Abel Ferrara's feature debut The Driller Killer might very well have slid into relative obscurity following its theatrical release in grindhouses around the U.S. had it not been for its inclusion on Britain's so-called "video nasties" list, an unofficial list drawn up by Scotland Yard in the early 1980s of films that had been or conceivably could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. There was a flurry of public hysteria in England at the time about the insidious nature of graphically violent horror films that found new avenues of easy circulation on home video, which at the time had no regulations whatsoever. The Driller Killer, with its salacious title and its video cassette case featuring a startling close-up of a man screaming while a drill bores into his forehead and blood pours out, made it an easy target. In fact, it was one of the first films, along with Cannibal Holocaust (1979) and SS Experiment Camp (1976), to be targeted, based largely on its lurid full-page advertisements in the early months of 1982.
The irony is The Driller Killer is as much an art film-or, at least, it aspires to be-as it is a grotesque urban horror thriller. Ferrara himself has described it, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as a comedy, noting in particular the fundamental absurdity of the deranged protagonist's modus operandi of murder-a phallic power drill. And it absolutely is. If you're intent on slaughtering the homeless denizens of New York City's mean streets, a power drill is about the most ridiculous means possible. Had he gone about his business with something more conventional like a gun, as Travis Bickle did in Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver (1976), one of the film's most obvious inspirations, it probably never would have wound up on the list. But, it did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Made on an extremely low budget over a lengthy period of time, The Driller Killer was Ferrara's bid to break into feature filmmaking. Having given up on a career in a rock band (his ties to the underground rock and punk scene in New York is all over the film), he instead turned to the camera, making a number of short films in the early 1970s and one hard-core pornographic film (1976's 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy). Because he couldn't find anyone else to commit to the project, he ended up playing (under the pseudonym Jimmie Laine) the lead character, a struggling painter named Reno Miller who is slowly losing his mind. A shaggy-haired bohemian who ends virtually every sentence with an emphatic man!, Reno lives in an apartment on the Lower East side with two women, Carol (Carolyn Marz), his ostensible girlfriend, and Pamela (Baybi Day), a vacant groupie. Carol and Pamela are sexually involved, an emasculating slight that only compounds Reno's economic frustrations. He is working on an enormous painting of a buffalo, which he believes he will be able to sell to his art dealer, Dalton Briggs (Harry Schultz), for a substantial sum and thus alieve his money problems, which should, in turn, make him more sexually and romantically appealing.
But, nothing seems to be going Reno's way, particularly when a punk band led by Tony Coca-Cola (D.A. Metrov) moves in downstairs at Pamela's behest and start practicing at full volume day in and day out. Reno complains to the landlord (Alan Wynroth), but to no avail, as no one seems to listen to or care much about him. He is the proverbial loner shouting into the wind and getting nothing back but the empty echoes of his own despair, and when he sees a television commercial for a portable battery pack you wear around your waist to power electrical tools, he slides from acting out his anger and impotence verbally to physically, targeting random homeless people to drill to death. The phallic nature of the power drill matched with Reno's constant emasculation makes the film an easy metaphor for frustrated masculine desire, which isn't surprising given that Ferrara's later body of work would focus so much on alienated characters acting out violently.
Ferrara's performance as Reno is functional at best; he's a significantly better director than he is an actor, which hampers the film and keeps it from developing the kind of psychological depth and spiritual torment that made Taxi Driver so devastating. Much of The Driller Killer comes off as kind of silly, despite Ferrara's numerous allusions to European art cinema, particularly the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose depictions of urban squalor in his early neorealist films clearly influenced Ferrara's documentary-like capturing of the Big Apple at its most rotten (it shares a taste for urban hell with William Lustig's notorious Maniac, which came out a year later and was also a prominent entry on the "video nasties" list). Ferrara has also spoken of the film as a kind of documentary, as he based much of it on his and his friends' experiences making ends meet in New York in the '70s (minus the drilling killing, of course).
Ferrara, of course, went on to a substantial career of notable and varied films and television projects, including the rape-revenge thriller Ms. 45 (1981), the urban romance China Girl (1987), the organized crime dramas King of New York (1990) and The Funeral (1996), the eviscerating corrupt-cop drama Bad Lieutenant (1992), the underrated Body Snatchers (1993), and the vampirism-as-drug metaphor The Addiction (1995). Ferrara's work is deeply uneven, even in his best films, and you can see both his strengths and weaknesses at play in The Driller Killer, although some of the latter can be explained at least partially by marketplace demands for a low-budget genre film (I'm thinking particularly of a superfluous soft-core shower scene that serves virtually no narrative purpose outside of pure titillation). Written by Nicholas St. John (who penned 10 of Ferrara's films over the years), The Driller Killer suffers from lazy pop psychology and derives too many of its ideas from much better films. It also feels padded, particularly the lengthy scenes of Tony Coca-Cola and his band practicing, which feel like a sop to the punk rock crowd that could conceivably make up a sizable portion of the film's audiences. Yet, at the same time, there are moments of deranged visual brilliance and shocking juxtaposition and wicked black humor that suggest Ferrara's artistry was on the rise. In the end, The Driller Killer was little more than a stepping stone for its director, a way to get noticed and move on to bigger projects, and in that respect it was a grand success.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Arrow Video
Overall Rating: (2.5)
Get a daily dose of Broadcast Communications news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.