Documentary: Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hate and Revenge (2011)


The Serial Killer is the modern day Boogey Man, made iconic in literary works, documentaries, the art world and of course the horror film. From Gein to Bundy, Gacy to Ramirez, the lines between fact and fiction have become so blurred, that the creations they have inspired have given them legendary status all over the globe. Gein inspired Leatherface and Norman Bates, and the battle to end The Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror is now a story told so many times in so many ways, that it has desensitised us to the reality, the tragedy, the victims and the consequences for their families.

Henry Lee Lucas, Gacy, Otis Elwood Toole (and many more), have sold their art, and there is a roaring trade in criminal souvenirs, so much so that it has been given the name Murderabilia. Hindley was immortalised in a controversial creation in one of the most prestigious galleries in the world, much to the uproar of the victims living relatives. They have hordes of obsessive followers and fans, corrupted by the glossy adaptations of lives snuffed out and forgotten while their killers have risen to celebrity status. We are disgusted, yet fascinated by them and the ones that still breathe bask in the attention even in their confinement.

Yes, the psychology, and motives behind the crimes committed by these people is interesting and holds an hypnotic allure that is quite addictive for so very many individuals, but we must always remember, that these people are not celebrities, they are not characters dreamt up for our titillation and Halloween spook fests, they have hurt people, raped and robbed them, tortured, humiliated and stolen the lives of men, women and children. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and lovers were taken, and the perpetrators deserved to be punished for their crimes, NEVER revered.

Sure we all like to see pneumatic, blonde chicks being hacked at with fake blood, and chased up the stairs in a home that would be more suited to MTV’s cribs than any life we know, but in reality, murder isn’t funny, or glossy. It ruins lives, and too many of us forget that sometimes.

This documentary looks at the life of one of America’s, if not the world’s most notorious, and undoubtedly fascinating serial killers. In a DC prison in 1928 Panzram wrote his life story, encouraged by a young prison guard named Henry Lesser, one of the only men that the murderer had encountered that he did ‘not want to kill’. Over the years, through writing materials smuggled in by Lesser, a brutal and harrowing account of every event and criminal act committed that led him to his current position, serving 25 years for a small theft, which prompted him to confess that the authorities were missing a trick, for this was the least of the laws broken by their new prisoner.

If like me, you already know quite a lot about the life of Carl Panzram, I feel you’ll be quite disappointed by this documentary. It was quite stilted and erratic, as if the director didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with the information given. More should have been made of the interesting relationship forged between the compassionate young Lesser, and the psychopathic Panzram. From his life in the U.S military, his Houdini-esque escape attempts from the various prisons and reform schools he was incarcerated, to the myriad of crimes he committed that even led him to cross paths with a former president of the United States and the Bird Man of Alcatraz, he was relentless in his hatred of mankind. Though his life was incredible in its cruelty and complete disregard for his fellow man, I feel that he was more a product of a broken system , and the child that was put into a reform school at nine, still had a chance to become something other than the psychopath that Henry Lesser encountered.

There is definitely enough information and resources to have made this an extremely interesting film, but by implementing too many yawningly, pompous, talking heads, and awkwardly juxtaposing it with a dramatised account of Panzram’s life, makes for a bit of a damp squib for the viewing audience.

Carl Panzram was an incredibly complex individual, but Henry Lesser’s kindness and encouragement helped to produce one of the most interesting and introspective insights into the mind of one of the truer examples of a psychopath that ever lived.

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