The Driller Killer (1979)

Driller Killer

   An artist slowly loses his mind as he and his two female friends scrape to pay the bills. The punk band downstairs increasingly agitates him, his art dealer is demanding that he complete his big canvas painting as promised, and he gets into fights with his girlfriends. When the dealer laughs at his canvas he snaps, and begins taking it out on the people responsible for his pain…

   The title is made to thrill. It evokes images of 60s B-movies and shocking headlines written to sell newspapers. The poster’s tagline is lurid and evocative – ‘The Blood Runs In Rivers… And The Drill Keeps Tearing through Flesh and Bone’. The thrill-seekers waiting to see the film are half eager for it to start, and half hoping it doesn’t. The film was banned in the UK until 1999 under the ‘Video Nasty’ Act, so it’s predicted to be a truly horrific peep show. As the projector flickers on, one or two of the girls in the audience shriek pre-emptively. Nervous, coquettish laughter is heard, but it quickly dies down when the dripping RED LETTERS – IT’S BLOOD – appear. ‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD’ flashes across the screen, followed by the title. And that’s where the peak of terror is reached, before the film actually starts.

   Driller Killer is one of those films that seemed to reach cult status not because it was well made (it wasn’t), but because it has a style and theme that makes it interesting to watch. The early Abel Ferrara work is more of a social commentary than a slasher gorn-fest, exploring the struggles and existential angst of young people in a place like New York City. It is, in essentials, a loosely punk film from the early days of punk rock. Abel is both director and leading man, playing Reno Miller; the aforementioned suffering artist. His current work is a large painting of a buffalo (drinking a large amount of wine before viewing makes the film endlessly more enjoyable and the mediocre art more exquisitely beautiful). He’s a sarcastic and snide individual, which is cool, and owes money to every capitalist business in the town, which is not cool – his buxom lady friends spend their time lending him money, spending his money and taking PG-15 erotic showers together. Presumably it’s a harsh necessity to save on water bills, because we all know they aren’t getting paid if Reno doesn’t sell that painting.

   Close-up flashes of whirring drills (we’re never explicitly sure why drills, but there was a whole film about a microwave as a weapon so go figure) and blood pools abound until Reno finally snaps and starts killing the homeless. It’s certainly violence, but not slick, realistic, nauseating gore like you’d expect. The effects are good, if dated, but the indiscriminate murder hobby just seems like a small part in Miller’s life rather than the central focus of the plot. Driller Killer is truly grim and as much shocking as the classic film it’s clearly inspired on (namely: Taxi Driver, definitely Taxi Driver) but it lacks a fitting tone and an appropriate background. The film opens with a very confusing (read: hackneyed) sequence in which the protagonist is standing at an altar while being approached by an elderly man. This footage is extra since the 1999 re-release and it looks like Ferrara wanted to supply his film with some kind of spiritual depth. It leads nowhere, though.

   In fact, Driller Killer could have so easily escaped the UK ‘Video Nasty’ list if the original video cover wasn’t so graphic. It featured a very bloody close-up of a drill boring into a man’s head while he grimaced and screwed his eyes up slightly in agony. The cover was featured in video catalogues and earned the complaints that lead to the film’s classification as obscene. A large amount of the film’s cult status does derive from just being on that list, so the ban was probably the best thing that ever happened to its sales. It’s now available free online and in various boxsets – chances are that it’s become public domain.

   Overall, is the film worth the two hour runtime? Strip away the minimal violence and the gratuitous lesbian showers and it’s just an urban study – an arguably boring one. It’s definitely better when held in context with Ferrara’s other work than compared to the other Video Nasties – it’s a surprisingly good film that has a lot more depth than expected. It’s still not that much, though. More arthouse than grindhouse, Driller Killer should be taken more as a character study with a slightly exploitative advertising campaign than a traditional horror offering.

Serving Suggestion: With a glass – with a large glass – with a bottle of wine before viewing. Personal recommendation is a low-end 2012 Shiraz.

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