The Driller Killer
A struggling New York artist, increasingly troubled by the seemingly easy success of those around him and frustrated by his own failures, slowly goes insane while he and his roommates struggle to pay their mounting bills. He continues to hold his mounting anger inside and doesn’t talk about his dark and violent visions involving him and a bloody power drill. But when he sees a TV ad for a portable battery pack he gives into temptation and begins stalking the streets of New York City at night, taking out his frustrations on the mentally ill and homeless he finds hiding in the shadows.
Or hell, even right out in the open. Reno’s not picky it seems.
The Driller Killer has a bit of a misleading reputation, one partially of its own making. This early film by Abel Ferrara is often tagged as a horror or slasher, and while it may certainly have some strong elements of those, in reality it’s really better described as a psychodrama or intense character study of a disturbed man driven to madness, due in part to both his own inadequacies, and the decaying urban environment in which he inhabits. So yeah, it’s not typically the type of film that most horror fans will flock to. But it does have several violent and very bloody killing sprees in it, so the horror fans shouldn’t feel too left out. Said scenes were in fact so bloody that they were enough to ignite the oft referenced “video nasties” debate back in the UK in the 1980’s. Yes, THIS was the film that initially sparked complaints that would lead to the creation of that infamous list. But not for the content in the movie. No, the complaints regarding the film were instead centered around full-page advertisements that Vipco, the UK distributors of the film, put out in several specialized magazines, which depicted a scene in the film where Reno brutally drills into the head of one of his victims.
And here’s that infamous cover for your viewing pleasure.
Graphic? Yes. But the irony is that while some of the violence is brutal and explicit, that violence actually only takes up a very small percentage of the film. It’s hard to tell with the jumpy way in which parts of the movie are cut, but my guess is that the violent parts alone only account for around maybe 10 minutes of the 95-or-so-minute-long runtime (depending on what cut of the film you’re watching). And even then, a lot of that violence is implied, as opposed to blatantly shown. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll see plenty, but not nearly as much as some of the posters and advertisements may lead you to believe. You gotta remember, this was a low-budget indie film, and Ferrara just didn’t have the funds to be that graphic, beyond maybe one or two scenes. Hell, he didn’t even have enough money to finish filming during the same year. The schedule had to be split, with a break between filming between 1978 and 1979 (which explains why some of the characters’ looks and hairstyles are constantly switching back and forth from one scene to the next). So while the film can be a bloody mess, a lot of that mess is implied or partially obscured thanks to unusual angles or clever camera tricks, leading to a violent, but much less bloody film than most viewers are going to go in expecting.
Or maybe not. I’m not going to guess at what your expectations are.
Other than those violent bits, the film spends the rest of the time focusing on Reno’s slow descent into psychosis. The Movie feels sort of like Taxi Driver crossed with Repulsion. It’s often dark, bleak, and filled with increasing paranoia. It’s quite effective. But unfortunately it ultimately fails to deliver on the slow mounting tension that it spent so much time building up. While the ending is just as dark as you’d likely expect, towards the end of the movie the tense atmosphere starts to dissipate, rather than increase, surprisingly enough, and you start to lose some interest, which takes a great deal of the punch out of the ‘big finale.’
Also, still not sure what’s going on here. Maybe it means Reno’s finally gone down the Rabbit Hole. I don’t know. Draw your own conclusions.
The acting on display oftentimes feels ‘amateurish’, but considering the thin-bare story, one that’s more focused on atmosphere and visuals, it’s still professional and more than suitably gets the job done. Ferrara does a commendable job in the lead role of Reno (under the acting pseudonym Jimmy Laine), and he also not only does an excellent job of capturing the punk rock, No Wave, avant-garde art scene prevalent in New York during the 1970s, but he also not-so-subtly incorporates those accompanying looks and sounds and vibes into his picture, in everything from the visuals to the soundtrack. The sometimes harsh, oft repetitive and even catchy sounds fit in perfectly with the grungy, dissonant, urban nihilism.
Biggest mystery of the film: why the hell kill all those homeless guys, and then spare these clowns?
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started The Driller Killer, but I did end up liking it. While it’s more of a social drama than a horror picture, it does do a good job of capturing the feeling of hopelessness and desperation in a sprawling, but decayed, urban setting, and the brutality that can often accompany it. And it also skillfully portrays the art scene that was ubiquitous to the area at the time without being too obnoxiously pretentious about it, which is nice for an art-house film. Is it perfect? No. Some scenes feel pointless or redundant, and the narrative can often feel disjointed, to the point where there are times when it’s not clear what’s going on. But hey, art-house type film or not, this is still a low-budget, exploitative indie film from the late 1970’s, so I expect it to have some jank. If you enjoy 70’s cult cinema, or are curious about the early works of a famed director, then The Driller Killer is something to look into. Just don’t go in expecting to watch a straight-up horror flick, cause this ain’t that and you’ll walk away bored to tears.
The Driller Killer is available on a variety of streaming services.
The Driller Killer is also available on DVD and Bluray.