Driller Killer, The (1979)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-06-27 07:31

The Driller Killer (1979)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: December 13th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Abel Ferrara’s insistence that “this film should be played loud” at the beginning of The Driller Killer feels like something of a mission statement, one that would define both this debut effort and his oeuvre as a whole. Here is a work that will be abrasive and uncompromising, guided by a punk rock ethos that isn’t fit for easy, mass consumption. Unsuspecting audiences (both contemporary and modern alike) may expect something in the order of the era’s burgeoning slasher movement from something bearing such a title, only to be assaulted by this deranged, grungy snapshot of New York’s grimy underbelly. Thrilling, alienating, and confounding in equal measure, The Driller Killer is a seminal screed capturing an artist’s frustration ambitions.

Ferrara is Reno Miller, a painter who lives with a bisexual girlfriend (Carolyn Marz) and her lover (Baybi Day) in their shared apartment. The existence is agreeable enough, though Reno has struggled with selling work as of late, and, with bills beginning to mount, he’s thrown himself into painting an abstract picture with the hopes it’ll net him a fortune. When a no-wave punk band moves into his building, Reno is aggravated by all the noise, which he views as a distraction (and you can just imagine how he feels when his roommates drag them out to a show). Slowly but surely, all the noise and stress begin to take a toll, as he’s suddenly haunted by cacophonous nightmares where’s drenched in blood. Nightmare becomes reality when he’s suddenly compelled to take up a power drill and murder the derelicts crowding the streets at night.

In truth, Ferrara confesses that he wasn’t inspired by the likes of Halloween as much as he wanted to rip off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Sensing that he could produce a film at a very low cost and flip it into a decent profit, he set out to recapture some of Tobe Hooper’s rawness and transplant it from a rural milieu to a decidedly scummy urban one. Even this probably still doesn’t adequately describe The Driller Killer, as Ferrara’s brand of raw, uncompromising horror is even shaggier and discordant than Hooper’s. His approach often feels improvisational, as if he literally took his camera and meager crew out to the streets to capture whatever they happened to come across. This feels especially true of the scenes where Reno wanders around in search of derelicts, particularly one instance when the camera lingers on, capturing the incoherent ravings of one of these homeless damned. It’s wholly authentic, almost as if you were dropped down right onto the street corner, where you’d linger uncomfortably waiting for a bus as this old fool babbled on.

In many ways, it’s arguably the scene that best captures the spirit of The Driller Killer: it’s apropos of nothing, defined by incessant (and grating) noise, and ends with a drill burrowing right through some poor guy’s brain. This is more or less the essence of what Ferrara is up to here, as he looks to channel the punk scene’s jangly, pent-up energy into a screeching, bewildering yawp. Its rote premise—which has only grown even more familiar since various other mad slashers began wielding hardware tools as murder weapons—is quite deceptive: yes, The Driller Killer delivers exactly what its title promises, yet it can hardly be said to be about it. The splatter feels almost as incidental as anything else that happens, be it Remo’s disappointing interaction with his patron, a fight with his girlfriend, or an entire aside capturing the punk band capturing next door. Ferrara is a cinematic roamer, his camera sent out to find and document whatever it might come across.

And while he forges some musings out of this chaos, even they’re elusive at best. On its face, The Driller Killer appears to be an especially violent riff on Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, another film about an artist taking out his frustrations in homicidal fashion. However, where that film’s artist turns his murder into art, this one just has Reno Miller leaving his victims’ splattered skulls to be discovered by the police. There’s precious little commentary or satirizing of the punk scene (Corman took some playful jabs at beatniks in Bucket), and, if anything, Reno’s increasingly sad existence contrasts with the rambunctious crowd he never feels a part of. Something about that sadness sticks, as Ferrara’s eyes hint at a lonely desperation that’s driving Reno to commit these heinous acts. An early scene shared between Reno and his own derelict father at a church suggests some daddy issues and Catholic guilt that may weigh on the tortured artist, but it’s not exactly a Rosetta stone that unlocks The Driller Killer.

Instead, Ferrara is content to let the audience hang out alongside him as he searches for whatever meaning might arise. He’s not in a particular hurry to find it, either, as The Driller Killer just kind of darts about various tangents, as Ferrara doesn’t seem overly concerned with even finding the high-strung, haywire energy typically associated with this sort of thing. The Driller Killer is one of the more low-key freak-outs ever committed to gritty, grungy 16mm: it luxuriates in squalor, taking out time for Reno to take in a show at Max’s Kansas City, a notorious underground joint haunted by punks and freaks. Ferrara revels in this scene and allows his film to be momentarily overwhelmed by crunching riffs and slinky bass-lines, a strange but welcome distraction from the gory carnage unfolding elsewhere. Reno lurks at a distance, wishing to be anywhere else while his roommates are interrogated by their unique living arrangement: “who’s fucking who?” one club rat asks, only to receive no pertinent answer (mostly because Ferrara is uninterested in answers).

Between this scene and Ferrara’s decision to play Reno himself, one is compelled to see The Driller Killer as the semi-autobiographical confessions of a thwarted artist. After harboring his own rock and roll and art school ambitions, Ferrara eventually found himself turning to the world of porn, a far cry from where he expected to be as a young director. As such, it’s not hard to see Reno as an avatar of Ferrara’s own disappointment and frustration. If this is his confessional, it’s a rambling one, almost as if Ferrara is thinking out loud and following every impulse in his search to grasp some fundamental truth in this madness. He manages a slippery hold on that fleeting melancholy lurking in Reno’s eyes, sensing that this is the driving force here.

The result is a film whose loose, discordant form begins to mirror its function: just as Reno reconciles with bitter personal and professional failures, the film likewise unwinds to a shaggy, elliptical climax, one that ends in a haunting, ambiguous silence. Not only is it one last “fuck you” directed at the audience, but, given Ferrara’s initial demand for maximum volume, it might also function as a self-critique. Beneath every rambunctious, shrieking, posturing punk, there’s just a lonely soul unable to find meaning amongst the cacophony.

The disc:

As the landmark debut of a cinematic master, The Driller Killer has expectedly been around the DVD block a time or two (it’s even turned up in public domain sets, dubiously enough), but it’s only recently made the leap to Blu-ray thanks to another stellar release from Arrow Video. Leaving no stone unturned, they’ve included the film’s originally released version and a pre-release cut that runs about five minutes longer. Both cuts are presented in 1.85 and Ferrara’s preferred 1.37 aspect ratio, with each having been restored from the film’s original negative.

A newly-recorded commentary with Ferrara (and moderated by author Brad Stevens) headlines the supplements, which also boast a new interview with the director where he discusses his childhood influences (particularly the Toho movies that once played incessantly on TV) and the inspiration behind The Driller Killer. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s visual essay further illuminates both this film and Ferrara’s career, while the director’s own Mulberry Street is a feature-length documentary about the New York City locations that have been so dear to him throughout the years. A trailer and newly-commissioned artwork round out yet another impressive release from Arrow, though Ferrara completists are advised to hang on to the 2-disc collector’s edition DVD that features a trio of short films that don’t show up here.

Otherwise, this is a fine release that’s worthwhile for the presentation upgrade alone. Make no mistake, The Driller Killer is often unpleasant and its low-budget roots are on full display throughout; however, it’s also a vital dispatch from a director whose distinctive, spirited voice is evident here—even if it’s not at its most articulate.
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