H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (2004)

  • Time: 64 min
  • Genre: Documentary | Crime | History
  • Director: John Borowski
  • Cast: Beka, Tony Jay, Ed Bertagnoli


Depicts the entire life of Herman Mudgett, AKA Holmes, and his castle of horrors. Also known as the torture doctor, Holmes designed his own building, complete with torture chambers, where he rented rooms to unsuspecting victims visiting the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Focuses on Dr. Holmes’ entire life of crime and villainy (1861-1896). Threaded with on-location footage from Holmes’ past haunts, such as his childhood home in New Hampshire and the Philadelphia courtroom where his trial was held. It’s a visual tour-de-force of reenactments, expert interviews, and period photography.

One comment

  • Anyone who shares my own morbid fascination with serial killers know that finding a well-made and thoroughly researched documentary feature on the Ted Bundy’s and Jeffrey Dahmer’s of this world is extremely hard to come by. The grisly subject matter tends to attract the attention of daytime crime channels that churn out hour-long true crime stories that sensationalise the horror to admittedly entertaining degrees (they’re a good way to pass an hour), or no-name directors who substitute anything resembling a psychological character study for something all the more exploitative (although there is the odd exception, see 2000’s Ed Gein or 2002’s Bundy for examples of the kind of duds I’m referring to). John Borowski’s H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer is a crude mixture of both.

    H.H. Holmes, the notorious mass-murderer made all the more infamous for his carefully constructed ‘castle’ of labyrinthine corridors and winding staircases that led to various torture chambers and rooms rigged for death, arrived in Chicago in 1886. Landing a job at a chemist, Holmes eventually purchased the business when the owner died, promising the widow to pay her in monthly instalments only for her to never be seen again. Amassing a tidy sum of money through various conning schemes, Holmes constructed his house of horrors, regularly firing the workers after a short period of time to ensure that only he knew the true structure. When the World’s Fair arrived in 1983, Holmes preyed upon the tourists who flooded into the city, killing up to an estimated 200 people during his spree.

    Running at little over an hour, this cheap-as-chips documentary feels like a stretched-out TV special, repeatedly using the same stock footage and photographs as narrator Tony Jay blandly reads from his script, informing us of facts and theories that a better director than John Borowski would have wound into the narrative in other, more intelligent ways. As Holmes operated so long ago, the little that is actually documented about his activities and the lack of forensic analysis now so taken for granted only adds to the mystery and sheer creepiness of this terrible man, but the documentary, somehow, fails to exploit this, using laughable re-enactments that even fail in comparison to the likes of the Born to Kill? true crime series. If you have a spare half an hour and internet access, you would learn more from Holmes’s Wikipedia page than you will from this movie.

    Rating: 2/5

    Read more reviews at The Wrath of Blog

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