ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Driller Killer (1979) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
Director Abel Ferrara (under the pseudonym of Jimmy Laine) plays Reno, a struggling artist who lives in a decrepit area of New York with his girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) and her lesbian lover Pamela (Baybi Day). While the unpaid bills mount up he works on his self-proclaimed “masterpiece” painting of a buffalo.
Due to his financial strains, his deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend, the rough nature of the surrounding area and, worst of all, a noisy punk band called “The Roosters” moving into the flat below and rehearsing into the early hours of the morning, his psyche starts to crack. He soon finds an effective method of stress relief: prowling around the neighbourhood and killing various bums, winos and weirdos with the electric drill that sits in his cupboard.
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Abel Ferrara’s ultra low budget debut film is one that has developed quite a reputation in the U.K. thanks to it ending up as one of the central films in the early ‘80s “Video Nasty” scare and, as a result, being banned for a number of years. The main controversy stemmed from an extremely graphic scene involving a tramp screaming as blood runs down his face from being drilled in the forehead. Worse than that, the front cover art consisted of a still from this same scene visible for all the world to see, along with the tagline “The blood runs in rivers… and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone.” In many ways this reputation has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it has helped it gain a sizeable cult following over the years, but on the other hand it has left many horror fans coming in expecting an extreme gorefest and being left feeling shortchanged. While there are indeed quite a few drill murders that occur during the film, it takes its sweet time getting to them. What’s more, most of them are depicted in a far less graphic manner than the aforementioned sequence.
A lot of time is spent establishing the milieu via a series of running vignettes. We get documentary-style footage of the various (genuine) transients inhabiting the surrounding streets. We get a glimpse into the city’s burgeoning punk scene of the period via plentiful footage of gigs and the Roosters’ rehearsals. We get various slice-of-life scenes of the central trio of characters living together - bickering, having sex, painting, trying to keep the landlord sweet despite being behind on the rent, and going out and experiencing the sights and sounds of the city. We get a good view of how bohemian culture often sets up amid the detritus of urban society.
The horror is arguably more psychological in nature than it is bloody (in the manner of Polanski’s Repulsion, even down to referencing it via the presence of a skinned rabbit that never gets cooked). Hence we get plenty of hallucinatory moments involving copious use of fisheye lens, dutch angles, infernally-tinted lighting, religious imagery and so on. That said, some of the drill attack sequences are quite effectively framed and shot within the dark, gritty surrounding environment. One of the most stylish involves Reno approaching and attacking a comatose tramp who lies as a long silhouette at the foreground. The best horror scene however involves neither bloodshed nor hallucinations, but rather a tense moment when an art critic named Briggs (Harry Schultz) subjects Reno to an extremely rude (though arguably unwarranted) awakening. It really brings home how a struggling artist’s world could come crashing down around them at any given moment, potentially casting them into the same hellish pit as the surrounding down-and-outs.
However, despite its occasional good scenes and authentically gritty atmosphere The Driller Killer is, by and large, a chore to sit through. To be fair it was Ferrara’s debut and he needed practice in order to create a more well-rounded film, but it makes a number of pretty serious missteps. The big one is that the characters (Ferrara’s tortured artist most of all) are so unlikeable and annoying that it’s hard to care about them. Catherine Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion gained audience sympathy as her character is clearly a mousy innocent (and implied rape victim) who sinks into insanity and kills two men who provoked her behaviour by clearly stepping over the line into harassment. Reno on the other hand lacks any clear background motivation, and is an arrogant, morose little shit who goes off at his girlfriend, rather disgustingly stuffs half a pizza in his mouth in the space of a minute and takes an electric drill to umpteen homeless bums who haven’t even done anything to him.
Another problem is that the film’s focus is very uneven. While the various grimy scenes involving tramps, punks, random muggings and more add a lot of grit, they take up so much of the running time that they end up going well beyond establishing atmosphere and becoming padding. It’s arguable that Ferrara wanted The Driller Killer to say something about New York’s socioeconomic issues of this time but he doesn’t really balance this effectively with the horror. If I wanted to niggle, I could also point out that Reno stalks the city with an electric drill of the type that has a clearly visible power cord. How does he manage to use it without any handy power sockets nearby? Another hole in plausibility is that the police barely seem to take any interest in Reno’s rampage. The only hint that they are looking into it comes from Carol mentioning one of the murders while reading a newspaper article.
