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Facets presents
H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer (2004)

"Torture doctor. Monster of 63rd Street. H.H. Holmes was America's first serial killer."
- narrator (Tony Jay)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: December 01, 2004

Stars: Tony Jay, Harold Schecter, Thomas Cronin, Marian Caporusso
Director: John Borowski

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (discussion of violence, images of cadavers)
Run Time: 01h:04m:29s
Release Date: October 26, 2004
UPC: 616892596325
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Depending on your where your tastes lie on the subject of serial killers, the name H.H. Holmes may or may not mean a whole lot to you. Some rumors give him a victim count of well over 50, but that's up for speculation, though the mythos of the late 1800's murder/crime spree of Holmes was given a shot in the arm when Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City was published a few years ago. That book truly helped boost Holmes somewhat higher into public awareness, and brought to light the fiendish house of horrors that he constructed during the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1893 Chicago.

Writer/director John Borowski tackles the legend with his documentary H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer, spending 64 minutes exploring the killer's life and times, using a combination of stock footage, old photographs and new reenactments filmed in an intentionally grainy and jittery stylized manner. In between splendidly ominous narration from Tony Jay, Borowski also interjects some comments from Harold Schecter (author of the outstanding Holmes bio Depraved), as well criminal profiler Thomas Cronin and forensic expert Marian Caporusso.

This is the kind of tale that would seem farfetched in a novel, but knowing that it really happened makes it all the more disturbing. Holmes' construction of his boarding house, "Castle," at 63rd and Wallace in Chicago, complete with greased chutes for dumping bodies into the basement, torture rooms, crematorium, and assorted rooms outfitted as death chambers seems almost like something out of the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. Even the unbelievable diligence of Pinkerton detective Frank Geyer—the man who would eventually connect all the dots—would seem hard to swallow if it were presented as fiction. Unfortunately, Borowski gives Geyer's story a comparatively quick once-over here; it is really an amazing saga on its own merit, something that Larson and Schechter explore at greater length in their books.

The Holmes story is an equally grim and fascinating one, and Borowski paints a concise, well-researched exploratory look, including some chilling excerpts from Holmes' own autobiography, written by the killer while in prison. It was no doubt a challenge to have to rely largely on old pictures and reenactments, but Borowski mixes the two together effectively for a tight overall narrative that is visually appealing without being tedious; the presentation here is enhanced even more so by a particularly strong Dolby Digital 5.1 track.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer is presented by Facets in a solid 1.33:1 full-frame transfer. Borowski employs a number of different visual styles, including some intentionally aged black-and-white reenactments, and those sequences mix well with the old photos and stock footage used to pad the narration. The modern day input from the three experts, presented in color, look fine, though is used sparingly.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: For a low-budget indie doc, the 5.1 track found here is really an unexpected treat. Not only does Tony Jay's voice come across with a deep richness, the mix is surprisingly expansive, and making good use of rear channels (most notable during the sequences set inside "The Castle"). The presentation here has a truly understated spatial movement that creates a very pleasing soundstage, the kind that is seldom seen in docs like this. An acceptable 2.0 track is also included, and it is more than adequate, but the 5.1 option is where it's at.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
3 Original Trailer(s)
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John Borowski
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Writer/director John Borowski contributes a full-length commentary track, and it provides some background on the creation and development of the production (from the look to the selection of narrator Tony Jay), as well as his research into Holmes. The accompanying Making of H.H. Holmes (21m:39s) covers much of the same ground in less time, with the added benefit of some behind-the-scenes footage, including new footage of the former location of Holmes' "Castle".

Outtakes (05m:03s) are actually three deleted scenes, most of which features forensic expert Marian Caporusso. The Story Continues... offers text screens with updated info on three locations from the doc: The Castle, Moyamensing Prison, and New Hampshire. Lastly, there are three theatrical trailers, a couple of poster designs, text bios for Borowski and Tony Jay, and links to H.H. Holmes merchandise. The disc is cut into 24 chapters.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A mesmerizing and dark look back at the man credited with being America's first serial killer, writer/director John Borowski's take on the H.H. Holmes story is a quick-moving and creepy history lesson. Borowski smoothly blends actual photos, stylized "aged" reenactments and comments from a few modern experts, all connected by the gloriously moody narration from the great Tony Jay.

Highly recommended.


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