Albert Fish is a cult film waiting for the faithful to find it. Sadly, I don’t seem to be one of the chosen. Call me an old stick-in-the mud, but a docudrama about an elderly cannibalistic child molesting serial killer just isn’t my cup of tea.
Not that the history of Albert Fish isn’t an intense story. But this particular telling of it has left me with some reservations. The thing that is really confounding is how well it is made. The production values that director John Borowski has put into it are first rate. The casting of Oto Brezina as Albert is wonderful, the cinematography is lush and vivid, and the soundtrack is perfect. Of special note is Tony Jay’s voice-over narration. Together they make an admirable package. (What’s in the package is another matter altogether.)
The problem I have with Albert Fish (the film) is that there isn’t anything particularly enlightening about Albert Fish (the man). Sure, he’s a cannibal and serial-killing pederast but I have to agree with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” Evil is just plain ordinary and Albert’s base behavior is simply that, base and common. It’s something anyone could do, in theory, though most of us choose not too, usually without having to think about it.
Now, if Albert had been a serial killer and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, then you’d have an interesting character. This is what makes Hannibal Lector so compelling. It’s probably also what makes a real life Hannibal so unlikely.
A Cannibal’s Life
According to the film, Albert had a rough childhood. Raised in an orphanage, he saw, did, and had things done to him that warped him for life. Or rather, they got him started on a career of bending his character so far out of alignment as to be something beneath human.
The film offers other details, like his becoming a house painter (so that he could move from town to town), and being married and having 6 children. But where the film really picks up on Albert’s story is with the kidnaping and murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd in 1928, with the pièce de résistance being that, after killing Grace, Albert ate her. He was 58 at the time.
The crime went unsolved for 7 years until Albert was lured out of hiding by a comment in a Walter Winchell column. Albert made the mistake of replying with a letter detailing how he killed and ate the girl, and it was through that letter that he was tracked down. After his capture, he confessed to the Budd killing and to three others. The exact number of his victims remains unknown. He was executed in Sing Sing Prison in 1936 at the age of 65. He is said to have been the oldest person to die in the electric chair. The film itself is centered on the Budd killing, and the other points are made as asides to that event.
The Wrong Approach
I felt like Borowski wants to put Albert on a pedestal rather than under the microscope. This imparts an undeserved grandeur on Albert, rather like fans of the Third Reich dressing in Wehrmacht regalia, ostensibly in the name of history, but in fact because they dig Nazis. Furthermore, I don’t think that Borowski has erred in making the film this way. He knows his audience. I’m afraid that the people who will appreciate this film the most will see it as another horror film... Freddy come alive and the story made all the more delicious because it’s true.
Particularly annoying to me were the reenactment/visualizations of Albert’s religious delusions. Curiously, the notion that Albert was operating under some kind of religious fervor is intriguing, and possibly could have been the basis for a much better film. Borowski does work with that theme, however any serious consideration is watered down by the beautiful shots of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and a thorn-crowned Jesus voguing for the camera.
Then we go sailing merrily over the edge of credulity with multiple scenes of bare asses being whipped. Sure that was integral to the development (or in this case, devolvement) of Albert’s personality but in this case I think we are supposed to relish the view and not the idea. It is titillation and not enlightenment.
Odds and Ends
In the course of the film we meet artist Joe Coleman, an outsider artist, Oddatorium producer, Fish scholar and current owner of the letter Fish wrote that ultimately led to his capture. Coleman claims to have many of the demons that haunted Fish but has somehow managed to find alternate channels for that negative energy, specifically his busy and disturbing paintings. Sadly, it is up to Coleman himself to make that point. I think that with Joe Coleman we have the subject for a real documentary. But where is the commercial draw in that? “Joe Coleman: America’s Most Bizarre Quasi-Murderer... (who paints instead of kills)”. Nope, that just won’t sell like the tarted-up Albert Fish whup-ass story.
One point made in the film did make me sit up and take notice. It turns out that one of the doctors that examined Fish while he was in prison was Dr. Frederic Wertham. Dr. Wertham is a slight boogeyman of sorts well known to comic book enthusiasts as the man who killed the comic book. Or rather, his book Seduction of the Innocent and his campaign against exposing children to violent media caused the comic book industry to establish the Comics Code, an industry self-regulation that put EC Comics out of business. Dr. Wertham testified at Fish’s trial, arguing that he was insane at the time of the Budd murder and in fact insane at that moment. If you do a Wikipedia search on Dr. Frederic Wertham, you’ll see that he’s mainly noted for two things, Albert Fish and the Comics Code.
Borowski admits that he had Albert Fish originally in mind as a dramatic film based on the Fish story. I think that he didn’t completely shake that idea off. As noted above, there is a lot of material here for a truly disturbing documentary, but it seems to me that instead its sights are aimed at entertainment. By aiming low, it tilts toward pandering and porn. I won’t say that Albert deserved better but perhaps the audience might.
This DVD boasts a ton of extras! The interview with director Borowski is particularly interesting if you, like I, watched the film and then wished you hadn’t. Noteworthy is his rationalization of the dramatic recreations. The other interviews are good too, particularly the additional footage of Joe Coleman holding forth on a variety of topics. There is even an interactive map of Coleman’s portrait of Albert Fish that allows you to look at the painting in detail. And considering the detail that Coleman puts in his paintings, you’ll need it.
Picture and Sound
First rate all the way around. It’s a very well crafted film.
How to Use this DVD
There is an audience for this film and there is an audience that will have no part of it. The label “Elderly Cannibalistic Child Molesting Serial Killer” will sort them out just fine. If for some reason you watch it even though you know better, then it’s your own fault.