THE 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.
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.
Shot 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.
Throughout 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.
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.
Added 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.