Killer: A Journal of Murder Review

Killer: A Journal Of Murder is a drama movie that debuted on America’s big screen, September 6, 1996. It is based on the true life journals of the murderer Carl Panzram. 

When the show opens, we are introduced to fast and loose serial killer Carl Panzram (James Woods, Promise, The Onion Field), who is serving time behind bars at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. The narrator, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), translates Carl’s story for the viewers. 

Carl proves he is indomitable when he continues to act out even though he is severely beaten each and every time. He continues this repetitive and dangerous behavior until he comes  into contact with Henry.

Henry, a Leavenworth prison guard, at the time of Panzram’s incarceration, witnesses first hand the harsh treatment of Carl, by the other guards. Henry is a newbie and has not yet succumbed to the ways of the other guards. He pities Carl and begins to show him leniency and eventually befriends him. 

Henry encourages Carl to document his life on paper, even though the prisoners were not allowed to have paper and pencil in their possession. Henry quietly slips Carl paper and pencil every day, at the beginning of his shift, and returns to retrieve them before he goes homes. This becomes a routine for the two and over time they begin to bond, in some odd way. 

Henry reads Carl’s journal throughout the film and we learn a lot about Carl’s life. Although he is now confined behind bars without any freedom whatsoever, there was an incarceration time that Carl was allotted more freedom. Unlike the current warden, Quince (Richard Riehl), who does not believe in rehabilitation of hardened rapists and killers, like Panzram, Warden Charles Casey (Steve Forrest), allowed him furlough during the daylight hours, as long as he returned to the prison before nightfall. 

Carl later on goes to write about how he let Warden Casey down by submitting to his urges and raping the local librarian (Ellen Greene, Little Shop Of Horrors). He admits to killing twenty-one individuals, sodomizing over 1,000 males, and numerous rapes, larcenies, and burglaries.

Carl’s last crime before his execution, by hanging, was the murder of a prison worker. Henry and Carl remained close all the way up to his death. Henry also relives his personal life and how he dealt with the viciousness of Carl’s journals. Even though his wife, Esther (Cara Buono), pleaded with him to resign from his position at the Leavenworth Prison, but he refuses. 


This film is a very dark but near realistic look at the American penal system. While today promises have been made, by out government, to improve prison life for the prisoners, they have proven to be of no substantial value. Carl refuses to take blame for his cruel actions and hideous crimes in his writings, just like today’s criminals, they blame their upbringing, conditions, and others, for their actions. Today’s penal system promises successful rehabilitation of criminals but with solitude confinement and cruel prison conditions only lead to hardened criminals with more corrupted minds. 


This is probably my favorite performance by James Woods. It gives us an inside look at the mind of a serial killer, Carl Panzram. This is definitely a different take on prison life and a different view of the inner workings of a psychotic, deranged serial killer. Whether or not, he was born this way, or created by society, I definitely enjoyed my long incarceration with Carl Panzram. This film deserves 8 out of 10. 

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