In 1896 when America was stating to the world how modern it was it did not really realise how modern its people had become. Herman Webster Mudgett was one such man, well educated and a somewhat shrewd businessman, he crossed America to set up shop in Chicago. A doctor by profession, with much more unsavoury habits, and it was here that he would give a horror a new name.
Herman Webster Mudgett grew up in a suffocating environment; his father was a staunch religious man and he was prone to being bullied at school. He was a very clever child and he went through college and University eventually becoming a doctor, it was here during his medical studies that he started to play his macabre games.
In John Borowski’s debut movie, a documentary behind the man and mind of Mudgett who later recreated himself as H. H. Holmes, it is an assured look into the psyche of America’s first serial killer with Tony Jay providing an ominous tone in the narration of events. Indeed this country was becoming modern after all.
Holmes, when he settled himself in Chicago, built a mansion that was to be christened ‘the castle’ at the corner of 63rd and Wallace. Little did the people know that this was to become his house of death containing many chambers of horrors and death machines.
The film paints a portrait of the times and that of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Chicago’s celebrated World’s Fair. Here was a perfect picking ground for Holmes to search for his prey and take them back to his castle of terror. He was so sure of himself that he even had three wives on the go, each never knowing of each other’s existence. As for his guests, the people he picked up visiting the Exposition, some of these who checked into his ‘castle’ never checked out.
The movie does have a few problems, or to be more precise a problem and a few unanswered questions. For the problem, I do find these re-enactments a deviation and a hindrance to the very real horror and terror being portrayed. In the documentary ‘Terror in the Aisles’, Donald Pleasance turns to the screen, shaken with fright, and says, why do we create such ghastly things on the screen when there is so much real horror in the world, or words to that effect, I find what happens here is in opposition to that and by having actors and actresses walk through black and white recreated ‘vintage’ footage making things seem unreal, it actually adds a false quality to the proceedings reducing the shock value of Borowski’s fine effort. For my unanswered questions, well I guess I should thank the makers for peaking my interest and curiosity in the first place.
There is a fine and creepy story for a movie here if ever there was one for a good ol’ scare, and presently there is interest too in Hollywood in Erik Larson’s book ‘The Devil in the White City’, of which Borowski does admit it’s influence.
The DVD is well presented; an audio commentary comes from Borowski, but this feels more like an alternative to Jay’s narration as opposed to a commentary. What is more insightful is the making of featurette, here Borowski does what he should have done on the commentary, and told us warts and all about how the feature got made and what facts lie behind the story. The other extras form part of the marketing campaign with trailers, posters and T-shirt (?) and show a good marketing savvy from the makers.
A nice touch to finish things off is ‘The Story Continues’, showing the story locations in a now and then format clearly indicating how times have changed since the 1890’s.