One of The Driller Killer’s taglines is “this film should be played LOUD”. That pretty much sums it up; there is a lot of scuzzy, punky surface detail that’s best experienced at a late-night independent movie house with a bunch of alternative cinephiles who have just emerged from some garage rock gig in a nearby dingy basement bar. That way, the film’s flaws would be less noticeable than following a more analytical viewing on the digital TV in the living room.
Runtime: 96 mins (theatrical version) / 101 mins (pre-release version)
Dir: Abel Ferrara
Script: Nicholas St. John
Starring: Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz, Alan Wynroth, D. A. Metrov
It looks as good as a $20,000 film from 1979 can. It’s grainy as hell but the contrast and colour levels are spot-on. The reds (blood, infernal lighting and so on) stand out particularly well.
The synth soundtrack gets a spine-tingling airing in the uncompressed mono audio soundtrack. However the dialogue tends to sound weak and muffled. Of course that may be considered an asset by some as it helps to engender a sort of cinema verite/snuff movie atmosphere.
We get both the original theatrical version and a pre-release cut featuring 5 minutes’ worth of extra footage. We also get 2 different aspect ratios to choose from: 1:85:1 and 1:37:1.
There is the usual Arrow supplementary booklet featuring essays by Micheal Pattinson and Brad Stevens. The former looks at the sociopolitical context in which The Driller Killer emerged and posits that it is aware of its own ridiculousness as it skews the media’s sensationalism about crime. The latter takes a wider look at Abel Ferrara’s directorial approach and recurring themes, albeit with more of an emphasis on the documentary Mulberry St. (2010) - supplied here as an extra - than on The Driller Killer.
The theatrical version has an exclusive audio commentary by Abel Ferrara, moderated by Brad Stevens. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable recollection of the micro-budget, “home movie” nature of the shoot. Ferrara has a genuinely self-deprecating sense of humour; during the scene when the art critic says “this is shit” he responds “the movie or the painting?”. We learn the flat in the film was the one where Ferrara lived with D.A. Metrov at the time. The latter contributed a lot to the film: he was associate producer, the paintings were nearly all his own work, his girlfriend Carolyn Marz played Carol, he played the punk band frontman Tony Coca Cola and co-wrote all of the band’s songs with Abel. Indeed, Ferrara himself has said that the film is basically a Metrov documentary. The film was shot in two separate runs 10 months apart and during the second of these Baybi Day (who incidentally was the inspiration behind Melanie Griffith’s character in Ferrara’s later Fear City) was doing heroin.
The most interesting revelations are based around the filming of the external scenes (which were shot without permission featuring real people who happened to be around on the streets at the time) and the various actors playing the vagrants who end up being drill-killed. The first victim was chief grip and acting coach John Coulakis. A number of the later victims turned up again to be killed anew in Ferrara’s subsequent Ms. 45.
We also get the following extras on the disc:
An Abel Ferrara documentary shot on New York’s Mulberry Street (the core of the city’s Little Italy district) during the annual Feast of San Gennaro. He is well known for shooting a number of his films around this area. Unfortunately Mulberry St. ends up being rather unfocussed, with plenty of footage of Abel wandering around the feast’s food stalls and hobnobbing with various celebrities such as Matthew Modine, Danny Aiello and Toots (of Toots and the Maytals fame). The most interesting anecdotes come when he sticks to talking about movies; for his first film (a porno named Nine Lives of a Pussy) he reveals that one of the actors couldn’t “get it up” so he decided to play the part (in more than one sense of the word) himself. Although somewhat directionless the documentary at least isn’t dull, if only because of the amount of activity and good spirits surrounding the festival.
Laine and Abel: an Interview with The Driller Killer
A brand-new interview with Abel Ferrara with him talking about what brought him into movies in the first place, as well as his pre-Driller Killer student shorts and porno film 9 Lives of a Pussy. He even mentions that he got to shoot one short with a BBC film crew. We also learn that the pseudonym Jimmy Laine was originally adopted on 9 Lives to avoid getting arrested for carrying out lewd acts on camera. An entertaining interview.
Willing & Abel: Ferraraology 101
A 35 minute visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas running through the director’s films from a critical perspective. This includes his TV and music video work. Of interest for those who wish to explore the director further.
Although I’m not a big fan of The Driller Killer as a standalone film, it’s a worthwhile purchase - as is so often the case with Arrow presentations - for the wealth of extras.