Interview By Chris Wiggum
John Borowski’s ALBERT FISH starts with the New York cityscape. The camera moves in and the Big Apple circa 1920 jumps to life: city sights and sounds are intercut at an increasingly frenzied pace. In the midst of this societal jumble is Albert Fish, serial killer and cannibal. A slight, old man – 66 at the time of his arrest – Fish easily disappeared into the bustle of a booming town. His extreme religious ferocity was easily mistaken for commonplace piety and his unassuming appearance betrayed nothing nefarious. But Fish boasted to have molested over 100 children and was a suspect in 5 murders. He was convicted for killing Grace Budd, a murder he confessed to in a famed and bluntly brutal letter in which he described the tenderness of her flesh as he ate her entire body. The letter, sent to Grace Budd’s mother, was the ultimate malicious boast, capping a career of killing and abuse that Fish viewed as his chosen responsibility and ultimately the will of God.
John Borowski tells the tale of Fish deftly and with force. Presenting a trove of information, he uses recreations to directly involve the audience in the viscera of Fish’s maleficence, and interviews several Fish experts who attempt to penetrate the psychology of this riddle of a man. It is easy to dismiss Fish as insane, but he pleaded insanity in his trial, a gesture that the jury dismissed, ultimately sending Fish to the electric chair. Whether sane or not, Fish’s evildoings were carefully considered, and Borowski investigates every nook and cranny of the mind of his subject. By the closing credits it’s uncanny how closely one seems to have come to Fish – a sensation heightened by Borowski’s recreations – and it might be awhile before you can again stomach the prospect of eating rump roast.
I spoke with Borowski (whose previous film, H.H. HOLMES: America’s First Serial Killer, also looked at a legendary killer) about ALBERT FISH, his penchant for examining the minds of murderers, and of cooking tips.
How did you come across the story of Albert Fish? Is there a cult interest in Albert Fish, or is he widely unknown?
I first heard of Albert Fish when I began researching the torture doctor, H.H. Holmes. Every aspect of Fish’s creepy life story fascinated me. Having always enjoyed horror films, I was especially drawn to the horrific side of his life and murders. The serial killer as celebrity really began in the 1960’s and 70’s with television news footage of the Charles Manson case. A resurgence of interest in Albert Fish began at that time with Mel Heimer’s book, The Cannibal. Since then Fish has become one of the most well known cannibals in the serial killer culture.
What is your aim with the film? To entertain, inform, or unnerve?
All three! Feature filmmaking is my truest passion, so I strive to create a documentary that is more entertaining than just talking heads and still photos. I saw Fish as a dilapidated soul. To reflect this visually, I filmed Fish in empty locations such as an empty apartment building and an empty basement. The film is frightening and informative because the story and all of the quotes are entirely factual. For me, the object of art is to evoke thought and emotion in the viewer. It was my goal to capture the essence of Fish’s character through strong visuals of the reenactments and sounds of the voice-over, which were added for atmosphere and mood.
How would you put the film in context for someone going into it with no knowledge of Albert Fish? Or would you just let them go into it blind?
Blind is fine, probably preferred. It’s best to watch my films at least two times. There is so much information conveyed that you might something during the first viewing.
What do you hope people take away from it?
There are many lessons to be learned from the story of Albert Fish. Some of the more obvious are “stranger danger” and “appearances can be deceiving”. But the less obvious lessons are what I hope people will recognize, lessons such as the effects of cruelty and pain inflicted on those who are helpless. So far, the top two things people have commented on after watching the film are: understanding why Fish killed and realizing the great amount of blood and gore in the bible.
Talk about the structure of the film: you start with the Grace Budd murder, and Fish’s capture. Why start with what is essentially the end?
Many telling aspects of Fish’s mindset came from Dr. Wertham’s examination of Fish as well as Fish’s confession and letters. Had I told the story chronologically, it would have taken about two-thirds of the film to finally reach the important, powerful themes such as cannibalism and his religious delusions because these did not come to light until he wrote the letter to the Budds and after was apprehended. Actually, I first wrote a feature narrative script of the Fish story (which I still want to film in the future) and in it, I tell the story chronologically and interweave the aspects of Fish’s mindset of his life throughout the entire script.
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