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.
Seeing 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.
Reno’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!
In 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