The Driller Killer is a priceless artifact from New York City in the 1970s. It’s a rich nugget of cinema that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not the plot, it certainly isn’t the acting, it’s something harder to express. It’s the sound and texture. The look and feel of it.
It’s Abel Ferrara’s second full-length feature, his first being a porn called The 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. He not only directed The Driller Killer,but starred in it as well. Ferrara was born in the Bronx, and it shows. The movie was filmed in Ferrara’s apartment in Union Square, just north of places like St. Marks, Alphabet City, and Soho. He undoubtedly spent a lot of time in these areas and places like The Palladium, CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and The Mud Club. These were the haunts of the angry young artists, the angry young homosexuals, the angry young drug addicts, and the angry young punks. They were what was left after the optimism of the '60s collapsed. Along with all their anger came a lot of creative energy and willingness to take risks.
The Driller Killer was like a net trawling through this roiling soup. It really wasn’t much of a slasher movie. There isn’t much suspense. No pretty blonde cheerleaders wandering down dark hallways. Most of the film is arguments.
Ferrara plays the lead character Reno, a hard-luck artist trying to finish his next painting so he can give it to his gallery and make some dough. Reno’s girlfriend Carolyn is impatient and tells him the painting is finished, and Reno yells,
“It’s finished! Since when did you become such an expert of painting? I mean, you are telling me it’s finished? What do you know about painting anyway? Really, what do you know about painting? I’ll tell you what you know about painting, man. You don’t know nothin’ about painting. You know what you know about? You know how to bitch, and how to eat, and how to bitch, and how to shit, and how to bitch, but you don’t know nothing about painting, so don’t tell me about when it’s gonna be done. I’ll tell you when it’s gonna be done, and don’t worry about the money, man. I don’t care about that money. Alright? That’s all you talk about. That’s what the other one talks about. That’s all I hear from that fag art dealer uptown, and I don’t wanna hear it ‘cause the sound of that word drives me crazy!”
I’m guessing the scene has an element of self-parody along with some genuine frustration. The Driller Killer is essentially a descent into madness film. There are some clear references to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, one of which comes in the form of a skinned rabbit. In Repulsion, it is the alienation of apartment living that fuels the disintegration. In The Driller Killer, it is the disintegration of society.
Ferrara put together a fake punk band called The Roosters for the film, but after hearing them play throughout the movie, I would have been the first in line to buy their album, if one existed. The band was fronted by the charismatic Tony Coca-Cola and would have fit right in with The Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop. Punk back then was somewhat split between the aggressive thumping of bands like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones on one hand, and the arty experiments of Patti Smith or Talking Heads on the other. The Roosters, like The Velvet Underground, fit somewhere in the middle.
The Driller Killer has the coveted distinction of being one of the original 72 titles listed on the infamous “Video Nasties" list compiled by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the United Kingdom. It was banned, which of course greatly increased its audience. It was smuggled from VCR to VCR along with the rest of the grindhouse catalog.
Abel Ferrara’s next film was Ms. 45. It was filmed on the same gritty streets, but was more character-driven and a bit more polished. Eventually, Ferrara rose to prominence making films like King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) Body Snatchers (1993) which was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and The Addiction (1995) which was nominated for the Golden Bear. He has a strange and varied catalog.
Currently, he lives and works in Rome. He was raised an Italian Catholic. Much has been said about Catholic themes in his work, but frankly, it’s hard for me to see it in The Driller Killer. I found a quote from Ferrara that seems to sum up his weird mix of gutter and gusto.
“All the great art is financed by the Church, so they have a monopoly on the paintings, and they’re powerful images, the whole nine yards of it. But Jesus was a living man, and so were Buddha and Muhammad. These three guys changed the fucking world, with their passion and love of other human beings. All these guys had was their word, and they came from fucking nowhere. I’m not saying Nazareth is nowhere – I’m sure Jesus came from a very cool neighborhood.”
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