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The Driller Killer (1979) Review

The Driller Killer (1979): Reviewed by Bryan “SHU-IZMZ” Schuessler

Gritty is the only word that I think that best describes Abel Ferrara’s cult classic film that he not only directs, but also stars in, as the lead, Reno Miller. The film presents a message right at its beginning telling viewers that this film must be played very loud. I followed the directions exactly and I do not know whether having the volume pumped up to its highest level without busting the speakers worked for the benefit of the film or not, but it certainly made Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, the punk band that is featured in the film and plays at the club that Reno, Carol, and Pamela frequent, resonates throughout the room far easier.

The Driller Killer is one of the films that made the U.K.’s ‘video nasty’ list, and is said to have been able to avoid that list if the original pre-VRA cover-art for the box had not been so graphic. It depicts a very bloody close-up of drill boring into a man’s head. I find it hard to believe that this is the only reason it made the ‘video nasty’ list. I can’t see those tightly-wound British being alright with many of the graphic murders involving drill vs. man.

There also was one point of contention in this film, most of it by who is mentioned in one scene, for Ferrara claims that Bruce Willis is in one scene cleaning the windows of a taxi cab early on in the beginning of the film. He reiterates this point again in the commentary. Of note, also, is that the punk-rock group The Damned mention the title of this film in the song, “Nasty“, which is a track about horror movies that were banned in the U.K. after the Video Recording Act of 1984. As well as possibly having Bruce Willis in his film for mere seconds, the man that is in the opening scene with Reno in the church is actor James O’Hara (credited as Man in church) and it was the last movie he was ever in.

I had to watch the film a couple of times to really get a feel for what Ferrara was intending to accomplish. At first viewing, I was not impressed. I felt like it was a slasher film that did not deliver. The acting was too artsy-fartsy for me. The murder scenes did not produce enough blood or gore. The violence was not at a level that I found appealing in a slasher-horror-cult film, but I think that was what was confusing for me. I was trying to decide if I should not like this film because it was not following the norms and conventions of a traditional slasher-horror film, or if I should admire the film as a cult film that had very artistic shots and scenes that take elements of horror to a completely different and unique direction, a direction that was not readily filmed in 1979.

Abel Ferrara’s character, Reno Miller (credited in the film as his pseudonym Jimmy Laine), is a starving artist, whose life revolves around his paintings and keeping bill collectors off his back. Ferrara paints himself a very New York-ish film that really captures the elements of the vagrants and street life of New York City, where it was obviously filmed. Miller may be painting some very modern and beautiful paintings for the film, but Ferrara’s picture is not painting one of beauty, but one of the savage streets.

Reno Miller is living with his lover, Carol Slaughter (Carolyn Marz) and another roommate, Pamela (Baybi Day), who both have an unspoken love for each other, taking hot, steamy showers together while rubbing up on each other and sleeping in the same bed together. Carol is married and seems to be escaping her unsatisfying marriage by shacking up with Reno as he struggles with his finances hoping to pay off his bills with the one truly magnificent painting. A painting depicting a buffalo, that actually looks pretty cool-if you like buffaloes, that is.

At some point during Reno’s meager existence as an artist, he snaps. Plain and simple. We are given glimpses of Reno’s departure from reality with sparse images of bloody gore whipping in and out of Reno’s head, then with a fascination with a power drill which leads Reno to stop at a hardware store’s front window to gaze into and focus on the drill bits. Later that night, Reno encounters his first street vagrant and goes to work. The story of The Driller Killer was written by long-time friend Nicholas St. John (Ferrara and St. John went to high school together) and he has written many of Abel’s films.

The film’s power drill scenes are bloody and fairly graphic, probably much more so for its time. One might even consider them shocking with a hint of savagery in the mix. Ferrara does a wonderful job of pacing Reno’s slow departure from reality into fantasy, a fantasy that pushes Reno to the edge and causes him to commit his heinous acts on low-life street bums. The voices start coming in his head, hearing sounds when none are there to be heard and then the drilling begins.

A particular scene that I found truly horrifying and beautiful at the same time is when Reno is painting and his psychosis starts taking a turn for the worst, starting with him hearing Carol’s voice calling him. He then turns around, looking intently at nothing, then Ferrara cuts to a shot of Carol slowly spinning in a circle and when she fully comes around to face him, her eyes are drilled out and dripping blood. This film fuses art and horror tightly into one element.

Cult Epics released a 2-disc dvd which contains the feature, as well as a commentary by director and actor Abel Ferrara himself. It was very well done and offers lots of insight into each scene, much of it very humorous with Ferrara’s very colorful commentary, if not more than slightly unconventional. I think that is the key word here- unconventional. Everything about Ferrara’s work on The Driller Killer was unconventional, making it a cult classic with viewers and fans alike in the horror genre, as well as fans of punk-rock and new wave. In addition to the audio commentary, there is the Porto-pack commercial and a trailer for the film. The Porto-pack commercial is filmed in black and white and contains no audio, but is the same one that is shown on the television set in the apartment in the film.

Fans of Abel Ferrara are in for a very special treat, as Cult Epics has included The Early Short Films of Abel Ferrara on disc-two. Included are Could This Be Love, The Hold Up, Nicky’s Film, and a trailer for Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy.

Could This Be Love (1973) is presented in a new transfer from the original 16mm positive print and runs about 29 min. in duration. It includes a commentary, as well as a separate commentary on Nadia Von Lowenstein that is almost 10 min. long that is done by Abel Ferrara.

The Hold Up (1972) is black and white and runs just over 14 min. long. It is an amateur film and the quality is poor since it was taken from a VHS tape. This really is a treat for die-hard Ferrara fans and also includes a commentary by him.

Nicky’s Film (1971) is another VHS transfer and is one of Ferrara’s earliest surviving pieces of work and was “an exercise in paranoia and surrealism”. That translates to not very enjoyable in my mind. Much of the footage is blurred, out of focus, and filmed with shaky-camera work.

With the trailer for Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, I was hoping this one not a metaphor, but actually a filming of a wet “pussy” and not the feline type. My hopes came true. This trailer is for a 1976 hardcore porno feature film directed by Ferrara under the pseudonym ‘Jimmy Boy L.’ and was filmed before The Driller Killer. It is a new transfer from the original 35mm negative and sound elements. Do I need to mention that this was my favorite portion of the whole 2nd disc? It’s full of finger-banging, muff-diving, cock-sucking, and cock-riding. The best part of this trailer is the voice-over and sexual metaphors and references. I wish Cult Epics would release this film, for it would be one I would love to own.