New to Blu: Arrow Video: The Driller Killer (1979) - Reviewed

The New York Bronx based provocateur/exploitation filmmaker Abel Ferrara, love him or hate him, is one of the true homegrown original moviemakers of our time.  Dancing a tightrope walk between high art and unabashed Grindhouse sleaze that can be cut with a knife, only the equally provocative (if not more) New York based director Larry Clark comes close to Ferrara’s mixture between documentary Neorealism, cheap thrills, raw urban decay and nonjudgmental character study.  Upon first starting out with short student films and hardcore pornography, Ferrara was ready to break into the feature film scene and upon the release of his ultraviolent, sadistic and maddening The Driller Killer, the world got a good look firsthand at what would eventually develop into a wholly original voice in American film.  

Seen at the time, the film was regarded as nothing more puerile exploitation, which it might still be.  Seen in hindsight after looking at his oeuvre over the years, including the recently released Welcome to New York and Pasolini, the film is a semi-autobiographical fantasy and ultimately the starting point of an artist in the process of finding his niche.  It’s far from perfect, even a bit tedious at times, but it paved the way for what would become arguably his greatest film, Ms. 45, which The Driller Killer has a surprising amount in common with.

Chronicling a New York based artist named Reno (played by Ferrara himself) down on his luck with two female roommates, an impossible to please curator and noisy punk rocker neighbors who won’t stop blasting music at all hours of the night, the film gradually evolves into a slasher thriller as Reno’s crumbling psyche turns towards serial murder of homeless people with an electric powered drill.  Costing around $100,000 to produce, the film more or less provides the framework of Ms. 45 with an even rougher around the edges 16mm visual style than anything else in the director’s filmography.

For Ferrara fans, the film is a chance to see the director briefly flexing his acting muscles in the part of a starving artist by day/murderous sociopath at night.  While the no-nonsense street smart auteur is a bit rusty as an actor, Ferrara’s gaunt face fits the bill so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part.  Much of the rest of the cast holds their own pretty well, but the film is mostly driven by Ferrara’s performance.  Mixed in are the director’s usual obsessions including religion, lesbianism, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and extreme brutal violence.  While a bit sloppy in the ways we’ve come to expect from Ferrara’s gritty visual style, it’s a fascinating opening chapter to what would evolve into a distinguished filmography.
The Driller Killer, as a Ferrara film, shows the director in the act of figuring things out but as a result it tends to drag here and there.  Over time Ferrara’s provocations would become significantly more sophisticated visually and contextually, eventually delivering Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral, King of New York and a brief Hollywood stint with the third Warner Brothers produced remake of Body Snatchers.  Not for everyone but not to be easily dismissed, Ferrara is the real deal beating to the tune of his own drum as a maestro of arthouse sleaze. 

With The Driller Killer, the film will satisfy grindhouse exploitation fans as well as Ferrara disciples eager to see where he got his start but when stacked against his subsequent works it plays like a student film.  I myself found it an engaging watch but ultimately feel he didn’t declare himself in the manner which he did with Ms. 45.  It was interesting to see him carry an entire film as the blood soaked bad guy, but his work got a lot better when he stayed behind the camera instead of in front of it.


- Andrew Kotwicki