John Borowski’s H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer is America’s first full-length documentary on Dr. Henry Howard Holmes about how he set up a death castle, disguised as a hotel, in Chicago during the late 1800s where he rented out rooms to guests who would later find themselves tortured to death in one of the castle’s many secret torture chambers. The film features grisly re-enactments, interviews with serial killer experts and old photos of the actual people and places involved. It shows that Borowski did his homework and then some in bringing this story to life.
We spoke with filmmaker John Borowski about what it took to create such an in-depth look into the evil that was H.H. Holmes.
Do you have a general interest in serial killers?
Growing up watching many horror and gore films, I guess a fascination with serial killers was the next logical progression. Tracing back the roots of horror films, many of them are based on actual people, such as Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. I’m really interested in their psychology and what makes them go to the extreme of killing other human beings so ruthlessly. It’s very frightening to know that serial killers exist in our world today. However, by making films on serial killers, I choose to face the fact that they exist, rather than ignoring or running away from it in fear.
Have you ever written to or visited any of the serial killers we currently have locked up?
The closest I’ve ever gotten to a serial killer is seeing the Dahmer photos when I was a teenager. At the time, a friend and I were into special makeup effects, like making masks and creature effects for film. He called me over to his place where his father, who was a detective, had the Dahmer file with his confession and photos that Dahmer had taken of his victims. Seeing these photos made such an impression on me that I had to make a film in college based loosely on Dahmer called “State of Mind.” Author Robert Bloch calls this a sort of “exorcism,” where, through art, artists rid themselves of negative things they have experienced or seen. The photos were awful, graphic depictions of his murders and I don’t think I’ll ever get the images out of my head.
What was it about the H.H. Holmes story that struck you in particular? Was it his keen moustache?
Well, since you mentioned it…his moustache actually did play a part in it. The most well known serial killers seem to have some type of distinguishing characteristic; Gein had his hunting cap, Holmes had the moustache and derby. What really fascinated me about Holmes was the fact that he designed and built his castle of horrors when he was in his twenties. Holmes could have been a very powerful and influential man in the gilded age, only he chose to go about it in evil ways. The most frightening aspect of Holmes is the fact that he was a highly intelligent serial killer who knew how to survive in nineteenth century Chicago, always staying one step ahead of the law.
Is there anything you left out of the Holmes story for running time concerns?
I could have made a ten-hour film based on all of Holmes’ exploits. Making the film, I knew it had to be historically accurate, and I chose what (as well as what not) to reveal. If I had opened the door to other aspects, such as Holmes’ own children, those would then have to be explained in detail. I understand that films should be certain lengths to accommodate their end product and what it will be used for. But I feel that films are an art form and length should be determined by the need of the film. My first cut was ninety minutes, but it was filled with too much talking and unnecessary references to modern serial killers. The final cut of the film is tight, allowing no room for anyone to take their eyes off the screen.
Where was your recreation of Holmes’ murder castle shot?
The ‘catacombs’ of the Come Back Inn restaurant, located in the ‘burbs of Chicago, served as the castle basement in the reenactments. As a filmmaker, my vision includes characters with unique faces that tell stories just by their looks, and locations that exude character. With the audience aware of the Holmes story being true, the catacombs, which resemble an old medieval torture dungeon, not only lends credibility to the scenes, but also makes for a creepy setting. Growing up watching classic horror films, my vision of the Holmes story was reflective of those films. The castle basement of the original Dracula was very influential. For the second floor reenactments, I built fake walls to interchange and shoot from various angles-all in my apartment. The shots of Alice Pitezel writing letters in a hotel were filmed at an 1800s mansion. Feature filmmaking is where my passion lies; the reenactment scenes were meant to exhibit that passion.
How was the film funded?
Credit, loans, and a little help from my friends. This is a strong, visual story so I took a chance on making the film myself. Knowing the difficulty first time filmmakers have in receiving funding, I felt this film would be the perfect vehicle of style and substance that I could use as a calling card to show off my skills as a filmmaker and I felt confident that by self-funding the film, good things would come from it. In the end I experienced a great journey by traveling to the main locations that were important in Holmes’ life such as his childhood home in New Hampshire, the college he attended in Michigan, the location where his building was here in Chicago, the location of his drugstore scam in St. Louis, and then finally Philadelphia where his trial was held and he is buried.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of SERIAL KILLING AMERICAN STYLE>>>