The Driller Killer (1979)
First released: 1982
Director: Abel Ferrara
Current UK Status: Passed 18 uncut
The Driller Killer is one of the best known of the Video Nasties, both in terms of its title and, of course, the now infamous VHS cover art. Showing a victim having a drill forced into his head with blood trickling down his screaming face, the cover art did not do the film any favours when it came to the film being banned. The title itself, The Driller Killer, was enough to get the film added to the DPP list regardless of its content. It was, in all honesty, the title and cover art which really lead to the film being banned. However, the film actually ended banned for nearly twenty years. First release by Vipco in the UK in 1982, this version was a shortened version which did not contain a particular non-violent scene. However, the film was quickly added to the Video Nasties list in July 1983, and remained as one of the 39 films which were outright banned in the UK. Naturally, the film became a collectable. It was not until 1999 that the film was finally granted an 18 certificate in the UK with 54 seconds of cuts. In 2002, the ILC Prime DVD release was granted an 18 certificate uncut, and this version has been widely available ever since. Anchor Bay also released the film in 2005, and 4Digital released the most recent DVD version in 2008.
Director Abel Ferrara is one of the few directors who had a film on the Video Nasties list still making films today, and good one’s too! Born in The Bronx, New York in July 1951, Ferrara was of Irish and Italian descent, and was raised Catholic. Religion would become a key ingredient in the directors work, from his first proper feature film The Driller Killer, right up to the films he makes now. At the age of 15 Ferrara moved from The Bronx to Peekskill in Westchester, New York, where he attended high school with Nicholas St John (who would later regularly write Ferrara’s films). Ferrara started his film career making short movies, but when times got desperate and he couldn’t find work, he directed a porno film under the name of Jimmy Boy L. Titled ‘9 Lives of a Wet Pussy’ the film starred his girlfriend at that time. Two years later he made The Driller Killer, the film that got Ferrara noticed as both director and actor (he played the lead role under the alias Jimmy Laine). The film was a seedy, almost slasher style answer to Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver from a few years earlier. Gaining notoriety for both its title and cover artwork, The Driller Killer became one of 39 films outright banned here in the UK by the DPP. The notoriety of the film did nothing to harm Ferrara’s career, and if anything it helped it.
During the time the film was banned Ferrara directed another violent film called ‘MS .45’ (1981) which starred Zoe Tamerlis (who later wrote Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant). In 1984 he directed ‘Fear City’ which focused on a kung-fu slasher hunting girls again in New York. Particular themes would continue to be prominent in most of Ferrara’s work: the New York setting, religious themes or images, seedy characters and often disgusting protagonists. For the next few years though, Ferrara concentrated on some TV series’ (including Crime Story and Miami Vice) and after a few small TV movies, he made possibly his greatest film, The King of New York (1990). With a stunning lead role by Christopher Walken as a New York gangster, the cast also included Wesley Snipes, David Caruso and Laurence Fishburne. Regarded as one of the finest gangster films ever made, no one thought he could top that film, but he at least equalled it with his shocking and brilliant follow up, Bad Lieutenant (1992). Here we saw one of the most challenging and frightening characters ever portrayed on screen, that of the Bad Lieutenant himself, played with shocking ease by Harvey Keitel. Bad Lieutenant won a number of awards, and Martin Scorsese even named the film in his top ten films of the 1990’s.
A remake of the Body Snatchers (1993) and the dark thriller Dangerous Game (1993)(starring Madonna and Keitel) followed before Ferrara went full on indie again with two low budget, but brilliant films: the black and white vampire flick ‘The Addiction’ (1995) and the terrific gangster flick ‘The Funeral’ (1996). Dark and brave drug and booze thriller ‘The Blackout’ followed in 1997, and then he finished off the nineties reuniting with Walken for ‘New Rose Hotel’ (1998). The noughties has not seen much from the director, and the films he did make were sadly not seen by many, and rarely reached the heights of his more challenging and brilliant work. However, films like ‘Go Go Tales’ (2007), ‘Mary’ (2007) and the yet to be released in the UK ‘4:44 Last Day on Earth’ has not seen the director lose his edge or his originality, and after nearly forty years in the business, Ferrara still has the gift of making dark, murky and challenging films that reward those looking for something a little different.
So, The Driller Killer, a film directed by and starring Abel Ferrara, and written by his long time collaborator Nicholas St John. A challenging film which introduced the world to the ways of Abel Ferrara: the film was full of religious imagery, dark, brutal and harsh settings, unlikeable characters and a protagonist who was a pretty horrible man anyway. Here was Ferrara and St John’s darker version of Taxi Driver. It didn’t have a Robert De Niro in the lead, and it certainly did not hit the raw nerve of Scorsese’s classic, but Driller Killer posed the same questions about society, and just when enough is enough. Cleverly, we come close to sympathizing with the films protagonist in the same way we loved De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Ferrara delivers a one man show as Reno Miller, a deep thinking artist struggling to make ends meet. He is working on his latest painting, something he says will be his masterpiece, and as he borrows money off the man who will buy his painting, he also has to struggle living with his girlfriend and her best friend who build up huge phone bills. His landlord is threatening eviction, he can’t stand seeing all these bums, drunks and homeless people populating his neighbourhood, and to top it all off, a rock band have moved in upstairs and they practice day and night. To say Reno is on edge is an understatement, and he wants nothing more than to escape all this, sell his painting and get away from this horrible, miserable world. One can only dream I suppose…
The film opens with a message that reads: “this film should be played loud” and your damn right it does! Not only are the electric drill noises quite brilliant with the sound turned up, but the poor quality of the production makes it very difficult to hear what is being said. I decided to turn the volume up and use subtitles (clever that!). After the lesson in how to watch this film we head to Ferrara’s favourite place, Church, and this is where we first meet Reno. What appears to be a homeless man is sat in church, and the only thing in his pocket is Reno’s name, address and phone number. Reno is called to see him, and finds the man rambling religious mumbo jumbo “forgiveness of sins” and all that. As Reno gets closer, the man tries to grab him and Reno freaks out and heads off in a taxi quickly. The man is never explained, but I believe that this was Reno’s Father, and he represented everything Reno hated about the world, hence his eventual descent into madness. This is the first use of religious undertones in the film, but it won’t be the last. Reno’s apartment is littered with religious themed paintings which are often hideously disfigured. Later on as he goes insane, his dreams also have religious tones to them.
