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The Driller Killer (1979) Arrow Video Review

dk1THE DRILLER KILLER – REVIEW

(Dir- Abel Ferrara, USA, 1979)

Starring- Jimmy Laine, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day

Out NOW from Arrow Video!

“Notorious video nasty” is the one term used to describe Ferrara’s low budget exploitation flick. Yet its notoriety and inclusion on the video nasties list in the UK primarily comes from the it’s brutally up front and infamous video cover, which features a man with a drill bit going into his forehead, screaming with blood rushing down his face, a testament to the almost recognisable aspect of shock advertising employed by the people who exhibited exploitation films in cinemas only a few years before the dawn of VHS, with a tactical blatant use of shocking title and gaudy often graphic cover promising lurid and unspeakable thrills. Most of the time the films on the nasties list where a disappointment and only a few often proved to be exceptional and DRILLER KILLER is one of them and is now getting a brand new dual Blu-ray and DVD release from the folks at Arrow.

THE FILM

Ferrara’s film stands out from the video nasty crowd in that it purposefully invokes different genres such as character study, black comedy, psychological thriller and of course horror. Its a portrait of struggling painter Reno (Jimmy Lane, but actually Ferrara under a pseudo name) and his attempts to fend of piling up rent, bills, complaints from his girlfriend Carol (Marz) and her on/off lover Pamela (Day) and the racket created by a punk band who move in downstairs brought in by Carol called Tony Coca-Cola and The Roosters consistently practising day and night. All these aspects start to affect Reno’s psyche leading to a change in mental state and the purchase of a battery pack that can power a portable drill and send him on a killing spree of New York’s drunk vagrants, a group he has a fear of becoming part of and a defenceless one at that who he takes out his rage on instead of those causing him grief in the first place.

dk3Shot in 16mm THE DRILLER KILLER ranks up there with films that document a period in the time of New York of the late 70’s and early 80’s such as TAXI DRIVER, MANIAC, BASKET CASE, COMBAT SHOCK and even part of NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN in its portrayal of a city in the midst of sleazy often dangerous areas, exploitation cinemas, punk bars, artists apartments and in this films case a massive homeless problem brought in part by the closure of mental hospitals (which is briefly mentioned in the shot of a front cover of a newspaper). This is the period before Rudolph Giuliani cleaned up the city in the early 90’s, of a city that had a grit and rough edge to it and often a sense of desperation which is perfectly captured by Ferrara who has even hailed this a documentary in parts, and in some respects the rough edge of the film adds a realist approach and makes a perfect nightmarish setting for the action as Reno’s mind slowly starts to break and he succumbs to violent urges.

The film has an almost languid freestyle approach to the pacing with occasional scenes of the Roosters band practising, Reno trying to finish his painting, trying to get money off his art agent and also witnessing the homeless problem and violent crime around the city and this slow style is punctuated by viscerally brutal scenes of violence sound tracked by a hypnotically, psycho-esque synth score that acts in a JAWS type of way of building the ensuing attack on vagrants, with Reno being the proverbial shark wandering the streets with his power drill stalking his prey. Its this style and energy which makes the film work and stand out amongst the “notorious video nasty” label and earns it a level of realism towards the genre and might put those expecting it to be a straightforward horror, off. Admittedly even amongst the drilling and blood there’s an attempt to skewer horror clichés, such as a scene where Reno sees Carol and Pamela sleeping in bed and its suggested that he is about to kill them in that build up where the murderer strikes yet this ends in no carnage but with Reno just staring at them making it an anti climatic scene altogether and could almost buy into Ferrara’s explanation that he classes this film as a black comedy.

dk2Throughout the viewing of DRILLER KILLER there’s a sense of seeing Ferrara taking his first steps at themes that would punctuate his work throughout his career, especially the use of the setting of New York and its effect on an individual that would become more common especially in his next film MS 45: ANGEL OF VENGEANCE, the superb KING OF NEW YORK, his masterpiece BAD LIEUTENANT and his other (meta) horror themed film, the philosophical vampire flick THE ADDICTION. It is also a chance to see the second film (his first being a porn film called 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY) from a director who has remained constantly interesting, changing and ever evolving.

