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“The Driller Killer”: Abel Ferrara puts us inside a killer’s head in a rotten late 70s Big Apple
“This film should be played LOUD” announces a title card at the beginning of The Driller Killer, the first film directed by Abel Ferrara… as Ferrara. Once labeled “the most controversial director in American cinema,” Ferrara’s humble start as a first-time director actually came earlier, when he directed (and also starred in) 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, using the name “Jimmy Boy L.” Night Flight contributor Josh Hadley tells us about the career of Abel Ferrara and his 1979 horror film, The Driller Killer, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.
The Driller Killer is a true punk film, not only in that it features a punk rock soundtrack but in its attitude.
It’s a film of intense power and anger, but there are also scenes of true beauty within the 84 minutes herein. The film is almost zen in its calculated bizarreness, violent artistry reeking of an ID run amok.
Many horror films (slasher films in particular) simply tell us something bad happened and a killer was made, but The Driller Killer helps us note how the killer was made. It’s more personal.
This has long been a staple of Ferrara’s work. Ms.45 and Bad Lieutenant similarly explore this philosophy.
In Ms. 45 , the mute girl Thana is brutally raped (by Ferrara, ironically enough) twice in the same day and proceeds to become not a vigilante as a Death Wish film might portray but instead becomes a serial killer seeking to murder anything that happens to have a penis on it.
Her entire mental journey is shown to us. We can not condone her actions but we can understand why she feels they are necessary. Bad Lieutenant takes a comparable path of showing us the long line of things that have gone wrong to create the super corrupt and vile police detective in that film.
Many Ferrara trademarks which would tag his career begin here: blunt and subtle Catholic imagery, lesbians, random violence, non-professional actors, haphazard cutaways to non sequitur moments, religious failings and, most of all, the gritty urban hellscape featured in almost all of his original works.
The Driller Killer is almost the very definition of sleaze. Few films are able to radiate such intensity solely on their visuals. You can almost feel the dirt and grime of the streets and clubs in the images themselves, drenched in darkness with a wet sheen to everything, and you can very nearly can smell the stale urine and dried sex in every frame of film.
Considered one of the bloodiest films at the time of its release, the film is actually quite tame in the levels of gore… there is more of an implied grue factor than the bits that show up on screen. The movie is hardly subtle but it is also oddly restrained.
Filmed on and off between 1978 and 1979 (watch the hairstyles change back and forth) on an estimated $20,000 budget, The Driller Killer feels like — and is edited very much like — a porno of the era.
Lensed on 16mm with an almost documentary style, this is an experimental film if there ever was one, filled with scenes that would fit perfectly in a student film contrasted with the obvious skill behind the camera by director/star Abel Ferrara.
The film itself opens with Reno — played by Ferrara, who is credited here as Jimmy Laine — freaking out in a church when an old man touches his hand. The old man is said to have Reno’s name and phone number in his pocket. This is never brought up again. It’s implied the old man is his father but it’s merely implied.
This is indicative of the movie: do something and then move onto something else like the previous scene didn’t happen. The movie is filled with scenes that go nowhere and serve no purpose, but which fuel the rebellious and renegade nature of The Driller Killer.
The overall plot is that Reno is very rapidly going insane for a number of reasons: over his inability to complete a painting he has been commissioned to create; over his girlfriend reconnecting with her old boyfriend; over the punk rock band living upstairs (they only seem to know two songs and the main one is highly derivative of the “Peter Gunn” theme); over his girlfriend’s female lover living with them; and, over his art dealer trying to screw him (literally).
To relieve his stress and assuage the fear that he is becoming like that old man who touched him (who may or may not be his father), Reno buys a battery pack and a power drill and starts killing the homeless near him. Cathartic.
According to Ferrara, the bum at the start of the film is Bruce Willis in his first film role (you can’t see his face, but Willis says it was absolutely not him).