Ferrara cleverly lightens the tone briefly as we witness Reno’s first experience with a power drill. One of the girls in the apartment, clearly out of her mind, wants a hole drilled in the door, and she playfully keeps telling Reno to drill in a different place. Ferrara, playing Reno, handles the comedy timing spot on, and this moment of light hearted comedy is about as happy as it gets. It is all downhill from here as Reno’s anger and mental state begin to escalate. We watch him as he spies on the locals with his binoculars, and as we see through his shaky lenses we see the filth and low end of society. A man is stabbed and robbed in broad daylight, witnesses stand by, no one comes to help. A sad sign of the times back then, and nothing much has changed now has it? Reno’s hatred grows, and he begins spending time with some of the cities ‘degenerates’, probably testing himself as his nightmares and anger get worse. His landlord won’t do anything about his rock band neighbours, and eventually Reno decides to take action himself, not on the neighbours, but the scum outside who have put him in this bad mood. His relationship with his girlfriend falls apart, and comes to a head in a hilarious scene involving a pizza, and his girlfriend herself has had enough and chooses lesbian love instead (highlighted in a wonderfully sexy shower scene). Reno’s life is depressing, and everything stands on his painting getting sold for a small fortune.
Ferrara’s dark, murky film about the underbelly of New York is not only a social commentary about those less well off, but it can also be viewed as a study of struggling artists trying to make something with their skills. Reno is a painter, and his mad genius shines through in a frightening scene where he cracks and bellows at his girlfriend who dared to ask if his painting was finished. Reno shouts at the camera in an insane moment which shows how easily the artistic persona can snap when their work is questioned. The film also poses a view on how normal folk are too scared to get involved with those slightly unhinged. A scene where a crazy man is bellowing strange things at two people at a bus stop paints a portrait of how crazy people scare us regular folk. It could be that the man just wanted someone to talk to, it could be he needed knocking down a peg or two. Instead the two shocked citizens just sit there, hoping he will go away. Scenes like this are all too familiar even today, and the scene, to begin with, is quite powerful. It falls apart due to the lack of acting skills.
The film descends into an all out slasher as Reno makes his first kill, and from then on can’t get enough of it. Sometimes you may cheer him on in his quest to clear the streets of rubbish, other times you will question his methods. However, apart from maybe two kills (one drill to the head which formed the films cover art, and one stomach stabbing) the actual drill kills are nothing to really get upset about. Drill noises are enhanced as Ferrara and his victims fall about on the floor in often hilarious and in no way shocking fashion. In fact, you could question if in fact the drill made contact at all thanks to the clearly amateur shooting of a murder scene. Ferrara gained his skills over the years, and you could forgive these early shortcomings had the film not gained such notoriety.
The other shocking factor about this film is the amount of music in it. About a third of the entire film is made up of rock music either playing in a club, or being practised by the band that test Reno’s patience. While the music is often cool and sleazy, it does become quite tedious and a little annoying. The rock band themselves are terrible actors, and a bizarre scene showing lead singer Tony warming up back stage really has to be seen to be believed. While the band clearly couldn’t care less about anyone, that is the thinking of pretty much every sleazy, shady and horrible character here. No one is a saint, and everyone is not someone you’d really want to befriend. In short, there is not a character worth liking here, not even Reno (although Ferrara’s superb performance means you are instantly drawn to him). Add to this the incredibly low production and shaky, often frantic camera, and you have a really dark and grotesque film that feels like your worst nightmare. The poor sound quality and often low lighting make this film really feel like a true Video Nasty, and back when this film was banned, if you had a copy you really felt like you were holding gold dust.
The Driller Killer relies on its reputation and notoriety to keep fans interested, but take away the violence and Ferrara has actually made a film that was very relevant for the times, and can even find its place in today’s society. Not really a horror film, or even a slasher film, more a brutal revenge film of a man who feels the world is against him. It is not a great film, yet thanks to Ferrara’s stunning career, The Driller Killer is essential viewing. Yes it has major flaws (the acting, the violence, poor quality and too much music) but there is a message here, a strong story and a statement about how people can struggle to get through life. Every man has his breaking point, and Reno found his, and Ferrara used this frightening story to introduce himself to the world. Essential for Ferrara fans, a must for Video Nasty completists, but for the rest it will probably be a struggle to watch. Challenging and not at all pleasant, The Driller Killer is a mixed bag that is difficult to recommend, hard to hate, and impossible to dismiss.
Should The Driller Killer have been added to the Video Nasties list? The notoriety of the name and the cover art warranted a ‘panic’ ban, but the content certainly does not justify the film being banned for nearly twenty years, Madness!