KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Strong Brutal Violence, including a Rape

Directed by: Tim Metcalfe

Written by: Tim Metcalfe

(based on the book KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER by Carl Panzram)

Starring: James Woods, Robert Sean Leonard, Ellen Greene, Cara Buono, Robert John Burke, Richard Riehle, Harold Gould, John Bedford Lloyd, Jeffrey DeMunn & Steve Forrest

From 1920 to 1929, Carl Panzram killed (at least) 21 people and raped countless more. This psychopath told his gruesome life story in his own words in the autobiography KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER, which has since been verified by historians and criminologists. Panzram’s life story is fascinating as he was a monster who was in and out of torture-filled prisons and had a colorful history of leaving mayhem in his wake. His story seems perfectly built for a dark drama. This is precisely what director/screenwriter Tim Metcalfe thought because KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER attempts to detail Panzram’s violent history and his odd friendship with prison guard Henry Lesser. Unfortunately, it falters under cheap production values and artistic liberties that seem to push an unnecessary agenda.

In 1928, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard) starts working as a prison guard at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. On his first day, Henry meets inmate Carl Panzram (James Woods) who’s serving a sentence for burglary. Henry watches as Carl is subjected to brutal abuse from the other guards. Feeling sorry for this lost soul, Lesser befriends Panzram and convinces him to write his life story. Much to Lesser’s horror and fascination, he soon realizes that Carl is a meticulous serial killer who’s murdered 21 people and committed other heinous acts. Panzram wants to die as soon as possible and Lesser is strangely not okay with this. The two at-odds men engage in a very weird friendship as a possible day of execution draws near.

KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER had loads of potential to be a phenomenal true-crime drama about a uniquely evil serial killer who has been mostly forgotten to the sands of time and overshadowed by more famous monsters. However, KILLER encounters many problems from start to finish. The first of these comes in the clearly low-budget production values. It’s obvious that a big studio might not want to pour millions of dollars into a disturbing true story like this one, but the bland filmmaking on the same level of many mediocre made-for-TV movies. There’s almost nothing visually appealing about this film and many scenes are just plain ugly to look at.

On a positive note, the flashbacks to Panzram’s life are executed in an almost documentary-like fashion with old clips and black-and-white footage. This is about as cinematically compelling as the material gets and it consumes about 20 minutes of screen time. Another strong quality is James Woods’ performance as Carl Panzram. Though this film deliberately attempts to turn this inhuman killing machine into a sympathetic monster, Woods salvages whatever he can from this material and recites Panzram’s actual words in many scenes (the flashbacks are directly ripped right out of his autobiography). He’s scary in certain scenes, vicious in others, and even occasionally funny. Though Woods may not have the muscular build of Panzram, his face sort of resembles this real-life killer. Also, Woods seems right at home playing this scumbag because James Woods plays scumbags like nobody else.

Sadly, the good acting mainly lies in Woods’ Panzram. Robert Sean Leonard is wooden as Henry Lesser. His character mostly puzzles over how a sane man can commit such evil actions, while also trying to convince Panzram to avoid the death penalty. Leonard has no on-screen charisma and the film dedicates far too much of its time to his musings. The only other performances of note are Richard Riehle as an over-the-top warden, John Bedford Lloyd as briefly glimpsed psychiatrist Karl Menninger, and Steve Forrest as “Spud” Charles Casey.

KILLER’s main problems result from Metcalfe taking drastic artistic liberties by swapping real-life events for the sake of pushing a preachy agenda. You see, Panzram was far from a sympathetic psycho. He made no apologies for any of his crimes and confessed to sexually abusing countless children (something that the film decided to leave out for the sake of making him seem more “likable”). The way that KILLER portrays Panzram and Lesser’s friendship is exaggerated to say the least and strongly attempts to push an anti-death penalty/prison reform message. This message might have been more appropriate in a movie that didn’t revolve around a vicious monster. To boot, dialogue-filled scenes get very melodramatic and soap opera-y, especially in the dull-as-dirt final third.

KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER had lots of potential to be a compelling look at true evil and friendship in seemingly impossible places. If properly executed, this story could be one of the best true-crime films ever made, because Panzram’s life is morbidly fascinating and the material is ripe to be executed in a grand way. However, this low-budget effort suffers from poor acting (except for Woods) and writing that was purposely twisted to manipulate the viewer. Those who want to discover the story of Panzram are better off reading Panzram’s autobiography, listening to THE LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT’s stellar three-part episode on him, or doing both of those things. Sadly, I cannot recommend watching KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER as this is a disappointing missed opportunity.

