‘The blood runs in rivers… …and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone’
The Driller Killer is a 1979 American horror feature film written, directed by, and starring, Abel Ferrara.
The film was lumped together with other so-called video nasties released at the time and a vociferous campaign was launched by the British press to ban them all. It was added to the list of banned UK films on 4 July 1983.
According to Mike Bor, the Principal Examiner at the British Board of Film Classification, “The Driller Killer was almost single-handedly responsible for the Video Recordings Act 1984″. According to Brad Stevens, author of a biography of Abel Ferrara, the banning of the film was “almost entirely due to the cover of the video.”
A young artist, Reno Miller (Ferrara) and his girlfriend Carol enter a Catholic church. Reno approaches an elderly bearded man kneeling at the pulpit. Although Reno seems to recognise the man as his long-lost father, he is merely a derelict. After the man seizes Reno’s hand, Reno grabs Carol and runs from the church.
Reno visits Dalton, a gallery owner, and tells him that he is currently painting a masterpiece. Reno asks for a week’s extension and a loan of $500 to cover the rent. Dalton refuses, saying that he already lent money enough to Reno. However, if he finishes a satisfactory painting in one week, Dalton will buy it for the necessary amount.
The following day, the Roosters, a No Wave band, begin practicing their music in a nearby apartment. The loud music makes Reno more unnerved and frustrated. That night, Reno, Carol, and Pamela watch a TV advertisement for a Porto-Pak, a battery pack which allows portable use of corded electrical appliances…
Never judge a book by the cover, they say, and The Driller Killer is a fine case in point. One of the first (if not the first) of the video nasties, this is a film that was forever damned by it’s original, gloriously offensive VHS sleeve, whether with clueless cops, prosecutors and juries who couldn’t see past that shocking image, or with gorehounds who were expecting a splatter classic and instead got a grim, arty and relatively bloodless study of mental breakdown.
While Abel Ferrara would quickly develop a solid reputation as a fearless and sometimes difficult filmmaker, The Driller Killer has always struggled to be recognised for what it is. Ferrara himself – under his Jimmy Laine pseudonym – plays Reno Miller, an artist struggling with a lack of inspiration and a fear of failure, a situation hardly helped by ruthless art dealers, his two girlfriends, the relentless rehearsals of no-wave band Tony Coca Cola and the Rosters in a neighbouring apartment and the continual presence of homeless bums in the local area – the latter representing a continual fear in Reno of where he could end up. The answer to his problems comes in a TV commercial for cordless power drills.
Soon, Reno is tooled up and offing the local bums, before turning his attentions elsewhere. As a horror film, The Driller Killer is hard work. But seen as a collision of arthouse sensibilities, social realism and punk rock attitude (the film instructs the viewer to ‘play loud’), it’s genuinely fascinating, and completely unique. It has the gritty feel and nihilistic attitude of Taxi Driver, yet is far less slick – the 16mm film and crude production values give it a genuinely underground movie feel. The closest film I can think of is The Last House on the Left – not in subject matter or approach, but simply in terms of absolute grubbiness (that’s a compliment, by the way). Few films have captured a sense of urban decay and mental collapse as ferociously as this.
It’s certainly not for everyone – there are still plenty of people who think this is utterly boring, badly made rubbish. However, I guarantee that moments from this film – and not the obvious, sensationalist and brief gore scenes – that will lodge themselves in your head and never leave, and for me, that suggests there is something beyond the ordinary about this movie.
David Flint, HORRORPEDIA
‘Ferrara uses overwhelmingly mundane everyday things to drive his character to the edge. Like Chinese water torture; the repetitive riffing of the band and the nagging ‘New Yawk’ nasal drawl of one of the women, constantly changing her mind where she wants a hole drilled, mirrors the grating, incessant whine of the portable drill Reno uses on his victims.’ Hysteria Lives
“The acting of the film’s mealy cast is amateurish across the board, a cast that includes Abel Ferrara as the painter/boring enthusiast. To the director’s credit, I did find his pizza eating to be disgusting and his drilling to be superb. At any rate, this apparent inexperience only manages to elevate the seedy realism of the piece.” House of Self Indulgence
“… Driller Killer is as much about the emergence of punk rock in mid-1970s New York as about a crazy serial killer … a fascinating experience. I am tempted to recommend it highly, but I should warn readers that many people absolutely HATE this movie.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“The lack of conventional establishing shots and a disjointed editing style, combined with the often outrageous amount of blood, which spurts fountain-like from Reno’s victims, suggest that what we are witnessing could be a fantasy, that – like Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver – Ferrara is walking the line between actual narrative events and the protagonist’s perception of them, filtering reality through a deranged psyche.” Rowan Righelato, The Guardian
“Though clearly cheaply made, the movie turns its impoverishment into an asset by adopting a hand-held shooting style for many of the exteriors, a technique that brings the squalid milieu fittingly to life: conversely, the sequences inside the apartment are quite precisely staged.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror