H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer Movie Review

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The title of "America's first serial killer" is a dubious distinction (and a tricky one to prove), but for the morbidly curious, H.H. Holmes lays out in detail exactly what America's first well-known serial killer was up to and how he carried out his slayings. Exactly why he did it will have to remain a mystery, though we're free to assume it's plain old psychosis.

This hour-long documentary has its most compelling moments at the start, discussing Holmes's life in 1880s Chicago and the "castle" he built in time for millions of visitors to arrive in the city for the World's Fair. Holmes was a doctor and an architect, and his three-story house featured dozens of rooms which he would rent out to boarders. Then there were the other rooms which served as dungeons, laboratories, and abattoirs. The house included mazes, trap doors, and soundproofed walls, all designed to make it easy for Holmes to butcher his victims and dispose of their bodies. (Researchers would later have trouble indentifying whether some of the bones found in the castle were even human in origin.)

Eventually, Holmes hits the road and, with a companion, performs short cons while riding the rails from city to city. He only got busted after he murdered his companion -- not during his heyday at the World's Fair. All told, Holmes probably murdered about 50 people, though nobody really knows for sure. And that's the problem with H.H. Holmes, the movie: No one is sure about much of anything. Holmes's diary is the only real source of credible evidence, but even that is unrevealing and limited in scope. Although he would serve as his own attorney during his trial and would later confess everything, even as Holmes was headed to the gallows, he again denied the charges against him. We never get inside Holmes's head. We never even get close.

John Borowski's film uses re-enactments and rather crude animations to visualize most of this; talking-head history buffs and forensics experts comprise the rest of the footage. Ultimately the movie that comes out of all of this is on the small side, more of a curiosity for the interested than a lasting commentary on the criminal mind.

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H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2004

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