The story is that of struggling New York artist Reno (also played by Ferrara) who lives in a scummy Union Square apartment with his two girlfriends – oh, the 70s! He’s slowly driven mad by his neighbourhood’s descent into dereliction, the cost of living crisis (PRESCIENT) and the relentless noise from post punk pseuds The Roosters practicing in the next room. We’ve all been there – I used to live next door to a prime irritant who played bongos along to Paul Simon’s Graceland 24/7.
In those days artists couldn’t fill their endless spare time by shitting up Instagram with urban sunsets and ‘found objects’ or updating their inane videoblogs, so instead Reno fantasises about showering in the blood of his enemies. But there’s one problem: cordless technology was still a pipedream in 1979 and even a 30m extension lead is a real nuisance for the busy serial killer on the go. Fortunately, in a scene which could have looked clumsily inserted in the hands of a lesser director, he catches a late night infomercial for the Porto-pak battery unit and bish bash Bosch! He’s holstered up and ready to go.
He begins his reign of terror by donning a pair of red trousers (they’re always the ones you have to watch – again, PRESCIENT) and taking his masonry bit to the homeless and the vagrants. His method of cleaning up the streets may seem extreme, but with the benefit of hindsight it’s nothing compared to the policies Rudy Giuliani would implement in later years.
Like most artists he’s a surly pretentious manchild drunk on his own importance and soon he just can’t stop himself, dealing with one critic in particularly brutal fashion – take that, Brian Sewell! Finally he exacts revenge on his now ex-girlfriend’s wet blanket beardy kimono-wearing, herbal tea drinking boyfriend – frankly that guy deserved it. Bafflingly the only person who escapes is the lead singer of the Roosters, even though he’s a sub-Richard Hell bore given to performing tedious spoken word pieces.
Banned on video in the UK largely by dint of its iconic gruesome cover rather than its contents (I guess the crusty old Director of Public Prosecutions never got the book/cover memo) its appearance on the ‘video nasties’ list is pretty much all it has in common with its banned brethren.
It’s more psychological chiller than horror film and has none of the dramatic beats (or indeed humour) of the slasher pics that would follow. There’s no real tension, threat or breath-taking shocks, very little gore, and it doesn’t fit the mysterious bogeyman trope either. You know what those arthouse fucks are like, they think they’re better than us. Not for them the conventional slow reveal, narrative drive and dramatic conclusion – this is a rambling whydunnit? And Ferrara doesn’t really provide any answers, instead littering the film with the religious themes and iconography which would go on to inform his more celebrated later work, but which here are pretty meaningless and just randomly Jackson Pollocked at the canvas.
The most effective part of the film is the look of it. Borne as much out of budgetary necessity as artistry, the lo-fi filming nonetheless suits the grimy setting perfectly, and it’s an authentic evocation of the late 70s NY scene when every no-mark with a Telecaster, a trust fund and a dog-eared copy of On The Road was stinking out a Greenwich Village warehouse with their scratchy two-chord meanderings. And there’s some pretty decent stabs at social commentary too, like highlighting the sky-high energy costs of the time by having two girls resort to showering together, in a scene which was by no means totally unnecessary or gratuitous.
As you’d expect for a microbudget B-movie the performances are pretty ropey. Ferrara is passable to a point – he’s a suitably hollow cadaverous presence but he struggles when asked to emote and definitely made the right decision in retreating behind the camera. Carolyn Marz as Carol is by far the best of the bunch – she has the look of a young Catherine Zeta Jones about her and can at least recite a line, though I’m always suspicious of somebody’s acting chops if their real name is the same as that of their character. Baybi Day on the other hand is a total car crash. The archetypal B-movie plank, she looks like she’s reading her lines off an optician’s chart in the middle-distance, and makes Heather Graham’s character in Bowfinger look like Meryl Streep.
Without the notoriety it earned based on its banning rather than its cinematic content, it’s doubtful The Driller Killer would have been more than a forgotten footnote in Abel Ferrara’s career. Whilst by no means unwatchable it’s no great shakes as either an amusing popcorn flick or challenging, thought-provoking arthouse classic. Worth watching for curiosity value alone, but then I expect you could say the same about his unofficial feature debut: 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy.
This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.