. I know the story backwards & forward and yet, I was literally on the edge of my seat watching the film! And what can I say about Tony Jay? He was the ulimate choice for narration, and brought so much to the story, we can't thank him enough for his contributions. I really liked (& wasn't expecting!) seeing Harold presenting his thoughts & research, and Tom Cronin's insight gave additional "food for thought". The "making of" portion of the DVD was very interesting & equally enjoyable, it simply could not have been done any better. We greatly appreciate the time & effort John put into this production, he's earned my utmost respect & admiration. These events were such a source of shame for our family for so many, many years, John's shown the truth, bringing light to a very dark time in our family history, which we can now be proud of.

I look forward to seeing John's other productions, as he is a true artist, anyone would be proud to have him tell their "story", it is a priviledge to have had him tell "our story".
Creepy, thrilling, and frightening!
Sylviastel | 07/29/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I watched this last night. For a new documentary filmmaker, John Borowski, is somebody to watch out for. This coumentary reminds you of old black and white thriller films but with great narration and commentary by Harold Schechter who wrote depraved about Dr. H. Holmes born Herman Mudgett. The criminal profiler reminds me of a blonde Chris Parnell and the forensics person is quite vague but explains the lack of forensics science during that time. Dr. H. Holmes was a frightening man who killed, slaughtered, dismembered humans and sold their skeletons for profit. He was truly a genius at manipulating poor men like Benjamin Pitezel and his family who were his greatest casualties. He was the first serial killer to become so notorious by the end of one century on par with England's Jack the Ripper."