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Killer: A Journal of Murder (film)

Killer: A Journal of Murder is a 1995 American drama film written and directed by Tim Metcalfe. It is based on the life of serial killer Carl Panzram, and uses passages from his autobiography of the same title. James Woods stars as Panzram and Robert Sean Leonard as Henry Lesser. Other stars include Ellen Greene as Elizabeth Wyatt, Cara Buono as Esther Lesser, Robert John Burke as R.G. Greiser and Richard Riehle as Warden Quince. Michael Jeffrey Woods, James Woods' young brother also made an appearance as Harry Sinclair.[1]

A Journal of Murder
Killer A Journal of Murder DVD Cover 1995.jpg
Dutch DVD cover of "Killer: A Journal of Murder"
Directed byTim Metcalfe
Produced byJanet Yang
Mark Levinson
Lisa Howard (line producer)
George Linardos (associate producer)
Lisa Moiselle (associate producer)
Oliver Stone (executive producer)
Melinda Jason (executive producer)
Screenplay byTim Metcalfe
Based onKiller: A Journal of Murder
by Carl Panzram
Music byGraeme Revell
Edited byRichard Gentner
Breakheart Films
Ixtlan Productions
Spelling Films
Distributed byFirst Independent Films (UK Theatrical)
Legacy Releasing Corporation (US Theatrical)
Republic Pictures (US VHS/DVD)
Release date
September 1995 (Japan)
September 6 1996 (US)
16 May 1997 (UK)
Running time
91 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$65,682

The film was theatrically shown in America in 1996 through Legacy Releasing Corporation, although limited, and in 1997 by First Independent Films in the UK, whilst in Spain, it was shown through Ufilms. It was first shown in September 1995 at the Tokyo International Film Festival.[2] In America, the film grossed $31,993 on its opening weekend across 9 Screens.[3] Total gross in America totaled $65,682.

In America the film was first released on VHS in the Netherlands via Arcade Movie Company, and on DVD in Japan via Beam Entertainment and Culture Publishers in 1998. On VHS it was released in Canada via Malofilm Distribution, in Greece via Nea Kinisi Video, in Germany via VCL Communications and in Brazil via Top Tape. In 1997 it was given a VHS release in America via Republic Pictures, who also released a DVD version in 2001 and a widescreen DVD edition in 2006.[4][5]


During the latest of many imprisonments for burglary, Panzram (James Woods) forms an uneasy friendship with prison guard Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard). Panzram asks Lesser for writing equipment and proceeds to write his life story, in which he confesses to several murders. Only one bright spot is shown: a kindly warden who staunchly believes in rehabilitation and whom Panzram appeared to actually like. However, his actions destroy the rehabilitation program—Panzram ends up raping a woman when granted a furlough.

After recounting his life of homicide and crime, and refusing to apologise for any of it, Panzram ends up beating to death a prison guard, and is sentenced to death. Lesser tries to convince the condemned man to appeal by claiming insanity, but Panzram stubbornly refuses, and in one scene makes his hatred of his own existence clear to Lesser by angrily declaring "I want out of this body, I want out of this life!"

In the end, Panzram gets his wish and is hanged. In his last hours he steadfastly refuses to appeal for clemency, and even chases away a priest who comes to hear his confession. Before his hanging, he urges the executioner to go faster, saying "Hurry up, you Hoosier bastard. I could kill ten men while you're fooling around here."

Despite showing obvious disgust at Panzram's crimes, Lesser is troubled by Panzram's death. Throughout the movie, Lesser's relationship with his wife Esther (Cara Buono) is also briefly touched upon. It is to her he confides his experiences with dealing with Panzram's violent and nihilistic outlook on life, although she has difficulty understanding the people her husband must deal with in his line of work.



Screenwriter Tim Metcalfe found a copy of Panzram's journal in a used-book store, read it and spent five years attempting to get the story onto the screen.[6]

Filming locations in America included Connecticut and Rhode Island. Places within Connecticut included Groton, New London and Norwich.[7]

The film was dedicated to Sam Peckinpah because The Wild Bunch inspired Metcalfe to become a director.[8] The film was Metcalfe's first directorial project.[9] In 1999, the film was referenced in the film Tomorrow by Midnight, starring Alexis Arquette.[10]

Thematic elementsEdit

The film employs many flashbacks to flesh out Panzram's adult life, although significantly it only briefly mentions his murders and instead concentrates on his experiences in prison. In some of these flashbacks, Woods narrates by reading the actual words of Panzram's confession. Seth Romatelli portrays a teenaged Carl Panzram during these flashbacks.

Critical receptionEdit

The film received mixed reviews.

Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas described the film as "powerful". He felt the film "goes beyond sending a message to illuminate a remarkable friendship" and concluded that "Woods is better than the picture, but he's so much the picture it scarcely matters."[11]

Time Out Film Guide praised Woods' performance, noting "he's terrifyingly alive in the part". Describing the film as "tough" and "gritty", the reviewer noted that the film "never flinches from the disturbing truths Panzram represents."[12] Richard von Busack of Metroactive praised Woods' "outstanding" performance and Metcalfe's handling of "period slang". He described Woods as being the "soul" of the film, and praised the film for maintaining "moral equilibrium without being a hand wringer". However, he disapproved of the film's flashback montages, "overly dramatic" music and "ineffective women characters."[13]

