Throwback Thursday: 'The Driller Killer' (1979) |
The Driller Killer – 1979

Director Abel Ferrara
Screenplay Nicholas St. John
Starring Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz, Alan Wynroth

Abel Ferrera has a reputation that so far has kept me away from his films. When Ebert reviewed his Bad Lieutenant, it was descriptive enough to make me wonder how there could be such an audience for someone so depraved. I’ve seen a lot of crap since that review, and I figured I might see a bit of what the critics like about his raw talent in The Driller Killer. What I discovered tells me, maybe I need not hurry to watch Keitel’s masterpiece.

Ferrera is Reno Miller, a destitute but talented painter who is on the verge of a masterpiece. His benefactor is anart gallery owner who won’t give him an advance on his work, as he’s already borrowed against it. The two girls he is living with (one a girlfriend Carol and another one…drugged out mostly) are running up the phone bills, he can’t afford the electric bill or the rent.

Carol is paying what she can of the latter using alimony. Her ex husband wants her back, and the way Reno treats her she is thinking of taking him up on it. They have fights that are somewhat reminiscent of The Room in quality.

As if money is not enough of a stressor, a band called The Roosters move into an adjacent apartment and begin to play at all hours. This affects his work and his sleep habits and makes him susceptible to what are already bad impulses.

Then he sees the commercial for a power belt meant to give one portable means for electricity. He combines this with images of the power drill he’s been experiencing…

The next thing you know, he’s on an incredibly silly killing spree.

It would be something if The Driller Killer were scary. The most frightening images we see are the destitute homeless images interspersed in the first and second act. Ferrera’s Reno seems to move from a compassion to and out and out hatred for the street urchins that are laying about the neighborhood at all hours. It is not scary to see someone pick off the weakest of the herd. We used to see that all of the time on Wild Kingdom.

The implication is that psycho killers pick on the easy prey at first, then go on, presumably, to those who stand a greater chance of actually being missed. If this sounds callous, it’s the only amount of cruel intelligence I can credit Ferrara with on this garbage heap.

A tale of two paintings by one painter

The art that Reno Miller has supposedly created is interesting. We see him in the process at one point, but I love the difference showing when Carol comes home to an apology after one of their many fights. The odds that the painter of the near picture did the one behind it are slim at best.

The music littering the soundtrack is awful. Awful punk music was the rage in the “artistic” poor New York neighborhoods in the late ’70’s. This feels like Abel’s friends volunteered to be on the soundtrack at below union wages. The feel is authentic to the point where one can almost smell that no one in the room owns a washing machine or has access to a shower.

There is a hint of talent in the script and cinematography at times. There’s more the feeling of a group of friends doing the best they can with the times and locations for filming. Add to this Ferrera’s crude imagery of Catholicism, lesbian sex and blood and we get a pretty good idea the kinds of things that he has in his mind on a routine basis. It’s a crude collection that represents nothing but the desire to shock.

The scene with the dead rabbit is one of the most offensive, even if it is serving as the launching point for a deranged mind. It’s inclusion in the story is silly. Reno goes from arguing with his landlord about band noise and paying rent, when he’s suddenly presented with a dead rabbit hanging in an armour. The landlord sings the praises of this dead animal, telling Reno to feed it to the girls. Every subsequent scene with the rabbit and its parts is as repulsive as it is unnecessary.

There’s a difference between storytelling and crude displays.

One of the best dumb scenes of the film is when a homeless man is somehow tacked to two surfaces in an alley. There is no real way his hands could be stuck to a wall using just a drill bit and it clearly isn’t as we watch in real time. Yet there the guy stays, with his appendages lingering on each side, as if he’d been crucified.

Continuity errors abound, especially during the killing spree. One can count in seeing a clean drill bit in between attacks. Either Reno is wiping between uses or he leaves every drill bit behind and replaces it for the next guy. That would at least explain the crucifix scene if it weren’t so obvious that it was not the case.

As for the frontal lobotomy scene, it’s tough to tell if he went deep enough to pop a pimple. He certainly didn’t go far enough to kill the bum, as evidenced by the blood on the drill bit.

This film achieved notoriety in being banned in certain locations and added to the list of Nasties. It is not nearly the nasty film it is reputed to be. There is nothing here that isn’t exceeded in even Halloween II. The rabbit parts are the worst, and that happens to something that is already dead.

Absent the reputation this film has acquired, there is little reason for one to watch this film. I may stumble into Bad Lieutenant someday and think, perhaps I misunderstood all along. I won’t hold my breath while I wait to find out.

(* out of *****)

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