My first entry into the world of Abel Ferrara came in the early 90s with his two features dedicated to the criminal underworld of his hometown; King of New York, and Bad Lieutenant. The latter resonated strongly long in my mind with Harvey Keitel’s powerful performance as a drug-addicted, corrupt police officer intent on changing his ways. Ferrara is clearly inspired by the unhinged minds of mankind and this subject is often the driving force of the lead protagonists in his movies, as we watch them spiral deeper into insanity and out of control.
The Driller Killer, (Ferrara’s debut feature in the director’s chair), is no exception, and follows struggling painter, Reno Miller (played by Ferrara), living in New York, as he slowly descends into madness and despair. His crazed mind, unable to contend with the reality of his dire situation, resorts to taking his frustrations and anger out on the streets and onto the homeless and impoverished, wielding his weapon of choice; a power drill.
Growing up in the UK, The Driller Killer had been thrown into the video nasties heap and wouldn’t see the light of day through legal means until 1999, when a cutdown version would make its way into the video rental market. It was shortly after this that I would finally get to watch the movie, which by now was so heightened in my mind as a dark and distressing feature, that I went in, fully wanting to be shook to the core and have my mind inflicted with some gross-out gore to the extreme.
So I huddled up in my horror haven at the time, a labyrinth of blood curdling wonder that hosted the classics and the downright disturbing delights, and let The Driller Killer wash over me. I have to admit my initial reaction was underwhelming, as I was confronted with a mish mash of a storyline, jumbled up with sparse and confusing dialogue, combined with really long jam sessions from the band living in the neighbouring apartment. True, when Reno lost control, it was suitably unhinged and the SFX were effective enough with its crimson palette oozing from his victims. The trouble was, I found the fractured nature of the narrative too jarring and the abrupt conclusion a little too complex. And yet somehow, something hung in my mind and stuck there to this day.
So, with its 40th Anniversary upon us, I thought that now would be a good time to dust down the dvd that was immersed in my horror film collection and take a look at The Driller Killer once again.
True, the same old flaws are apparent, but rather than seem like blemishes within the celluloid frame, they become moments of wonder, as we journey with Reno into his state of madness and social decay. I’d like to think that my older, wiser mind appreciates the disconnected and fractured storyline as a symbol of the human psyche, but it may also be that I too have cracked in the realms of reality and find that I am able to connect with the artists plight a little more, (although thankfully I haven’t picked up the nearest power tool to reek my vengenace on the world…yet).
The moments of rage are deliberately awkward and messy, which adds to the raw energy that Ferrara brings to his work, and by the time we reach the climax, the audience is suddenly snapped out of the macabre fantasy. This is something of an unpopular choice these days, as often audiences like to have their narrative sewn up and explained, but I prefer the ambiguity of the films’ closure, leaving us to wallow in the wake of Reno’s rampage. This feeling of desolation that hangs in the air is a stark reminder, that society may have come a long way, but we still have no direct answer to aid anyone with mental deficiencies. We’re quite content to let their actions go by and merely act as spectators, as long as it affects the impoverished members of society, but the moment it has an impact on someone deemed of class, then we feel appalled and react, which is why it seems fitting that Ferrara denies the audience the chance to witness Carol’s outcome. It’s for this reason that I feel The Driller Killer still resonates today and is a must-watch on any fan of the horror genre. It maybe a little rough and raw compared with some of the polished movies of today, but this only makes the impact of the film a much greater one.
- Saul Muerte