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By Rory L. Aronsky | August 25, 2004

While Jack the Ripper slashed his way through London in the late 1880s, Americans read about his exploits in the papers, relieved that such a monster could not be found on their midst. However, a monster was forming, one so cold and calculated with an interest in medicine and anatomy that wasn’t normal by any standards. His name was H.H. Holmes but first he was Herman Webster Mudgett, growing up in a strict household and soon excelling in school and at the University of Michigan thereafter in their medical school.

The biggest question in learning about a serial killer is, “Why?” Why did H.H. Holmes engage himself in continuous scams? Why was Chicago the perfect spot for him to begin his twisted acts? Director John Borowski is well aware of all the “Whys” that crop up when it comes to H.H. Holmes and with the narration of Tony Jay, along with re-enactments, old photographs, newspaper clippings and drawings, and stock footage, we’re presented with a man who seemed as normal and ambitious as can be in his beginnings, but became one of the most notorious criminals ever known in this country.

The center of Holmes work, for many, was his heinous exploits at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago where, in nearby Englewood, he erected a looming structure that seemed pleasant enough, so pleasant in fact that residents dubbed it “The Castle”. On the ground floor, contributing to that façade was a row of legit businesses that include a drugstore but inside was where it really counted for Holmes and it was where the horrors began. Holmes had some of the rooms decorated to seem like a good place for weary exposition-goers to find a place to sleep for the night or for a few days at that. On the second floor was where it really mattered, with vats of acid, cutting tables, and so much more. And in that part of the documentary, that’s where it really gets creepy if you stop to think about this for a moment: Holmes would kill his victims through various methods and then strip them down to bare skeleton where he would then sell them to various medical institutions and schools. Bare skeleton. This entails removing the skin, organs, draining the blood, wiping the skeleton completely clean to a whiter-than-white finish, a process that I imagine would take hours. But he did it and even had time for all else involved in his life, such as taking on a right-hand man in Benjamin Pitezel, who was down on his luck, and constantly looking for work and failing at all he tried which was not easy for him since he had a wife and five kids to support.

So much more is involved in the tale of Holmes and it is all brought to life here. The travels, some of the scams, the stories of the victims who found their way to Holmes and were never seen again, and more that paints a horrific picture of a human who couldn’t possibly inhabit the same form that we do. It’s absorbing throughout; showing a serial killer who you may not have heard of, but now you will remember him well.

There’s much to learn about Holmes in the documentary and even more to learn about the making of the documentary which is uncommon in its approach, using methods that would have it pegged more as a narrative feature. But this is one serial killer that cannot be made up. No highly-paid screenwriter with the biggest bulging brain cells in the world would be able to come up with Holmes. Unfortunately, if you start the extra features in order, beginning with the audio commentary by director/writer/producer John Borowski, you won’t learn much. Borowski’s commentary is the equivalent of having the documentary in audio form, in that he constantly refers to what’s happening on-screen as it’s happening, not giving much in the way of how a certain sequence was constructed, what it took to get it done, et. And after watching the documentary once, the last thing to do would be to go through it again in another fashion. Safe to say that it’s one of the most boring commentaries I have ever come across.

Reinforcements come in mighty quickly with “Making of H.H. Holmes” where Borowski demonstrates in 20 minutes what Hollywood should do with the making-of featurettes on their DVDs. Borowski explains his intentions of the documentary and footage recorded on set and in recording studios takes us deeper into the production than most Hollywood DVDs would into their productions. There’s no talking heads bragging about how great it was to work with this person, how the script touched them so deeply that they just had to make the movie (when it touches the wallet deeply, only then does it touch the heart), and more trite bullcrap that litters those. The footage found here shows Borowski directing an actress on how to react as she looks around this room that she can’t get out of, made to represent Holmes’ maze on the third floor of his castle, time spent with Tony Jay recording his narration, and an ingenious decision on the part of the editing in splitting the screen into color and black-and-white to show how a sequence in which Holmes’ opens the entrance to a hidden chute was made. Major studios should learn from this featurette in how to give consumers even more value.

The “Outtakes” show the scrap of footage that was never used, including an extended discussion of forensics which brings a little more depth to what was talked about in the documentary. The “Trailers” section shows that Borowski has impressive marketing savvy. There are three trailers, but trailer #2 makes the most impact, putting in all aspects of the film in tiny amounts. Clips of interviews, newspaper clippings, and all else that made H.H. Holmes what it is, is put in here but only in such a way to get audiences curious about what this documentary is all about, curious enough to want to pick up the DVD. As if that wasn’t enough, the “Poster Designs” section shows his obvious skill in that area too with the perfect teaser poster that has nothing more than a white outline of Holmes’ frame against a background with a question mark in the middle and the question, “Who is H.H. Holmes?” Plain and simple, with enough there to provoke the same kind of curiosity. Man, is he good!

“The Story Continues” is what finishes making up for the audio commentary in showing locations that existed back then in the mid 1890s and what they look like today. The photos speak clearly enough, showing how times have changed since H.H. Holmes was around.

Budding curiosity about H.H. Holmes should only grow faster once this documentary is seen. It’s an unsettling, yet fully satisfying look at a serial killer who was well-educated (he could have been an actual doctor), but was so twisted to the point where he turned out as he was. It’s good for those looking for an unusual story, but bad for those who were his victims.

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