Movies: The Driller Killer (1979)

The 1979 film The Driller Killer is probably as well known as it is due to the fact that it was one of the most often-cited movies to appear on the UK’s infamous “video nasties” list; and in fact, according to a guy named Mike Bor, who at the time was the Principal Examiner at the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), Abel Ferrara’s gritty psychodrama was “almost single-handedly responsible for the Video Recordings Act 1984.”

Ironically—or not, considering the ridiculousness of the reasons many films got singled out—the furor against The Driller Killer wasn’t so much due to the content of the movie—which was graphic in places, sure, but far less violent or gory than many other films of the era—but almost entirely due to its VHS cover.

The film received a theatrical release in the United States in 1979 without issue, but when it was released to home video in the UK in 1982, its distributor took out full-page ads in the trade magazines featuring the movie’s lurid cover art, which depicted a drill bit going into a screaming dude’s head. Conservative crybabies were outraged, citing the declining morals of the nation and blah de blah, and The Driller Killer got slapped onto the Section 1 (prosecuted) nasties list.

From the title and marketing, you’d think that The Driller Killer was a straight-up slasher film, but it’s actually a lot more interesting than that. What I mean is, while the movie definitely has a few of the hallmarks of a slasher film—a guy does go around killing homeless people with a power tool at one point, after all—it’s more of a psychological, descent-into-madness type piece, and I’d even argue that it’s actually best viewed as a time capsule of late 1970s New York, when the streets were filthy, rat-infested, and haunted by drunks, drug addicts, and the mentally ill; when everyone was desperately teetering on the edge of ruin and spent whatever meager money they could scrape up on escape in any form they could find it: alcohol, narcotics, and grungy punk rock clubs.

The Driller Killer was Abel Ferrara’s first feature-length, non-pornographic film; prior to this, he’d made several short films and a porno with the delightful title of 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. It’s definitely low-budget (made for around a hundred grand) and it shows, but many of the trademarks that Ferrara would become known for during his subsequent career are already pretty evident, including the pervasive Catholic imagery and themes, and his fascination with artists and their relationship to their art. Ferrara also stars in the lead role, under his pseudonym, Jimmy Laine.

Our protagonist is Reno Miller, a struggling artist living in a somewhat grimy apartment in Union Square in Manhattan. He appears to be in a sort of polyamorous triad consisting also of his girlfriend Carol (played by Carolyn Marz, who looks like a proto-Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has recently divorced her husband; and Carol’s girlfriend Pamela, played by Baybi Day, a spacey party girl. The three of them live very much hand to mouth; Reno does seem to have sold some art in the past, judging from his interactions with Dalton Briggs, the art dealer (played by Harry Schultz II), and Carol gets an alimony check, but the trio are a couple months behind on rent, and also just received a huge phone bill that they can’t afford to pay.

The piece that Reno is currently working on, though, is going to change everything for them, or at least that’s what he’s convinced himself of. The painting is a large depiction of a frightened-looking buffalo overlaid with ragged red claw marks, and even though it looks finished, Reno, in true artistic fashion, refuses to bring the dealer to come see it until he’s completely satisfied with it, even though the gang are really hurting for money now. Reno even goes to Dalton’s office and asks for an advance on the painting (even though the dealer hasn’t even seen it yet), but Dalton refuses, because he’s already given Reno several advances, one of which was for his girlfriend’s abortion.

The financial stresses are really taking a toll on everyone, as they’re often stuck in the apartment watching TV because they can’t afford to go out. One evening, Reno sees a commercial for something called a Porto-Pak, which is a belt-like battery pack for using power tools on the go, and he becomes entranced with it. He’s also simultaneously horrified and fascinated by an incident he witnesses in the street one day, where a man is randomly stabbed and left for dead in the middle of a busy sidewalk in broad daylight.

As if the pressure of being broke and living on the margins of society wasn’t enough, Reno’s artistic concentration is disrupted when a No Wave band called The Roosters—who are actually friends of Pamela’s—move into the building and start rehearsing day and night. Reno begins to get increasingly agitated by the constant noise, and his relationship with Carol starts to deteriorate.

