11 May 2005 | mw_director
A skillful indie documentary, full of atmosphere and class
I came to this movie after seeing its rave review on Bloody-Disgusting.com. A fan of historical crime writer Harold Schechter's (who is interviewed in this film), I was surprised and delighted to see someone had attempted a documentary on H.H. Holmes, the subject of Schechter's book "Depraved". Then again, I suppose it wasn't too surprising, given the bestseller success of Erik Larsen's "The Devil in the White City", and the upcoming movie of same.
John Borowski knows his way around the documentary form, inter-cutting vintage photos, interviews, and clever re-enactments with a strong sense of balance. HHH:AFSK succeeds in conveying a sense of time and place, and communicating Holmes's psychosis. The narrative is gripping, and there's never a dull moment here. Unlike a lot of indie documentary directors, Borowski knows that making a documentary is still all about Film-making, not merely filmed journalism.
If HHH:AFSK lacks in any department, it is in conveying the full, jaw-dropping magnitude of Holmes's most audacious crime: his systematic murder of the Pitezel family, carried out while manipulating them to travel in two separate groups halfway across the US and even into Canada. Borowski also leaves out the detail that, on this evil trek, Holmes was also dragging along one of his three clueless wives! Borowski surprisingly rushes through the journey, making it all seem like just another of Holmes's outrageous deeds. Compared to the way Schechter evoked the cruelty of Holmes's actions and the heartbreaking emotional trauma suffered by the Pitezel children's mother in his book "Depraved", Borowski misses a chance for some really strong emotional depth.
But some things are, I suppose, going to get left out in an hour-long production. The running time is kind of odd. Too long to sell to TV (this film is certainly worthy of the History Channel, on which I have seen considerably worse stuff), too short for feature length. And yet, by the time it's over, you feel that to go to 90 minutes might have been just a shade too much. At 64 minutes, HHH:AFSK is perhaps just right, artistically though 70-75 would have been ideal, allowing Borowski to flesh out the story as I described above. Commercially, 64 minutes is problematic. Perhaps a direct-to-DVD release was all Borowski had in mind from the first.
Veteran actor Tony Jay provides brilliant narration with his one-of-a-kind voice (why isn't this man more famous!?), and there's a swell orchestral, Bernard Hermann-esquire score that I'm surprised Borowski was able to get. If anything gave me an unintentional smile watching the DVD, it was perhaps Borowski's tireless self-promotion in the bonus materials. I'd have gladly sacrificed Borowski's efforts on his making-of featurette if he had channeled that work into just a bit more of his documentary.
A worthy film for fans of true crime and American history rolled into one.