Monday, February 22

Some quick thoughts on The Driller Killer (1979)

Abel Ferrara's infamous debut, The Driller Killer, is a film I've been aware of since around the time I first began dabbling in horror flicks. The catchy title, the grisly photo to your left, and the controversy it has stirred especially overseas have buried it deep into the fabric of '70s horror roughies. I hadn't seen one frame of Driller Killer before last night and only came into ownership of a DVD copy a week ago. After the experience, I imagine if I would have seen this one years back my reaction wouldn't have been nearly as favorable as now. Still, Ferrara accomplished this longevity in spite of the film itself and in reality it's not nearly as vital as Hooper's welding of another implement of body destruction or Craven's systematic dismantling of the hope of two young girls.

To put it bluntly, The Driller Killer is kinda like Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood violently blown out the syphilis-encrusted asshole of a dancer grinding away in a 42nd Street peepshow back in the day. Sorry if you just threw up a little, but that's a way of putting it that agrees with this nasty exercise's vernacular. Even more so than Scorsese's Taxi Driver or Lustig's Maniac, Ferrara presents a Manhattan were simply walking a city block at night will result in at least one instance of a shanking and contact VD. Of course, this was a reality before Rudy's clean sweep, and The Driller Killer feels like there was no escape for its actors and crew either on or off the camera. After watching this, you'll see every potential fleck of dirt in your surroundings and feel every blemish on your skin.

This seedy lived-in atmosphere is the film's strongest point to such a degree the exploits of the driller killer, played by Ferrara himself, seem like a formality. This is probably the reason many loathe The Driller Killer because it's like two distinctive features sandwiched together. At one turn, it's a grisly horror flick, and at another, a time capsule of a lost youth bohemian punk lifestyle. The bite is that Ferrara does justice to the latter by a wide margin. The director should have ditched the idea of a horror movie all together and made a fly-on-the-wall documentary detailing the punk scene, New York City's once-famed debauchery, or both. This aspect is so convincing that I thought the film's band, "Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters", was some little known post-punk phenomenon and not just a group of actors.

It's good to know all this if initially walking in because one will probably be disappointed with an expectation of straight horror exploitation. Sure, the power drill killings are brutal; however, The Driller Killer isn't very effective as a genre offering otherwise. The murderous rampage of Ferrara's character, Reno, seems a foregone conclusion and not aimed at those we expect to meet the terror of the bloody chuck. Instead of taking Sex Machine's advice to kill that fucking band, the artistic maniac is more interested in slaughtering the homeless, despite giving the audience false expectation (hope?) in a scene of Reno aggressively complaining to his landlord over the incessantly loud punk. The film's only meaty "meta" portion occurs in the beginning; Reno runs screaming out of a empty church hall after recognizing his presumably estranged father with a Sister saying "Wait, he had you name and number." Ferrara went on to delve into more controversial religious themes with a confident hand in Ms. 45 and Harvey Keitel's stretch armstrong in Bad Lieutenant.

It's hard to recommend The Driller Killer to anyone because it doesn't conform to a specific subset of horror fans. It's safe to assume that Ferrara staked out the genre as a cheap and splashy way to get his name out there. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the film hands the load off to the viewer to produce the glue that holds together the music, mania, and mechanically buzzing death. Play this film loud and judge for yourself.

On a final note, Ferrara himself doesn't seem too keen on providing answers judging by the hilarious audio commentary on Cult Epics's DVD. The murmuring director rambles "WOAH", "watch out now", and "check this out" two thousand times while ogling the sexual wears of his actresses while in a medicated stupor. "It's like I've seen this movie every night while in another dimension." This one revivals the gutbusting stupidity displayed by Schwarzenegger during his commentary with John Milius on the Conan the Barbarian DVD.


the jaded viewer said...

Totally agree with ya. Driller Killer and Ms.45 are a awesome look back at NYC/42nd St grime in its grimiest.

Jenn said...

Ah, the infamous drunken Ferrara commentary! I haven't heard it myself, since I only own this on a Mill Creek set, but I might just have to get a real copy to hear the commentary.

R.D. Penning said...

Sounds like I have a another movie to watch. Good review. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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