Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

I’m not sure what this says about me…. But I’ve always been fascinated by the mind of serial killers. Now, the act of killing some innocent person is absolutely abhorrent to me, and I have never in my life considered a serial killer to be any kind of hero. In fact, my feelings are just the opposite. I consider these monsters to be animals that should be put down. But I want so badly to understand how a person can sink to that level of depravity….what turns a person into a monster.

For this reason, I have read books on many of the more famous killers like John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, but in recent years I have turned to the excellent documentary style of filmmaker John Borowski. Having previously directed highly recommended films on H. H. Holmes and Albert Fish, Borowski’s newest project focuses on the life of Carl Panzram.

“Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance” takes an autobiographical approach, utilizing over 40,000 pages written prior to his execution in 1930. He was initially convicted and imprisoned for a single murder and it was during this period that he met and ‘befriended’ Henry Lesser, a prison guard who convinced Panzram to write about his life and transgressions. By his admission, Panzram murdered 22 people, many of whom were young boys that he also tortured and sodomized.

The main challenges faced by any documentarian who chooses a subject from so long ago are of course the lack of film footage and few, if any, living witnesses. But this did not hinder Borowski from creating a fascinating portrait of this killer. Utilizing archival footage of the time, photographs, news clippings and Panzram’s own words, this documentary does an amazing job of fully fleshing out a long dead monster.

Additionally, through the use of three different actors (Brett Jetmund, David Salmonson, and Tom Lodewyck) and dramatic re-creations, we get to witness the beatings, rapes, and other horrid experiences that sucked the soul out of a young boy and created an empty evil shell of a man. Do these experiences condone his actions? No. But perhaps we can better understand what led him into a life like this. Several experts are also given an opportunity to share their knowledge of the history of the time and the psychology of the killer.

Where I was most surprised was by Borowski’s choice of narrator and the voice of Carl Panzram. John DiMaggio, who has been a popular voice artist for almost 20 years and is best known as the voice of Bender from “Futurama”, steps away from his usually cartoonish roles and delivers a performance layered with hatred, pathos, heartlessness and indifference. It is at times absolutely chilling.

The DVD release offers up a Making of featurette which in reality offers more information about the killer than actual behind the scenes footage. You’ll also find production stills (which play under a song about Panzram) and a detailed look at Joe Coleman’s portrait of Panzram. The most fascinating feature however, is the full interview with Henry Lesser which was conducted prior to his death.

“Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance” is yet another great documentary by filmmaker John Borowski. I highly recommend it, as well as his previous two features mentioned earlier. I look forward to any and all of his upcoming projects.

Directed by: John Borowski
Starring: Tom Lodewyck, David Salmonson, Brett Jetmund, David Weiss, John DiMaggio (Voice of Carl Panzram)
Extras: The Making of Carl Panzram; SDSU Interview with Henry Lesser; Songs featuring Carl Panzram; Deleted Scenes; Detail of Coleman’s Portrait of Carl Panzram; Trailers, Production Stills
Studio: Virgil Films and Entertainment
Release Date: 2/5/2013
MPAA Rating: NR