The Driller Killer (1979)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas. St. John.
Starring: Abel Ferrara (Reno Miller), Carolyn Marz (Carol), Baybi Day (Pamela), Harry Schultz II (Dalton Briggs), Alan Wynroth (Landlord), D.A. Metrov (Tony Coca-Cola).
Abel Ferrara is a difficult director to get a handle on. On one hand, he has made his career making fairly sleazy, exploitation movies – and at the same time, there is a real artist inside there, that is looking to get out in those films. His best film is probably 1992’s Bad Lieutenant – a film that was rated NC-17 for all the sexuality, nudity and violence in it, but there is something beautiful in its ugliness – which is something you could say about most of his best films – from 1981’s Ms. 45 – where a mute seamstress goes on a killing spree after being raped twice in one day or Body Snatchers (1994) – where he took the infamous story and made it into an AIDS allegory or The Addiction (1995) a vampire-as-addict tale, or even his most recent film, Welcome to New York, in which Gerard Depardieu grunts like a pig in extended sequences in which he either has sex, or is raping someone (strangely, I’ve never seen King of New York – one of his best known films). I’m not sure you can realistically say it is there in his debut film – 1979’s The Driller Killer – and yet watching it, you can tell this isn’t an average exploitation, grindhouse film from the 1970s.
The film stars Ferrara himself as Reno Miller – a painter living in New York, with two female roommates – Carol (Carolyn Marz), who is loosely Reno’s girlfriend, and Pamela (Baybi Day), who is Carol’s lover. Neither of them have a job, nor is Reno making very much with his painting – although he does know a gallery owner (Dalton Briggs) – who has previously given him advances for his latest work. The rent is due though, the phone bill is high, the electric bill is high, and they have nothing left. To make matters worse, a band called The Roosters has moved into the building, and play day and night, which drives him crazy. We also meet his estranged father, a bum living on the street – who Reno denies knowing. All of these pressures build and build on Reno, until he snaps one day, and heads out into the streets with his drill, and becomes the title killer – murdering a series of homeless people in brutal fashions. Eventually, he is unable to hide his increasing violence – and those close to him become targets as well.
This plot outline, probably makes the film sound like an exploitation flick – and to be fair, in many ways it is. The violence in the film is bloody and extreme – in the way that 1970s movies are, meaning it’s tough to take most of it all that seriously, because it’s so over the top – although to be fair to Ferrara, he finds a lot of interesting ways to shoot a man killing bums with a drill. The movie pretty much stops all forward momentum at one point to have a sex scene in the shower between Carol and Pamela – for no other reason than because a movie like this needs to have a sex scene to help justify its existence – and if it’s a lesbian sex scene, all the better (you then may even be able to claim your movie is progressive, as it doesn’t judge this relationship – which is true – even if much of the rest of the movie borders of misogyny – also true – and if the depiction of a gay man – the art dealer – is downright offensive). The Driller Killer ended up being one of the so called “Video nasties” – films banned in England in the 1980s – which, of course, helped its notoriety.
Yet, one of the interesting things about The Driller Killer is even when Ferrara is making an exploitation film, he cannot fully commit to that – and finds various excuses to follow his characters into dark places, and various subcultures. He spends more time then you’d think with that band – The Roosters – and its various groupies and hangers on – literally just watching them rehearse. He seems to like to spend time on the streets of New York – the dirtier, the seedier, the better.
I’m not going to argue that The Driller Killer is a very good movie – it really isn’t (and apparently, if you were to listen to Ferrara’s DVD commentary, he makes fun of the film throughout). IF the film wasn’t directed by Ferrara – who went on to make several very interesting films, and wasn’t included in the Video Nasties banning in the UK, then the chances are The Driller Killer would be forgotten today. Yet, it’s an interesting little movie – one that shows that there was a real artist in there, struggling to get out. Sometimes, I still feel that Ferrara is a real artist, still struggling to get out of his nastier side, but even if that’s true, he’s had at the very least an interesting career – one that started here.