As Abel Ferrara’s first non-porn feature film, The Driller Killer serves as a signpost of the director’s vision of New York City and its social ills. Ferrara would hone this vision into a more coherent film three years later (in Ms. 45), but in The Driller Killer, he was, I think, in his rawest form: vulgar, uncompromising, and noisy. It’s not surprising, then, that the film was banned in the UK in 1983 given that its UK distribution included a still shot of one of the more gruesome scenes in the entire movie: a man having a drill bit shoved into his skull. What is surprising is that, as Mike Bor of the British Board of Film Classification notes, Ferrara’s film was “almost single-handedly responsible for the Video Recordings Act of 1984,” a reactionary piece of legislation that required creative works to be classified to be legally sold; unclassified works, as such, would be banned.
It is rather fortunate, then, that I live in the world of 2015. Bloody though The Driller Killers may be, the more troubling aspects of the film have little to do with its violence and gore. The film is practically an indictment of NYC’s countercultures and its destitute and forgotten populations; here, NYC appears as a city which cannot care for itself, whose chaos feeds and disallows the artist to create, and whose universes of capital make art for arts sake mere puppets in a game of mass exploitation (indeed, even sexual exploitation) or reduce entire populations to shambling, zombified remainders. If its violence was considered brutal, then the film’s images of NYC and its effects on people is practically apocalyptic.
The Driller Killer follows Reno Miller (Abel Ferrara), a struggling young artist who lives in a crime- and derelict-infested area of New York City with his lover, Carol (Carolyn Marz). As he works on what he believes to be his masterpiece, Reno begins having horrifying visions of being covered in blood; these are compounded by the arrival of The Roosters, a “no wave” punk band whose music prevents Reno from concentrating on his work. Soon, his sanity unravels, and Reno takes to the streets on a series of murder sprees using a power drill.
To be frank, I found this film, at times, almost unwatchable, and that has to do primarily with the music and the film’s representation of New York City’s punk scene. There’s a tonal problem here that stems from what appears to be an attempt at chaotic realism — that is, funneling the dramatic plot through naturalistic performances which inevitably hyper-dramatize otherwise mundane or unremarkable (or even undesirable) moments. As soon as The Roosters appear on screen, we’re gifted to long sequences of nearly incomprehensible, loud, whiny music and nearly incomprehensible, loud, whiny characters — characters whose “not quite part of this world’-ness makes them excruciating to watch. Ferrara’s need to show this world in its chaotic “glory” distracts from what seems to be the core of the film: a down-on-his-luck counterculture painter who loses his mind and takes to the the streets with a drill to kill vagrants; in other words, art and madness. The madness is there, certainly, and it’s hard not to see why The Roosters bother Reno so much, but what should be the focus — Reno — gets distorted through Chuck Berry-style guitar riffs drowned out by the wails of the lead singer and through long sequences where The Roosters disrupt the film’s narrative space. This is certainly intentional, but I think it is the mark of a director still trying to find his legs.
The lack of focus becomes glaring when one looks at the disjointed narrative that leads Reno to madness. The film opens with a strange, synth-heavy church scene in which Reno is seen slowly approaching and reaching out to a bearded old man (James O’Hara). The man grabs his hand, and Reno flees in a hurry; shortly after, Carol asks Reno why the man had his name and number. We’re never told what any of this means. It’s just “there.” And it’s a scene that never comes up again, even in the 96-minute version. The Wiki page says that the old man is Reno’s father, but short of an interpretation of that scene that would outdo Stretch Armstrong, I can’t for the life of me figure out how anyone could come to that conclusion. Scenes like this are the most glaring flaw in the film. Since Reno is not yet insane, any disjointedness in the plot seems out of place; it is only later in the film, after Reno fully descends into murderous madness, that any of the disjointed narrative or scenery begins to make sense, but by then, it’s too late, since the narrative provides one conclusion: either Reno was “always insane” or “always chaotic,” not both.
None of this is to suggest that Ferrara’s debut is without merit. The Driller Killer is a flawed slasher flick with key moments of brilliance in its representation of the depraved underbelly of New York City and its deconstruction of the artist in the figure of Reno Miller, who never really becomes the glamorous struggling artist that audiences might expect. Ferrara pays close attention to the depravity of NYC, providing long sequences in which homeless people are seen shambling about with bottles of alcohol — almost zombie-like (Dawn of the Dead came out a year prior, so the comparison seems fair) — and Reno observes from afar, seemingly disgusted by the squalor around him. Other sequences include a tense bus stop scene where a disturbed man rants and paces while several bus patrons await their next ride; we watch in horror not just because we don’t know what will happen to these bus patrons, but also because we’ve just seen Reno murder a number of people with his drill: we know someone will die here, and that tension only builds as Ferrara drags the scene on and on — a tactic he will also use in Ms. 45 to better effect. The conclusion of The Driller Killer also relies on this effect with minor exception: the screen cuts to black, leaving us to listen as Carol climbs into bed, not realizing that Reno has snuck into her ex-husbands house to reclaim her.
The squalor of the city is also met with a different sort of depravity. Pamela (Baybi Day), who lives with Reno and Carol, suggests that Reno allow his art dealer, Dalton Briggs (Harry Schultz), to sodomize him; Dalton is heavily implied as gay earlier in the film, and so Pamela essentially accuses Dalton of abusing his position to take sexual advantage of his clients. Throughout the film, sex and artistic production are implicated in the city’s economic system. From extortionate renters to arts dealers who literally screw their clients to the absence of economic opportunity implied by the almost absurd abundance of homeless people, The Driller Killer reminds the viewer that the city is not about opportunity, but for the opportunistic. Artists like Reno are merely a cog in the machine — a machine that even The Roosters can’t escape, since they, too, are beholden to the very system they push against.
The film’s critique of the city may be offset by a tonal problem throughout, but it is a thematic that appears throughout his work in some form or another. Far from merely presenting a city in its glamorous “broken” form — the sort of thing you might see in Law & Order , whose title betrays the darkness of its themes — The Driller Killer presents the city as an inescapable hell — a hell where its main character becomes victim and executioner. It’s not a film I can see myself watching again, but it is a film worth thinking about.