John Borowski is a Chicago filmaker who has delved into the world of serial killers since day one. His films examine the lives of some of the most brutal murderers society has ever dealt with. But John prefers to cover the pre-1930s serial killers. His films cover men like H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish and Carl Panzram, all vicious psychopath killers who plied their trade before CSI and modern day police investigative techniques. John also did a film on serial killer culture, examine the people who collected serial killer artifacts and wrote to the criminals as they did their time on death row, waiting to be executed. If you are into murderabilia and this sort of stuff then John’s films are for you. Check them out and check out this interview he did with The Gr1nd.
When did you start making films and why?
I always loved the cinema, all genres of film really. So movies were always a passion of mine since an early age. Watching movies on TV, pre-VHS, was always an event. Jaws and Psycho are two movies I remember watching every year when they were on TV. Those are also two of my favorite films ever. When I was a teenager, I collected films. I was a mini rental store for my family, who would come to me and I had a card catalog with all my films listed by alphabetically and the corresponding VHS tape number. My sister is to blame for beginning my love of horror films and all things macabre really. She even turned me on to Edgar Allan Poe and Edward Gorey. Beginning with the classic Universal horror films, I eventually graduated to slasher films and couldn’t get enough horror. Of course Hitchcock’s films played a big part in my becoming interested in psychological murder thrillers. When I was a teenager, I became interested in special makeup effects and began practicing the art by creating prosthesis and masks and utilizing my creations in 8mm short films I would shoot with my best friend. The makeup effects of Dick Smith (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Taxi Driver) were really an inspiration to me.
What led to the Serial Killer angle?
When I was in college I was researching for an essay on Chicago history and came across the story of the castle of H.H. Holmes. This fascinated me but it really wasn’t until I read Harold Schechter’s book Depraved that I learned about Holmes entire life, which was equally fascinating as the building itself. That was when I decided to make my first features documentary film on the life of America’s first documented serial killer, H.H. Holmes who literally laid the groundwork for all future serial killers in America.
H.H. Holmes was an evil genius and macabre entrepreneur who designed a building in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair and rented rooms out where he gassed victims and after dissecting their bodies and stripping the flesh from their bones, sold the skeletons to local medical schools and universities. H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (2005) covers Holmes’ entire life from birth to his eventual trail where he served as his own attorney. Ted Bundy would follow Holmes’ lead and become his own attorney at his trail as serial killers love to be the center of attention.
What are the other films about?
Albert Fish was a sadomasochistic child murdering cannibal who was the original Stranger Danger, preying on youths in depression era New York City. He is most well known for sending a letter to the mother of his victim Grace Budd, where he details how he cooked and ate her. Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation (2007) is the second and last film I had the pleasure of working with actor Tony Jay who served as narrator and worked on numerous Disney films and animated shows.
Carl Panzram was a lifelong criminal who was abused in American jails and prisons. In 1928 he met the kind young jail guard Henry Lesser, who convinces Panzram to write his autobiography so that others can learn how he was created and hopefully prevent other monsters from being made in his image. For Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance (2012), I filmed Panzram’s actual handwritten papers at the University of San Diego and also filmed at Leavenworth and Clinton Penitentiaries which were very frightening places and I am glad I was on the outside of their walls.
My latest released film, Serial Killer Culture (2014), focuses on the artists and collectors who are inspired by serial killers.
How’d the Serial Killer Culture documentary come about?
While I was wrapping up production on my film on Panzram, I began to look at all of the contacts I had made through my career of making films on serial killers. They were an interesting bunch of people to say the least. So I decided to create a film where I would give murderabilia collectors and artists their opportunity to tell their side of the story regarding why they are interested in such a gruesome topic. After the film was released, I received a card from a young woman in California which read: “You make my F***ing Day” where she went on to write how she thought she was alone in her macabre interest in serial killers and that it was nice to know there were others out there who shared her interest.
What role do you play in the making of your films?
As a 100% independent filmmaker, I wear almost every hat when making my films. The upside to this is that I have complete control and my passion shines through in the final product. The downside is that it is a lot of time and work for myself where if I had budgets, I would be able to hire more crew members to work with me on the films and concentrate on producing and directing. When I studied film, I made sure to learn about every phase of film production and I did not take directing classes because I feel that a filmmakers unique vision cannot be taught. I do hire cast and crew members such as actors, cinematographers, sound designers, and composers but I write, produce, direct, and edit my films. I am always seeking investors and/or potential partners to expand my catalog of film titles as I am beginning to produce feature films.
How does crowdfunding come into play for your films?
There were several previous online fundraising campaigns I had run for my films Panzram and Serial Killer Culture which served as the training ground of the realities of these types of fundraisers. They are extremely difficult to run and even more difficult to achieve success with. Because of both of our fanbases, we successfully achieved the goal of the Kickstarter fundraiser. The main problem came about a week or two after the launch of the fundraiser. Someone had taken offense to some aspect of the fundraiser and complained about it on Facebook so everything pertaining to the fundraiser and film were blocked on Facebook. This presented a problem because Facebook works closely with Kickstarter and ultimately determines the success of the fundraiser through spreading the word on social media. I could not even paste the link to the fundraiser in a message on Facebook. I was infuriated about several things, especially the fact that someone’s bias towards two major American artists working together could be blocked by the major social media platform on the internet. I have learned that in the film industry, everything is a battle that must be fought for. So I put my polyester suit on and marched down to the Chicago Facebook office and took the elevator to the only floor it would take me to, then I took the freight elevator to the Facebook office where I was buzzed in. I politely explained the situation to the young man at the front desk who mentioned that he may not be able to help and it was blocked by “autobots”. My response was that therein lies the problem and it needs to be addressed since I could not think of anything that was offensive about the fundraising campaign. Four hours later, the block was removed so I won that fight.
Give us a little history on yourself where you grew up, what you were interested in and how you got into film?
I grew up raised by my mother on the northwest side of Chicago. My parents divorced when I was young. My mother would take me to films all of the time. My older sister lived with us and she made sure to feed me a healthy diet of classic horror films. Vincent Price is my favorite horror actor and if he was alive, I wanted his voice for my film on H.H. Holmes. I always had a cinematic mind. When I was a child, I would build skyscrapers out of cardboard boxes to play with action figures in and even made doorways, chutes, and ladders in the boxes. I was seven years old when my sister told me about a movie she went to see where astronauts discover eggs on an alien planet and an alien bursts from the chest of a host. That film was Alien and I was seven years old when I saw it and since I knew the chestburster scene was approaching, I looked away in fear when the bloody scene happened. So imagine my joy when in 2015 while filming Bloodlines, I was able to stand in front of the props from the film at the H.R. Giger museum in Switzerland. It is true that in life it is all about the journey. I am very lucky to have been able to live out some of my dreams.
Learn more about John’s films here.
If you like this article then check out this profile on the supremely talented artist Riana Moller.