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The Driller Killer

The Driller Killer
Cult Epics
1979 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date June 29, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz, Alan Wynroth
Cinematography Ken Kelsch, Jimmy Spears
Production Designer
Film Editor Jimmy Laine, Orlando Gallini
Original Music Joe Delia
Written by N.G. St. John
Produced by Rochelle Weisberg
Directed by Abel Ferrara

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In film school in the early 70s we used to revere any filmmaker who had the guts and determination to go out and get his movie made, no matter what the odds. After seeing The Driller Killer I think our admiration was misplaced. There is Abel Ferrara work with merit (Ms .45, The Bad Lieutenant, The Body Snatchers) but this early horror film is a pretty miserable excuse for a movie.

Cult Films presents the well-known "controversial" picture in high style, with a selection of Ferrara's short films presented on a second disc.


Manhattan artist Reno Miller (Jimmy Laine, actually Abel Ferrara) creates interesting canvasses but behaves like a total psycho, confounding his live-in girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) and her sleep-in girlfriend Pamela (Baybi Day). A rock band moves in next door and Reno can't take the noise; between it and the pressure from his gallery connection Dalton Briggs (Harry Schultz), Reno is starting to go over the edge. Then he sees a TV ad for a portable battery pack that would allow him to roam the streets with a power drill, drilling helpless homeless men to death. What's not to like?

In his mumbled commentary, Abel Ferrara says that compared to his group of artists and actors, the Warhol Factory was the Royal Dramatic Academy. That ain't the half of it. A Martin Scorsese wannabe, Ferrara approaches meaningful content in the worst film-student way, while striking self-indulgent poses. He plays the psychotic anti-hero himself.

The Driller Killer is shot on grainy stock (in 16mm) and fairly well edited. Ferrara's camerawork is coherent and there are some halfway dynamic shots, but the main impression received is a shapeless collection of commercial elements disguised as an art film. Hero Reno is an artistic Travis Bickle who relates to nobody, not even his beautiful girlfriend. Being a non-communicative oaf eliminates the need for dialogue and relationship scenes. Most of the human interaction in the picture is limited to shouted complaints. Nobody communicates, it's all so symbolic, man. Through the aid of some so-so "deranged" montages, Reno goes nuts and becomes a serial killer, thus making the film a marketable horror item. There are also nude lesbian shower scenes and lots of cutting away to the Roosters, the band next door endlessly practicing their songs, especially one with a bass line identical to the Peter Gunn theme1

Reno sees an ad for a battery belt called the Porto-Pack; it is actually just the same piece of equipment, with the same name (Portapak), used to power a 16mm docu camera. He soon responds to the surfeit of bums, homeless men and mental cases roaming the nighttime streets by running around like a mad Energizer Bunny and drilling them to death, five and six at a time. There are no consequences to this, even though Reno walks through the night streets with his incriminating drill rig in plain sight. Manhattan is a hell where anything goes, but there's really nothing made of that cliché observation.

To ensure at least some discussion, The Driller Killer ends ambiguously. (spoiler) We've seen flash forwards to a blood-soaked Reno reeling in agony, so are we to believe that he's actually killed himself, and that Carol is crawling into bed with his bloody corpse ("Gee, the bed is so warm") instead of the other boyfriend who belongs there? The film isn't clear about this.

Cult Epic's two-disc limited edition of The Driller Killer will please splatter fans with its good transfer of the grainy film. The 16:9 enhancement gives every shot the benefit of the doubt, even those so dark it's hard to see what is on the screen. The audio is very rough and was surely recorded that way. There are subtitles in French and Spanish, but none in English to help with the less audible sections.

The extras are contained on a second disc, even though there should have been room for them on one. Two of Ferrara's 'early short films' are terrible-looking VHS copies of amateurish work that drips with sub-film school expression and technical cluelessness. Since this is how many filmmakers start, that's no crime in itself - even a couple of Roman Polanski's school films are pretty lame. The ones on view here show little promise until we get to Could This be Love, an interesting attempt at a character study that shows a group of dinner party hipsters casually discriminating against two guests who don't measure up to their standards. It's not good, but it shows a sensitivity not seen before or anywhere in The Driller Killer.

The fourth example of Ferrara's early work is the trailer for a hardcore porn film he directed. It indeed shows everything one expects to see in a hardcore film of the time, and without sufficient warning. Perhaps working in that area shows Ferrara to have the street cred of a rebel auteur. Perhaps.

Abel Ferrara contributes a rambling, barely audible commentary that does him little credit. He makes jokes about how dumb individual scenes are (the drilling-holes-in-the-door shot), as if admitting that he thinks his work is garbage too. The way he whines about the lack of an ending is a lame put-on that many listeners will take literally, if they're still listening.

The DVD of The Driller Killer is a commercial item licensed directly from the filmmaker, and as such it fairly supports Ferrara's image as the genius artist dealing in rough subject matter. Cult Epics' presentation is handsome and well-appointed but its attempt to lionize the filmmaker is futile, especially with Ferrara vocally cutting down any such assessment. Liner notes are provided by Brad Stevens, who has written a book called Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision. In Stevens' view, The Driller Killer is one of Ferrara's highest achievements, and his porn feature is "surreal." Ferrara's bohemian life in New York is presented as evidence of artistic credentials. The director eventually made a couple of interesting movies, but The Driller Killer isn't one of them.

Interestingly, little is made of the film's "video nasty" status in England, a ban that greatly added to its notoriety. There are plenty of shocking and transgressive horror films from the splatter period and even some of the most unbearable (like Last House on the Left) can claim artistic or thematic validity. The Driller Killer is a pretender.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Driller Killer rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Very Good (original photography is weak)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, four examples of earlier Ferrara work, liner notes, uncut Porto-Pack commercial
Packaging: two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2004


1. When he was showing midnight screenings in the early 80s the New Beverly's Sherman Torgan screened The Driller Killer for a few weeks on Saturday nights. The film's notoriety brought in a steady stream of young horror fans, most of whom weren't impressed (according to Torgan). Of all the midnight shows he put on, it consistently put viewers to sleep.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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