As a kid on the northwest side, John Borowski made monster masks and couldn’t get enough of films like Psycho and Jaws. When he was 13 he bought an eight-millimeter camera with money saved from odd jobs and started making his own rudimentary horror movies. A couple of years later a friend came across some gruesome pictures that belonged to his father, a police detective. “We were both into that horrific stuff, making masks and gore effects,” Borowski recalls. “He thought it was people with masks, or a special-effects catalog, before he realized what it really was”–photocopies of pictures that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer had taken of his victims after he’d dismembered them. “There were various body parts,” says Borowski: “a head on a sink, a body in a bathtub. They were pretty awful. I couldn’t get them out of my head.”
They were still haunting him in 1993, when as a film major at Columbia College he made a short film loosely based on Dahmer called State of Mind. Around then Borowski also found a passage in a history book that mentioned 19th-century serial killer H.H. Holmes, more recently the subject of Erik Larson’s best-seller The Devil in the White City. Holmes, a pharmacist who lived in Englewood, lured his victims (many of them women visiting the 1893 Columbian Exposition) to a three-story “murder castle” equipped with a dissection table, a crematorium, and other horrors. He sold his victims’ skeletons to medical schools and in some cases managed to collect on their insurance policies. Borowski was intrigued, but “it would have been too cliche to make a horror/gore story about this building where this mad doctor was killing people.”
It wasn’t until after he’d graduated and set up his own video production company that he read Harold Schechter’s 1998 Holmes bio Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer. “It followed his whole life–graduating from medical school, the castle, his wives and mistresses, traveling across the country with [his partner’s] kids,” whom he eventually killed. “But he wasn’t your typical serial killer. He was a prominent member of society. What fascinated me was his intelligence and how he could keep track of three wives and mistresses and the skeletons he would make and his businesses and life-insurance scams.”
Schechter is one of the experts Borowski interviewed for his 64-minute digital video documentary H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, which he completed in May after three years’ work. The interviews are interspersed with period photos, reenactments, and footage shot on location–at Holmes’s childhood home in Vermont, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (where he attended medical school), in the Philadelphia courtroom where he was convicted, and at his grave. It features eerie narration by Tony Jay (the asylum keeper in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) and a suitably creepy sound track by Douglas Romayne Stevens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel). Borowski says the whole thing cost “six figures,” financed with his savings and credit cards and loans from friends. To pay back his creditors he’s been selling “Who Is H.H. Holmes?” T-shirts and a CD-ROM featuring two memoirs: the one Holmes wrote in prison and another by Frank Geyer, the detective who tracked him down. Borowski has also been trying to arrange screenings–he started an e-mail campaign recently after being turned down by the Gene Siskel Film Center–and find a distributor. He’d like to tie his own marketing efforts to those for upcoming Holmes films produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise (the latter based on Larson’s book).
“I’m hoping Harold Schechter and myself will get some more exposure from the Hollywood films,” says Borowski, who’d like to one day make a feature about 1950s Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. “In a way that’s what I’m banking on.” Still, he says, “there’s something special about firsts. Even if I’m in debt forever, I’ll be remembered as the first person to make a film about H.H. Holmes.”
His film will be shown Tuesday night at 7:30 (doors open at 6) as part of a Chicago Community Cinema event that also includes a screening of Bill Ward’s short Private Dick and music by Naked and Shameless. It’s at Excalibur, 632 N. Dearborn, and the suggested donation is $8, $5 for students. For more see www.hhholmesthefilm.com or call 312-642-4222.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.