Eventually, his girl(s) leave him, so revenge is necessary. The girlfriends’ lover buys it and then… the end. Literally.
The last minute needs to be seen to be believed, and almost defines anti-climatic and yet it is so fitting an ending that you have to appreciate either the ineptitude of it or the sheer creativity of it (considering the work Ferrara would unleash in the future, the latter is the most likely).
There are many things of note about The Driller Killer which make it stand out. One of the most unique elements is that nearly the entirety of the film’s run-time is spent inside the head of the killer.
We may not understand why he commits the heinous acts that occur but we are lead to understand why he feels the need to do these vile things.
Reno is quite a terrible human being in every aspect of life, and is a shameful and pathetic excuse for a person and yet Ferrara plays him as if he is a respectable and put-upon everyman.
Reno is one of the most unlikable characters there has ever been as a main character — he is a thoroughly deplorable person with sociopathic tendencies and no redeeming qualities.
The Driller Killer is an unremittingly depressing and dour film, though. This is another theme that Ferrara would use to great advantage later in his career.
The decaying urban big city is also a recurring element of Ferrara’s films as he has chosen to examine the seedier and festering parts of the normally glamorous New York City (a rotten Big Apple, if you will).
Ferrara would parlay The Driller Killer into work for “Miami Vice” after his next two films — Ms. 45 and Fear City — were modest hits.
His career was on such an upswing he was tasked with the 1993 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake (simply titled Body Snatchers), which led to him creating modern classics like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York plus the insane drunk driver vigilante film, The Gladiator.
He also gave us less popular and more obscure works such as China Girl or Dangerous Game, as well as the intriguing yet disappointing William Gibson-adaptation of New Rose Hotel.
Nicholas St. John would script The Driller Killer and would work with Ferrara on the vast majority of his output (in fact, St. John has no credits besides Ferrara films).
Ferrara has cited Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen as too of his biggest influences when it comes to film and this very much is evident in the man’s work. Kubrick’s lighting and overall style are clear inspirations to Ferrara as are the Allen approach to dialog and structure.
Ferrara is also known to have a temper on the set and treat his cast and crew in less that humane ways, which is another thing Ferrara adapted from Kubrick.
Speaking of influences, being the neighbor to Andy Warhol surely rubbed off. Warhol’s pop art approach would greatly impact Ferrara in terms of imagery and the visual make-up of shots in The Driller Killer.
The punk band in the film is very obviously an allegory to the New York Dolls, both visually and in musical execution.
Remember that this being a 1979 film it is right on the cusp of the “New Wave” movement of punk being homogenized into a radio friendly (mainstream friendly) genre.
This band (The Roosters) perfectly embody the NY Punk scene at the time. Incidentally, the Roosters’ guitar player (D.A. Metrov) would go on to write the 1986 film Solarbabies for Mel Brooks!
The film was pretty much ignored in the US upon release but once it hit the UK it was promptly “banned”… due to it’s VHS box cover. The box cover is largely blamed for igniting the “Video Nasties” scare.
Highlighting one of the more gruesome moments in the picture to appear lurid and racy brought the full wrath of the British Board Of Film Censorship upon The Driller Killer. Head of the BBFC James Ferman directly cited the Vipco Distribution company release of The Driller Killer as the main impetus for starting the “Video Nasties” hyperbolic outrage resulting in the Video Recordings Act 1984.
Back in the early 80’s home video was an unregulated market in both the videos and the advertising of the videos. This allowed distribution companies to be as shocking as possible in an effort to draw attention to their product.
The Driller Killer seems to have stepped over the line in the UK and ended up creating a call for all films to be rated and censored as a response. The film was only released uncut over there until 2002. The version on Night Flight Plus is the uncut version (another reason to join Plus).
The Driller Killer — sometimes released as just Driller Killer — is a film which more people should see, not only to witness the (non-porn) birth of an amazing filmmaker but also to experience a film I wager most are unprepared for.