Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Driller Killer (1979)

DIRECTOR: Abel Ferrara

WRITER: Nicolas St. John


Abel Ferrara
Carolyn Marz
Baybi Day
Harry Schultz
Alan Wynroth
Maria Helhoski
James O'Hara


Reno is a struggling artist who is living in New York City. It doesn't help that he lives with and is trying to support his two female roommates while struggling to pay all the rent and bills. He is also struggling to finish his long-delayed masterpiece. Due to his loud next door neighbours who are a practising punk band and little to no inspiration. Reno beings to slowly go insane and he begins killing vagrants with a power drill.

Working in a video store during the VHS era. There wasn't a day that would go past where I would be putting movies back on the shelf in the horror section and see the horrific VHS cover art for Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer. The image of a power drill boring into someone's skull with bright red blood gushing from the wound was one that inspired disgust and repulsion from a teenager who wasn't all that crash hot on horror when he started working in the video store.

Seeing that VHS cover art for years on end. I never felt the need to watch the movie. As my love for the horror genre grew. I just never went back to give Driller Killer the time of day. It was one of those infamous movies that I've always been aware of but it just sort of sat on the back burner. It wasn't until I decided to spend an entire year focusing on slasher movies from the seventies and eighties. Finally reaching 1979, it was time to bite the bullet and watch The Driller Killer. I wasn't sure what to expect for my first Abel Ferrara film, but this was something.

I think going into The Driller Killer with the image of the VHS cover burned into my psyche. I expected this movie's reputation to proceed it. I expected this absolutely blood-soaked bloodbath. I expected a video nasty of the nastiest sort. I expected a killer with a drill murdering people. Not knowing what to expect from Abel Ferrara's style, I think after viewing the movie. I was left ultimately disappointed. Maybe I had expected too much after years of hearing fellow horror fans talk about the movie and what my mind had conjured up.

First and foremost, I want to talk about the style of the film. This is some low-budget, guerilla-style filmmaking. This is gritty and dirty. It feels like Abel Ferrara didn't have a permit to shoot this on the streets of New York. So he'd grab a cameraman, give his actors a run through and they'd shoot in the dead of night. As an Australian who has visited New York City twice. This is not the New York I know. This is the mean streets. This is the dark and scary New York of the seventies. I sort of love this time capsule captured on camera.

The biggest disappointment that I have with Driller Killer is all the long uninterrupted takes in this movie. There are countless scenes of this punk band who are practising which becomes tedious. Once or twice was enough. Not every fifteen minutes. Plus the music is terrible in the film. Maybe if I enjoyed seventies punk, I could've gotten into it. We also have these long lingering shots of girls in the shower. I think a lot of the style of this film felt grating. I really struggled to enjoy a lot of what I witnessed in the film. There felt like a lot of nonsense here.

The movie takes close to forty-minutes before getting to the horror. We have a really uncomfortable scene involving a skinned rabbit early on that just left me feeling really grossed out but once we arrive at Reno who is losing his mind and suddenly goes on a rampage with a drill. I was totally on board with the film now. I enjoyed the second half of Driller Killer a lot more than the first half. This turns into something extremely gruesome and mean-spirited. Reno is never a likable character but when he starts to brutally murder homeless people. He becomes one of the screens most unsettling killers.

When it comes to the performances. I can't fault Abel Ferrara as Reno. He really is unhinged in this film. It's hard to be critical of his performance when he is playing a serial killer that is so unlikable. Where some films based on killers have the audience torn with how to feel about the killer's actions, here I wasn't conflicted. I really didn't like the character. Reno is no Patrick Bateman. In saying that, though. I can't fault the performance because Abel Ferrara is really disturbing. I have to wonder how close the artist is to the man himself as this is also very eccentric.

Lastly, I have to talk about the violence. When it comes to the gore and violence. This is brutal to the point that it feels mean-spirited. I think what it does successfully is it makes violence ugly. There is nothing that feels glamorous here. The gore is horrific. The makeup effects are decent. The scene with the infamous drill to the skull is just grotesque. I have to wonder how it was filmed as it's all done on camera. It looked excellent for having such a low budget. While a lot of the gore is not really shown, it's a case of less is more.



- Multiple homeless people are drilled through the back.
- A homeless man is drilled through the forehead with a drill.
- A man is stabbed in the back in public in broad daylight.
- A woman finds a man's guts and organs in a trash can.
- Multiple homeless men are drilled through the stomach.
- A skinned rabbit is carved up and repeatedly stabbed in the head.
- A man is seen being sprayed with blood.
- A woman is shown with no eyes and bleeding from the sockets.
- A man is drilled through the throat and stuck to the door.
- A man is drilled in the back with a drill.

The Driller Killer has left me torn. On the one hand, we have this mean-spirited and ugly horror film about a man who goes on a rampage with a drill. The violence and gore are disturbing. This has exploitation written all over it. On the other hand, we have this odd psychodrama about a struggling artist that feels like a lot of nonsense. Lingering takes with terrible punk music feels like it brings that side of the film down. I think all of the years that I avoided this and had preconceived notions about it just didn't live up to what I had expected from this one. An unhinged performance from Abel Ferrara and some sleaziness can't save this one. 

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