Abel Ferrara, 1979
Starring: Abel Ferrara, Jimmy Laine, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz
“THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.”
Reno Miller is a downtrodden painter living in a squalid apartment with his girlfriend Carol and her friend and lover Pamela. He is almost finished a painting he hopes his agent will buy, because he is nearly out of money, thanks to Carol and Pamela. They spend all their time partying. A band moves in to the apartment building, Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, and practice incessantly. Reno can’t get any peace to work and when his agent rejects his painting, he begins to snap. He buys a power drill from an infomercial and begins massacring his way through the city.
Director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45) kicked off his remarkable, often perplexing career with The Driller Killer, his first feature film, which he also starred in. This introduces some of the themes the would carry throughout his career, such as the inherent violence and nihilism of the city and its effect on one individual pushed to their limits. Borrowing elements from the slasher film, Taxi Driver (1976), Repulsion (1965), and foreshadowing sleazy New York horror like Maniac (1980) and New York Ripper (1982), Driller Killer is a considerable achievement. It’s also a fascinating portrait of life in the late ‘70s in New York, particularly in the underground, and has a great (if grimy) punk aesthetic.
As with Repulsion, this is a slow descent into madness and the lines between fantasy and reality are constantly blurred. Though this was targeted as one of the Video Nasties in the U.K., Driller Killer is more emotionally confrontational than it is graphically violent. There are some overt scenes of gore, but this is more of a cult exploitation film than an outright horror movie. Loud, angry, and abrasive, this is a deeply personal portrait of one man’s descent into madness in what is perhaps the most idealized city of the western world.
Filmed over two or so years with Ferrara’s friends and in his own apartment building, this could only have been made by someone with an intimate knowledge of the city and its numerous frustrations. New York looms large in every frame and nearly fights with Reno for the position of main character. Though Reno is often sympathetic, he is also unlikable and it’s hard to find a character to relate to within the film.
Driller Killer is slowly paced and it takes quite awhile for things to get going. It is effectively and relentlessly unpleasant and Ferrara takes quite awhile to immerse the viewer in the mundane horror that finally makes Reno snap. Nihilistic and pessimistic, Driller Killer can be a struggle to finish, but it is a subversive and rewarding effort and a successful study of urban oppression and isolation.
This is not a fun film to watch — it’s incredibly uncomfortable — and anyone expecting a standard, action-packed slasher flick will be disappointed. This is probably best watched as a double feature with Ferrara’s superior Ms. 45, a sort of female counterpart to Driller Killer. There are plenty of flaws, but in a way, the sense of directorial inexperience adds to the film’s charm. There is a lot going on with the plot, though not all the ideas or threads are fully developed, but it is a promising early film and expertly captures nihilistic rage bred of urban poverty and squalor. If you’re looking for exploitation cinema with a New York punk sensibility (watch this after reading Please Kill Me if you don’t believe me), then this film is for you.
I had the benefit of seeing this film in the theater, where it looked and sounded better than most home editions, sadly. It is available on DVD, but it would be nice to see a restored Blu-ray sometime soon. The best you can get for now is the Cult Epics two-disc DVD, which also contains Ferrara’s short early films and a commentary track for Driller Killer from the director himself.