9/10

EXTRAS

Of course when it comes to extras Arrow tend to pull out all the stops on gathering enough for film fans to pick over and whilst it might not be a jam packed package, there is a nice selection of features that complement the main film. Most notably impressive is the addition of a feature length documentary by Ferrara and the first time its been released in the UK of MULBERRY STREET, which chronicles the directors neighbourhood one which he has grown up in and used in his films and that he lives in and the various characters that populate all based around the traditional Italian feast of San Gennaro. It’s an interesting documentary that gains engaging insight into the working of a community and the ever increasing commercialisation of traditional areas of New York as well as featuring the weird sight of Matthew Modine on a segway scooter.

dk4Added to this we also have LAINE AND ABEL which is a brand new interview with the director, WILLING AND ABEL: FERRAROLOGY 101 a superb and insightful visual essay by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, trailers and a funny audio commentary with Ferrara and Brad Stevens author of ABEL FERRARA: THE MORAL VISION (the best book on the director that you should seek out), which whilst offering insights into the film also allows Ferrara to take sly digs at his work (my favourite quote on the commentary track by him “finally a god-damn zoom shot…after an hour!”). Added to this the contents of the package include a booklet and reversible sleeve featuring new art work by the Twins of Evil on one side, and a recreation of that notorious video nasty sleeve on the other so you can shock your neighbours when they come round (if you trust them!). Credit should be given to the transfer as this looks the best I’ve seen this film in, well, since I first encountered it on the cut release back in the late 90’s.

Arrow have gone back to the original negatives and spruced it up nicely making the film look and still, retain the grittiness of its urban landscape but at the same time cleaning it up nicely and creating a brighter more sharper picture. This again is another example of Arrow’s commendable work in restoring classic often looked down upon genre fare that would usually get sub standard releases and not display any effort put into it, though here, again they have made another fine example of there dominance in the cult genre home entertainment field.

9/10

UKHS Does The Nasty: THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

DK 1UKHS Does The Nasty:

THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

Dir: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Nicholas St. John (credited as N. G. St. John)

Starring: Abel Ferrara (credited as Jimmy Laine), Carolyn Manz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz.

Running Time: 96 minutes

After our previous encounters with Euro-sleaze psychos, third world cannibals and one hungry crocodile, UKHS’ newest member Daniel Stillings steps up for a look at controversial auteur Abel Ferrara’s Black & Decker-loving Nasty…

Though The Driller Killer is not director Abel Ferrara’s début (the porno movie 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) has that dubious distinction) it is still the film he is best known for. The project was initially planned as an experimental short – Ferrara made several in the early seventies in association with his long time collaborator Nicolas St. John – but was later expanded to feature length when Rochelle Weisberg, producer of Drive-In Massacre (1976) put up the extra money needed. The Driller Killer sets out many of the themes and concerns Ferrara would explore throughout his directorial career.

Reno (Ferrara himself) is a struggling artist living in a run down New York apartment with two girlfriends, Carol (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). With money in short supply, he is desperately trying to finish the painting of a buffalo he is working on to sell and finally dig himself out of the financial hole he has got himself into, but Carol who is receiving letters with money from her ex-husband is beginning to tire of the situation. When a rock band moves in to an adjacent apartment and begins practising around the clock and Reno’s protestations to the building super about the noise are met with disinterest, he begins to crack under the strain.

DK 2Seeing an advertisement on television for Porto-Pack – a handy mobile power supply – he buys one to power an electric drill that he then uses to casually murder a derelict in a doorway, an act that triggers a murderous killing spree of local down and outs. Eventually he completes his painting and invites his art dealer (Harry Schultz) to view the finished work, but on seeing it Briggs does not hold back his disdain for Reno’s new work, calling it simply “Shit.” This rejection of their last hope for financial security is the final straw for Carol who leaves Reno and Pamela to return to her ex-husband, after which Reno begins to turn his violent frustration inwards on those he cares for.