When he complains to the landlord about the band, the landlord just shrugs and says the music doesn’t bother him, and that Reno doesn’t really have much cause to bitch, since he hasn’t paid any rent in a couple months anyway. He then, in a gesture of goodwill, says he’ll say something to the band, and also—somewhat randomly—offers Reno a skinned rabbit to eat (which was perhaps a nod to another classic, person-in-apartment-spirals-down-to-crazy-town movie, Roman Polanksi’s 1965 Repulsion).

Reno starts cutting up the rabbit to cook, but ends up just kinda flipping out and mutilating it instead, and I should also note that there are definite hints now that he may be losing his mind: he keeps having nightmares and flashes of himself covered in blood, hears Carol’s voice when she isn’t there, and starts to see freaky shit, like Carol with her eyes plucked out and someone in a big bunny head ducking into the bedroom.

He’s also started to fixate on the homeless people always hovering around his building; at first he was just sketching them, but as the movie goes on, he starts ranting at them about one thing and another. Because of a scene at the very beginning of the movie—in which Reno is summoned to a church because a transient man was brought in who had a piece of paper bearing Reno’s name and phone number on it, and Reno is subsequently repelled when the old man touches him—we’re led to believe that Reno has an intense fear and hatred of homeless people, perhaps because the man in the church was his father, and perhaps because Reno is terrified that he could very easily end up just like him.

At last, the swirl of anxieties comes to a head, and Reno grabs his drill and begins to prowl the streets of Manhattan, murdering homeless men willy-nilly in fountains of bloody carnage. Though his crimes are reported in the papers, no one suspects that he’s the one responsible.

Finally, after he’s killed several people, he declares his painting finished and asks Dalton to come have a look at it and make an offer. Dalton, though, completely eviscerates the work, calling it worthless and storming out of the apartment. Because Reno just sits there blankly as all the trio’s dreams of riches go up in smoke, Carol blows her stack, first screaming after Dalton, but then focusing her ire on Reno for not standing up for himself. Fed up, she finally leaves, going back to her ex-husband, which appears to be the final nail in the coffin of Reno’s sanity. Though Reno does end up killing Dalton for dissing his buffalo painting, it’s left unclear whether he killed Pamela or Carol, which I found kind of an interesting decision, though it does follow more in line with Reno’s pathology as laid out in the film; it wasn’t so much the women in his life he was angry at, but the men, and particularly the old bums in the street who were an ever-present reminder of how he would likely end up.

As I said, The Driller Killer is not exactly a slasher film, so don’t go into it expecting that, despite how it’s often presented. Abel Ferrara, in fact, has often referred to it as a black comedy, which I guess it sort of is, though it’s a very grim and downbeat one. It’s really grubby, with some amateurish aspects (though not as many as you might think), but there’s actually a solid story in here and a slightly deeper thematic resonance than the usual cheapie exploitation flick. I will admit that the film is a bit rambling in places; you get the sense that Abel Ferrara simply shot a great deal of footage of his friends and actors just improvising things or acting like their usual selves, so if you don’t have much patience for hanging around in scuzzy apartments and scuzzier punk clubs with a bunch of late-70s, no wave druggies, artists, and musicians, you might find yourself somewhat bored or annoyed, and wondering when the drilling is going to happen. I actually always found this era and this art/music scene fascinating, so I didn’t mind all the time spent immersing the audience in the world of these characters. I’d argue as well that simply watching these people go about their lives in the then-mean streets of New York City amply conveyed the poverty and hopelessness endemic to the period more than any dialogue ever could.

It’s a dirty, depressing movie, and one that maybe meanders around too much for its own good and leaves some plot threads unexplored, but I always found it pretty compelling, though of course your mileage may vary. I’d recommend it to anyone who digs that seedy 70s/80s NYC vibe found in movies like Maniac, C.H.U.D., Basket Case, or hell, even Taxi Driver.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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