Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t holding back. After finally winning his first Oscar for Best Actor, 23 years and five nominations later, the superstar leading man is turning his attentions to his engrossing next project.
After his physically exhausting depiction of fur trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant, you might be thinking ‘how does he follow that?’ Well, the answer is; playing one of America’s most notorious serial killers. After some much needed R&R, DiCaprio will reconvene with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese for their sixth project together, The Devil in the White City.
The film will be an adaptation of Erik Larson’s bestselling 2003 book about the role of H.H. Holmes during the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Known as The Master of Murder Castle, Holmes killed approximately 200 people who attended the fair, becoming America’s first serial killer and still one of the worst.
“Young, good-looking, glib, he mesmerised businessmen and captivated and seduced pretty young women, at least two of whom he married bigamously,” wrote John Bartlow Martin in a fascinating article on Holmes in Harper’s magazine. “Physician, student of hypnotism, dabbler in the occult, gentleman of fashion, devious liar, skilful manipulator of amazingly complex enterprises, he died on the gallows when he was thirty-five.”
Holmes was that kind of ‘top notch’ serial killer, the one that seriously warrants the term ‘monster,’ according to Martin. Holmes himself was acutely aware of his own insanity. “Yes, I was born with the devil in me. I was born with the evil standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since,” he was apparently quoted as once saying.
Holmes used to lure his victims into his castle with his gentlemanly charm and charisma, before exposing them to his terrifying experiment room, which contained a gas chamber, a dissecting table and a crematorium.
He was a trained doctor, having graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. From his education, Holmes became obsessed with the anatomy. He would often dissect his victims and sell the remains for the purpose of medical research. Holmes also kept in his Murder Castle two giant furnaces, a pit of acid and a stretching rack. Yes, some serial killers decide to stab or strangulate their victims; Holmes was far more inventive, which only further reinforces the idea that he was a monster.
Martin’s article in Harper’s gruesomely depicts Holmes’s very own chamber of horrors: “Behind Holmes’s apartments were various rooms labeled in contemporary newspaper sketches as “five-door room,” “secret room,” “mysterious closed room” (behind this last was a “dummy elevator for lowering bodies” to the basement), “the black closet,” “room of the three corpses,” “sealed room all bricked in,” “blind room,” “another secret chamber,” “the hanging secret chamber,” and so on–nearly forty rooms in all.
“Near the rear of the house was an “asphyxiation chamber–no light–with gas connections.” Here the large purchases of gas fixtures becomes meaningful; it apparently was Holmes’s practice to lock victims in this sealed, asbestos-lined room and to turn on the gas. Immediately behind the asphyxiation chamber was another chute down which the bodies could be dispatched to the basement. Some of the rooms on this second storey were lined with iron plates, some had false floors that concealed tiny airless chambers, nearly all had gas connections. The doors to all the rooms were wired to an elaborate alarm system which rang a buzzer in Holmes’s apartments.”
He didn’t get away with it, thankfully. His exploits were exposed by Marion Hedgepath, a notorious train robber and Wild West outlaw. Holmes was subsequently sentenced to the death penalty. A petition was also granted to have Holmes’s body buried ten feet underground and encased in concrete so that grave robbers couldn’t exhume the corpse and dissect it.
Now, the film, based on Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, has emerged from a decade in the abyss of development hell. DiCaprio bought the rights to adapt the book back in 2010 and with Scorsese signing on to direct, the actor and filmmaker’s sixth collaboration together might be their most challenging, brutal and downright controversial. Of course, DiCaprio is no strange to playing villains and madmen, as demonstrated in J Edgar (based on J Edgar Hoover’s life), Shutter Island, Django Unchained and The Aviator, so there is perhaps nobody better to approach playing one of America’s most fascinating but disturbing true-life characters.
Indeed, Scorsese is no stranger to making distressing films about abhorrent individuals – Cape Fear, Shutter Island and Gangs of New York proved that.