Bob Strauss of Los Angeles Daily News described the film as being "modest and absorbing", which "soon establishes its own hard, fascinating particulars". Although he pointed out the film's initial impression as being a "lower-budgeted" Dead Man Walking, he concluded: "We end up with an intimate knowledge of the minds of sympathetic guard Henry Lesser and the appalling - but never less than achingly human - Carl Panzram."[14]

For Nitrate, Carrie Gorringe praised Woods' "violent and spectacular performance". Describing the film as "shocking", Gorringe commented that the film "provided a most unpleasant set of insights into not only the psychopathology of familial abuse, but the scarifying conditions that existed in the American penal system. In an interview, Metcalfe expressed a belief that the film's emphasis is centered more upon the naivete of Lesser's liberal do-goodism and its inadequate response to the unadulterated and irremediable evil of Panzram who, in his writings, inadvertently revealed his own suspicions that he was born evil. In my opinion, this film accomplishes both tasks effortlessly."[15]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times praised the casting of Woods as "a good choice", praising his "powerful, searing performance". However, Ebert felt the film was "less than forthcoming" about Panzram's past, and that the film needed to better "humanize" the character. He summarised: "If you want to understand what's going on in Killer, see Butterfly Kiss. It will deconstruct the earlier film for you, while itself remaining opaque and disturbing - as it should."[16]

Emanuel Levy of Variety noted the film's "obligatory sequences with stubborn inmates and cruel guards". He praised the "tightly constructed, fast-moving scenario" as being "intelligent and knowing", but added that Panzram's case was perhaps "too complex" for adaptation. Levy felt the film failed to "dig deep enough into the formation and workings of a troubled psyche, which should have been the dramatic core. Instead, Metcalfe conveniently settles for a less ambitious task, a relationship film between two opposites."[17][18]

The Spokesman-Review reviewed the film in January 1997, describing it as a "serious attempt" to portray the story of Panzram. The reviewer praised Woods' "patented, jangle-nerved performance", but was critical of Metcalfe's "inability to make a cogent statement about the death penalty, pro or con."[19] Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Examiner described the film as an "earnest and often striking drama". Although he felt the film was "a bit simplistic", he praised the film's "affecting turns on the theme of human redemption" as well as Woods' and Leonard's performances.[20]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle criticized the film's focus on the relationship between Panzram and Lesser, which he felt made for a "series of rather static encounters". He also felt the script did not delve deep enough into the story, resulting in a "lightweight effort". However, he praised Woods as being "always fun to watch", with "a couple of inspired moments."[21] Michael Janusonis of Providence Journal praised the "good performances" of the two leading actors, however criticized the film's lack of "depth and flashiness and snappy pacing needed for it to score high with audiences and most critics."[22] felt that without Lesser's "sympathetic treatment" towards Panzram, there was "little to keep you interested in either man". The reviewer noted the film's "quaintly nostalgic feel of a Depression-era prison", but questioned the film's story: "If Panzram has no redeeming features both men could be readily dismissed; the inmate as a monster and his keeper as a fool. And that's where the problem lies, if you look at the real-life story, Panzram killed for no reason. If we knew this, when James Woods goes willingly to the gallows, claiming a victory for justice, none of us would ask - as Lesser seemingly does and notwithstanding all that we have seen - whether there is the slightest bit in him worth saving."[23] compared the film to The Shawshank Redemption, commenting that the film had more spirit and stronger morals than Killer. The reviewer felt the film relied on Woods' performance for support, which "entirely fails", and that Woods "lends no likeability or believability or characteristic traits to this man he is portraying, and in the end he comes across as a pointless incarnation of a man whose life, perhaps, never even merited the Hollywood treatment in the first place."[24]


  1. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Full cast and crew". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  2. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Release dates". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  3. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Box office / business". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  4. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Company credits". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  5. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Releases". AllMovie. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  6. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder :: :: Reviews". 1996-09-06. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  7. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Filming locations". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  8. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Trivia - IMDb". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  9. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995) - Trailers, Reviews, Synopsis, Showtimes and Cast". AllMovie. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  10. ^ "Tomorrow by Midnight (2001) - Trivia - IMDb". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  11. ^ Kevin Thomas (1997-08-17). "'Killer: A Journal of Murder' - Los Angeles Times". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  12. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder Review. Movie Reviews - Film - Time Out London". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  13. ^ "Metroactive Movies | Killer: Journal of a Murder". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  14. ^ "Murderer Takes A Long Look Into His Raging Black Heart. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  15. ^ "SIFF '96 - Failing Independents, Bad 'Toons, and More - Nitrate Online Feature". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (September 6, 1996). "Killer: A Journal of Murder". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois: [[Sun-Times Media Group[]]. Retrieved January 3, 2013 – via
  17. ^ Levy, Emanuel (1996-01-10). "Variety Reviews - Killer: A Journal of Murder - Film Reviews - - Review by Emanuel Levy". Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  18. ^ "Killer - A Journal of Murder - Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  19. ^ Dan Webster (Jan 24, 1997). "Killer: A Journal of Murder". The Spokesman-Review.    
  20. ^ Addiego, Walter (1996-09-06). "Killer's memoir done justice in film". SFGate. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  21. ^ Lasalle, Mick (1996-09-06). "FILM REVIEW - Revenge of the `Killer' Nerd / Real-life story about murderer and prison guard friend". SFGate. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  22. ^ "Archives | | The Providence Journal". 1997-02-06. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  23. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder (1996, USA)". 2010-03-22. Retrieved 2012-12-10.
  24. ^ "Killer: A Journal of Murder - Movie Reviews". Retrieved 2012-12-10.

External linksEdit