Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance
Director: John Borowski
Cast: Scott Christianson, Joe Coleman, John DiMaggio
By Brian M. Sammons
John Borowski is a very good director of documentaries about very bad people. His first movie was about a favorite human monster of mine (that is I find him fascinating, not that I like him): H.H. Holmes. His second was on one of the most twisted killers ever: Albert Fish. Now the John Borowski killer documentary returns with Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance. How does it compare to the other two films? Well if you’re brave enough to bask in the glow of a madman’s mind for an hour or so, then keep reading. If not, then stop right here.
I found Mr. Borowski’s third film to be a bit of a yin-yang mixed bag. It is obvious that the writer/director is at the top of his movie making game, but the actual movie is far less engrossing than the previous two documentaries. However, I think that is less of a fault with the filmmaker and more of a comment on the subject of this film. You see, H.H. Holmes built a hotel complete with hidden rooms, trap doors, and a torture chamber. Albert Fish was one of the most extreme sadomasochists that ever lived and a cannibal. Panzram was a petty crook who killed one person for sure, maybe another, and that’s it. But once he was convicted he claimed to be more deadly than smallpox. According to his jailhouse confessions, he spent years riding the rails as a hobo during the early part of the 20th Century where he would rob, rape, and murder anyone he came across. Most of the time they were other vagabonds like Carl, but his choice of victims included men and women, the young and the old. At least, that’s what Panzram claimed.
And that right there is my biggest problem with this man as the center of a documentary; too many of his astonishingly heinous claims can’t be documented. You see, it’s not uncommon that when someone gets convicted for a crime that they won’t ever be paroled for, or one that they will be executed for, that they think, “why not make myself to be the biggest, baddest criminal in the joint?” So they then start confessing to all sorts of heinous crimes that they never did because, hey, why not? They see themselves as already being screwed, so why not make themselves out to be a bigger monster than they really are. Some convicts do it to get cred in the pen, others do it for the attention, still others just for some sick amusement to while away all the long, lonely hours. Whatever their reasons, this false crime claiming goes on all the time, and watching this documentary I kept having the nagging feeling that was the story with Carl Panzram. Of course I can’t prove that, but neither can this movie prove the vast majority of Mr. Panzram’s criminal claims. So when it was all said and done, Carl just struck me as a far less interesting character than Holmes or Fish to do a documentary about. Oh he was a bad man to be sure, but he was not on the same level as the other twisted monsters he claimed to be. At least, that’s my take on him.
That is not to say that this movie wasn’t well made. Once more, I think John Borowski is at the top of his game here. The direction is solid, the story well-paced, and the acting good. Mr. Borowski continues to improve as a filmmaker with every movie, and I thought he started off pretty damn good to begin with. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Also, as both a gamer and a lover of cartoons, I really liked having veteran voice actor John DiMaggio (Marcus from the Gears of War games and Bender from Futurama) providing the voice for Panzram. So even if I thought the subject of this documentary was a bit lacking, there is more than enough good in this one to warrant a watch for those with a jones for true crime stories.
The new DVD from Waterfront Productions comes with some pretty cool features on it as well. There’s a making of featurette, and interview with the real life prison guard who befriended Carl Panzram in prison, deleted scenes, trailers, production stills, a little special about songs featuring Panzram, and a few more bits and bobs tossed in for good measure.
For those looking to pick up this doc on DVD, or to find out more about Carl Panzram, go to the appropriately titled panzram.com for that and more. This one gets a recommendation by me for the all true crime fans out there.