Monday, November 16, 2009

The Driller Killer (1979)

Title: The Driller Killer (1979)

Director: Abel Ferrara


Abel Ferrara has always been and apparently will always be an underground filmmaker. His films get wide recognition amongst film critics and movie buffs, but they are never big commercial films. His themes are always way too controversial to go big, yet he continues making them. I have to respect that about the guy, he continues making his films no matter what. He is the true definition of what an independent filmmaker should be. He makes the movies he wants to make, nothing stops him. He is responsible for some of the most shocking films that this Film Connoisseur has ever seen. Films like The Bad Lieutenant or King of New York felt like somebody threw a bucket of ice down my back when I saw them for the first time. He gets down to the nitty gritty of things, the dark side of human nature. The greedy, selfish side. The side without any moral values. The film I will be reviewing today is where this gifted filmmaker got started. Oddly enough, it’s a gore fest! A slasher!

The Driller Killer tells the story of Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara himself) a struggling artist living in New York City. Reno lives off his girlfriend who has to pay the rent month after month because Reno just isn’t bringing in the cash with his art. The phone bill is ever escalating because Reno’s two girlfriends (that’s right they live as a threesome) make long distance phone calls like there’s no tomorrow. Reno’s girl friend is constantly doubting his work, his manager isn’t helping matters any either. Reno’s salvation comes if he manages to sell the painting he is currently working on. Will all his financial and psychological woes get to Reno? How much more of this will he take before he completely snaps?

So the first thing I thought of when I saw The Driller Killer was how similar it is to American Psycho. Don’t know if Bret Easton Ellis was inspired somehow by The Driller Killer, but wow, the similarities are numerous. Let’s see, a guy is pissed with society, so he goes out on a killing spree eliminating whoever he thinks is detrimental somehow to society, including -but not limited to- the homeless, homosexuals, drunkards, drug addicts and evil bosses. There is one scene in particular in which Reno walks up to a homeless person and begins to ask him why he is there, why he isn’t looking for a job or why he isn’t at home with his wife. There’s a scene exactly like that one in American Psycho! The main character slowly dives into the deepest levels of insanity, until by the end of the movie he is a full blast psychotic killer, just like in American Psycho. So the similarities between these two movies are too obvious to ignore.

What I enjoyed the most about this movie was how grimy it looks and feels. Ferrara has always been a director infatuated with the city of New York. While directors like Woody Allen showcase the upper high class of New York, Ferrara has always gone the other way. He always focuses on the scum, the low lives, the criminals, in this way commenting on the realities New York was living in during those times. The main character in the movie is a struggling actor on the border of insanity, living with two women at the same time. He lives in the most poverty stricken parts of New York. This movie is so grimy, it feels like something Frank Henenlotter (Brain Damage, Basket Case) might have cooked up. Reno’s living conditions aren’t the best, he has a punk band as neighbors, he lives with a junky. Its no wonder the guy goes insane!

It’s certainly interesting to see where a fine director like Abel Ferrara started at. The film does have a few short comings on the technical department, but I think these faults actually go with the type of story that Ferrara is telling. It feels more real somehow, like a documentary of these suffering individuals. Had the film had elevated production values; maybe it would not have been the same kind of experience. As it stands, the film has a certain rawness to it, a certain electricity that only a hungry director looking to call attention onto himself can conjure up. This film does have its fare share of violence and blood. But it is not as gory as one might think. This film was banned both in Germany and England because it was deemed “too violent”. In reality, most of the gore happens off screen. The movie only has one truly gory moment, which unfortunately they decided to use as the cover for the VHS release of the film. This is probably the one and only reason why this film was banned and considered a “video nasty” in England. But that notoriety it got by being on this list of films deemed to violent, is probably what helped the movie survive through all these years.

This is the cover for the VHS release that got this film banned

The film in my opinion is worth checking out for various reasons. One of the main reasons is because the film is an excellent character study of a psychotic mind. It is very similar thematically and aesthetically to films like William Lustig’s Maniac (1980), Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and as I mentioned earlier, American Psycho. It also has similarities with Falling Down (1993), with its attacks on society. At its core though, its a film about a guy who is afraid to end up a homeless person, like his father before him. That fear of being so close to being out on the streets, just like any other bum, plus the frustrations of living in a society that doesnt allow him to survive, push Reno to the limits. It’s also interesting to see where Abel Ferrara got started before going on to bigger things, and even more interesting to see him acting as the main character on his own film. A word of warning though: the film does appear to be edited; some scenes are completely blacked out, especially towards the ending. I’m not sure if there’s an unedited version of this movie out there. Also worthy of mentioning is that the DVD has a director’s commentary. Most of the time, these commentaries include the director commenting on his film, saying as many positive things about it as he can, but not on this commentary! On this audio commentary Abel Ferrara appears to be completely wasted while giving it! Its funny to hear him criticizing the film like crazy, he is his own worst critic. But good luck trying to understand or make sense of some of the things Ferrara says on the commentary. He appears to be almost as high as some of the actors on the film were.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5


I Like Horror Movies said...

I couldnt agree more here, I went in assuming this was going to be standard Grindhouse garbage, but I left the film amazed at how dark and introspective the film was and surprised at the overall lack of gore. The technical failings in the film only serve to paint the true grit of the city and situation like you mentioned Franco, New York has never looked darker or more filthy. I love this one, glad to see a review up!

Franco Macabro said...

I snatched it up because I love Abel Ferraras films, like The Bad Lieutenant which is such an awesome film, Harvey Keitel really goes into dark territory there...

Highly recommend you check it out if you havent already. But also, I thought it was so interesting that Ferrara played the main character himself and that this was his first film.

Its got that edge and rawness to it. Its a trippy movie if there ever was one, that one scene where he is smashing the head of that rabbit over and over again...that was crazy! You could really see that Reno hit rock bottom there!


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