October 15, 2015
THE DRILLER KILLER
Abel Ferrara's 1979 non-porn debut feature was one of the first titles targeted during the beginning of the Video Nasty scare, largely due to the box art pictured above. The gaudy exploitation title, seemingly a nod to the press moniker given to David Berkowitz during his Son of Sam killings (that would be "the .44 caliber killer", in case you were wondering) married with the declaration that "blood runs in rivers" would probably lead you to believe that this is a routine slasher film. It isn't at all. If anything, this is what TAXI DRIVER would have looked like had it been written and directed by Nick Zedd, a real gritty and depressing look into the mind of a low prospects New Yorker struggling to maintain normalcy in a society slowly crumbling into filth.
Ferrara takes up the starring role as Reno, a lower class painter living on borrowed economic time. Under constant threat of eviction, if not starvation, Reno struggles to finish up his masterwork so he can reap some financial rewards from Dalton, a local art gallery owner. Reno shares his rundown apartment with two women, his separated-from-her-husband kinda/sorta girlfriend Carol and her kinda/sorta lesbian lover Pam (the film is very vague about what the actual terms of their relationships are). Things take a turn for the worse when a No Wave garage band takes up residence in a downstairs apartment, practicing all day and all night. Unable to cope with the noise and under constant pressure to avoid becoming just another street bum like his father, Reno becomes increasing unstable. He buys a battery pack for his electric drill and begins slaughtering bums in the streets.
That's really all there is to THE DRILLER KILLER, just a threadbare narrative tied to a depressing, corrosive location. Alongside MANIAC, this film paints a picture of New York City in the late-70s/early-80s that stands in stark contrast to the postcard perfect image the city's tourism board often painted. Usually in films of this sort - highly claustrophobic psycho-thrillers about men or women in emotional isolation turning physically violent, ie. REPULSION - the locations are indoors, all the better to play around with close physical proximities and oppressive atmosphere. In this film, that atmosphere is provided just by taking the damn camera outside. Unlike in Polanski's film where Carol fears intrusion, Reno largely fears expulsion, abandonment to the outside world. The homeless he sees around him are the logical conclusion to his plight. Unless he makes this sale. Unless this painting is good enough. But as his safe spot, his home, begins turning on him (first a large phone bill he cannot pay, then his rent which has come due, then the ear-shattering noise that ruins his ability to work), Reno ventures out at night to kill the homeless as both therapy and protest.
Given all the handheld camera bits, probably improvised acting and shoestring cinematography, you would probably bet good money on THE DRILLER KILLER being a complete waste of time. I'm not quite sure I would agree. There's not a lot going on under the surface of the this film (Ferrara's usual preoccupations aside, like Catholic guilt and addiction), but this film offers up more than its fair share of visual and aural stimulation. It's isn't good looking by any means, but it is striking to watch, a real down home amateur-style piece of filmmaking that uses its limitations for vérité purposes. As a result, there is a sense of immediacy to the narrative.
I've spoken quite a bit over the past couple of days about movies that achieve a cumulative effect, the result of wildly disparate elements that combine to make a whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. THE DRILLER KILLER fits into that category. The scummy city, the histrionics of the acting, the violence of the murder scenes, the sense of economic despair, the longing to create something well beyond your capabilities, the subtextual suggestion that art is somehow the only thing that separates men from something less than men... All of this shit is poured into a audio-visual assault that threatens to collapse in on itself at any time. It's easy to get swept up in the energetic undercurrent of the film only to come out the other side feeling like a drunk after a particularly vigorous bender, stinking like hell and wondering what just happened.