The Driller Killer (1979)

Written and directed by Abel Ferrara

The Driller Killer is Ferrara’s first feature in his own name, and a blueprint for his future career. Sex, violence, energy energy energy, subculture and subversion, all wrapped in a messy film about a man’s growing dissatisfaction with his life and the people in it. 

Reno, played by Ferrara, is down bad: he’s struggling with his art, rent’s due, his girlfriend’s grown tired of him, and a shitty rock band has moved in upstairs to terrorize him with their noise at all hours. The city’s got a man depressed, and it keeps getting worse until he comes across a power drill that suddenly offers a gory release. Into the night he goes to paint the town red. 

Much of what makes a good story is missing here. Abel Ferrara proves he belongs behind the camera, as his performance as Reno only really catches on in the delirium where Reno breaks, his overaction suitable once he can employ his googly eyes and use his football field-sized mouth to grimace and snarl. The rest of the time, he’s a poor man’s Travis Bickle with the physique of heroin-strung-out Elliot Gould. There’s also 20 minutes worth of plot in this 90-minute story of one man’s descent into madness, and for the rest of it, Ferrara piles on with dubious rock music, nightlife ruckus, and ominous tight shots of Reno’s artwork.

The Driller Killer is an exemplary B-movie, fulfilling the dubious list of requirements to qualify with ease. As such, whether it’s something worth watching really comes down to a yes/no for the individual, all depending on your patience and affection for such a thing. If you are, it’s well worth the fun, and that’s largely down to how overdone it all gets once it really gets going. Say what you will about Ferrara’s acting chops, but he does have comedy in his body, flailing his long limbs with exasperation at life only to later use them for depraved evil. Always with glee, somehow. 

The indulgence in the scene of late 70’s New York City is perhaps what has lasting power in The Driller Killer, capturing with grimy reality the seedy streets, but also the coked-out subcultures living it up in dilapidated apartments. Poverty, mental illness, violence against the marginalized, Ferrarra doesn’t hold back, detailing city life with more intensity than the main narrative. A brief shot of the Empire State Building, postcard shorthand for NYC, seems to say with a shit-eating grin “Welcome to the real New York!”. 

Unreal, but authentic, The Driller Killer is evidence of Ferrara’s keen eye for the hidden lives of the city, which he doesn’t treat with disdain, even as his own main character makes them his prey. It’s testimony that Ferrara never really wavered from his commentary roots, always with something more on his mind amidst all the chaos he could invoke in his films, in spite of the outlandish randomness he can invoke at times. It’s a bad man doing bad deeds, but baaaaad cities make bad men. 

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