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.