Grade: C

TURBULENCE (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Strong Violence and Language

Turbulence poster

Directed by: Robert Butler

Written by: Jonathan Brett

Starring: Lauren Holly, Ray Liotta, Catherine Hicks, Hector Elizondo, Rachel Ticotin, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Cross, Jeffrey DeMunn

TURBULENCE is a much-maligned action thriller that was released in the dump months (January-February) of 1997. It quickly bombed (making about a fifth of its budget back) and appropriately nominated for two Razzies (Worst Actress and Worst Disregard for Human Life and Public Property). Mark my words, this is a bad movie and deserves the hatred it receives…yet, there’s something enjoyable about just how silly everything is. So bad it’s good is a phrase I rarely use in my reviews, purely for the fact that usually if some movie is that ungodly awful then it’s more enjoyable with a group of drunk friends and some pizza (e.g. THE ROOM or TROLL 2). TURBULENCE is a movie that I was actively cracking up at. I can wholly admit that it’s terrible, but also stupid fun.

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It’s Christmas Eve and Teri is stuck working a 5 hour flight to Los Angeles. To make matters worse, two criminals are being transported on her plane. An intricate series of events takes place and the passengers wind up being taken hostage by serial killer Ryan Weaver (an erratic Ray Liotta). It’s up to Teri to do everything within her power to land the plane and survive the ever-escalating (pun intended) situation. Just about every cliché and dumbass decision you can imagine follows, but it’s done in such ineptness that I couldn’t help having fun watching this stupid flick that comes off as a less-successful version of CON AIR with only two convicts and a plane full of naïve morons.

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The character of Teri (played by Lauren Holly a.k.a. Mary Swanson from DUMB & DUMBER) is one of the aforementioned morons. Initially pretty dumb to begin with, Teri makes some of the worst mistakes any character in a horror flick can make (though this doesn’t really belong in that genre with the exception of a crazed serial killer). One long sequence immediately lost any possibility of sympathy I might have garnered from her character. When a convicted killer tells you he needs a First Aid kit for an injured passenger and you happen to go out in the hallway to see a First Aid kit already sitting there, you might want to turn around and run into the safe confines of the cockpit. It’s one in a long line of silly mistakes and I can’t fathom a director or screenwriter that could honestly put this out there and not expect any backlash. Apparently, such people exist and TURBULENCE is the result.

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Besides Lauren Holly (playing Teri) delivering the most laughable lines of dialogue in the film, the other characters come off half-developed stereotypes that have been seen in over a dozen movies. Hector Elizondo is the one-note cop who planted evidence in order to arrest Weaver. His character doesn’t do much other than have phone conversations with Liotta’s lunatic here and there. Speaking of which, Ray Liotta is a tour-de-force of ridiculous behavior as Ryan Weaver. His delivery just seems off-kilter in trying to be subtle. When going over-the-top, Liotta completely jumps the shark. He’s nuts. There’s no other way of putting it.

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Brendan Gleeson also pops up as the Southern-accented criminal being transported with Liotta. Cop clichés litter the entire script. The ending is predictable and plenty of plot holes are in the road of getting to that point. However, for every bit of corniness, I did have fun watching this movie and don’t regret it. I was laughing and rolling my eyes the whole way through. How this ever got past the pre-production phase is beyond me, let alone why MGM funded this for 55 million. It’s no wonder that studio eventually wound up bankrupt. The studio apparently didn’t have any faith in the final cut either, because they dumped this movie in January (which is never a good sign in terms of quality).

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In the end, TURBULENCE is far from a good movie. It’s not even a decent one. To be perfectly honest, it’s bad. All around horribly written and unconvincing. With all this being said, I had fun watching it. Some of the problems can be seen a new light given the so-bad-it’s-good qualities. It’s also a little funny and sad to see once-acclaimed Ray Liotta going so far into campy territory with this film. I’m a bit surprised that TURBULENCE doesn’t have a similar cult following to THE ROOM or TROLL 2. I’d recommend this in the way that I’d recommend SHARKTOPUS. You know what you’re going in for and you won’t be disappointed in that respect. Trashy fun and guilty pleasure are the best things I can say about TURBULENCE. In this case, I’d call that a backhanded compliment.

Grade: C-

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