With its themes of urban alienation and madness and a central protagonist seeing himself in conflict with the city, it is pretty clear that the model for Ferrara’s film is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but though thematically similar, their approaches are completely different. Whereas Scorsese’s neon drenched view of New York often resembles a science fiction movie, Ferrara’s New York is a murky, run-down hell hole captured in all its sordid glory by cinematographer Ken Kelsch. The more useful comparison is with Roman Polanski’s classic psychological drama Repulsion (1965), a point made even more explicit with the direct reference to the decomposing rabbit in Polanski’s film. A more solid Scorsese influence is the religious imagery that permeates the film from the church set opening to the mock crucifixion of a vagrant towards the end of the film, themes Ferrara would return to throughout his career climaxing in the controversial Bad Lieutenant (1992).

Despite its lurid title, The Driller Killer is not really an exploitation film. All Reno’s victims are unattractive male vagrants and only one of the killings is presented in a graphic manner, the violence of the other murders often being indistinct or off camera. The lesbian relationship between Carol and Pamela sensitively depicted (they are never the focus of Reno’s violence), and Joe Delia’s score made up of vibraphone re-workings of music by J. S. Bach offer respite from the muddy grumbling of Tony Coca-Cola & The Roosters.

DK 4Reno’s motivation for the series of killings occurs very early on. Though it is never stated explicitly, it is heavily suggested that the old vagrant that he meets in the church at the start of the film is his father. Homeless and seeking his son’s help, he embodies all Reno’s fears of failure, suggesting Reno is killing the derelicts out fear that he will lose his precarious position in society and join them. The film ends ambiguously. When the credits roll, nothing has been resolved.

The censorship history of The Driller Killer is complicated. The title was initially released by VIPCO in April 1982, and immediately caught the attention of renters on account of the graphic picture of the wino having his head drilled that graced the cover. Though it was a misrepresentation of the film, such practices were not uncommon during the early years of the video boom. While all the violence was intact, VIPCO’s release was missing an entire sequence lasting 6 minutes 35 seconds thought to be the result of a botched reel change during the film to tape transfer. It was a popular title, even more so when the Director of Public Prosecutions named it as one of the key “video nasties.” Prosecutions followed and the film was eventually outlawed, but thanks to the Scala Cinema Club in London, the public was still able to see it, but when the DPP turned up prior to a Scala screening and threatened to prosecute, they also withdrew the film.

The fact that The Driller Killer is nowhere near as graphic as its reputation suggests was something the BBFC themselves recognised very early on. James Ferman’s deputy Ken Penry told Tom Dewe Matthews in his book Censored that the film, “was cuttable,” but when VIPCO were told they would have to remove the wino killing, they lost interest in continuing the classification process. Meanwhile, an American Label called Cult Epics announced that it was striking a new print of the film for release as a special edition DVD, but as preparation for the new transfer took longer than expected, they were forced to use the same old murky print. This release restores the sequence missing from the VIPCO release, and includes a scary commentary track by Ferrara himself that gives a whole new meaning to the word “informal”, but is missing the final 1 minute 20 seconds of credits that VIPCO’s release did include!

DK 5In light of the policy change at the BBFC in the late nineties, Visual Entertainment decided to submit The Driller Killer for a certificate, but they opted to play safe and edit the film themselves before submission making cuts totalling 54 seconds to first murder, the killing at the bus stop and the graphic drilling of the wino’s head (much of this was substituted with alternate footage). This version was passed by the board with an “18” certificate and no further cuts. The final act in the censorship saga of The Driller Killer came on 19th November 2002 when ILC Prime Ltd. resubmitted the full, newly remastered version to the BBFC by who having now officially set out their post shake up guidelines passed the film uncut with and “18” certificate. The fact a film that caused such controversy just thirty years ago can now be screened intact on TV without any fuss at all seems incredible to anyone who lived through that time.

Rating: 8 / 10

#UKHSnasty