By Jake Rubenstein
Within the Grindhouse and exploitation subgenres, one name that has always been synonymous with Gritty New York filmmaking of the 1970s into the 1980s, is none other than Abel Ferrara. A New York native who was born in the Bronx, Ferrara has overtime become one of the most celebrated filmmakers within his respective genres thanks to his numerous directorial contributions. Much like many of the other exploitative New York filmmakers of the period, Ferrara’s career first launched in the adult films industry with his debut feature film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), and was soon followed up with perhaps his most iconic work, The Driller Killer (1979).
As the controversy around his masterwork continued to grow within certain social circles leading into the 1980s, Ferrara’s reputation had also begun to ascend amongst the ranks of exploitative filmmakers. Film connoisseurs quickly realized that there was more to his films than just basic exploitative value, with the outlier being the gut-wrenching societal issues that are depicted throughout his body of work. Time and time again, Abel’s films presented themselves as neatly packaged works that were ready to be delivered to the theaters of 42nd Street, but underneath all of the grit, he proved that there was some real connective tissue that was ready to resonate with audiences. In celebration of our Gritty New York segment, Fandor is proud to present three iconic films that stem from the creative juices of New York’s own Abel Ferrara.
The Driller Killer (1979). Dialing back to the first major success of Abel Ferrara’s career, The Driller Killer serves as a timeless classic that not only delivers an onslaught of extreme exploitative value, but also poses as a perfect time capsule for the rotten streets of New York City throughout the 1970s. For this feature, Ferrara chose to take on the responsibilities of not only directing the film, but also opted to star in the work as the crazed artist who goes by Reno Miller (AKA the Driller Killer). Serving a blend of black comedy along with societal awareness, the plot follows Reno as he picks off derelicts and homeless citizens that reside in the Big Apple one-by-one. Reno’s disdain for both groups come as a direct result of his living situation in which he is financially stressed and behind on his apartment’s rent, all-the-while facing struggles to complete his next painting.
In what seemed to parallel an unfortunate societal mentality, Reno pins his hardship on these lesser fortunate groups, ultimately leading to the brutalized slayings of various homeless citizens and derelicts throughout the 95-minute runtime. Without giving too much away (as it really must be seen to be conceptualized), Ferrara’s masterwork manages to leave the viewer at the edge of their seat leading up the ambiguous finale, proving that the film was truly created as a piece of resonance. All-in-all, The Driller Killer will continue to thrive as a timeless piece of exploitation cinema that has transcended from the Grindhouse theatres of 42nd Street to a wide variety of Arthouse cinemas around the world thanks to Ferrara’s innovative filmmaking. Now streaming on Fandor, The Driller Killer is an absolute must-see exploitative (and emotional) masterwork that will truly require a shower after viewing.
Ms. 45 (1981). Serving as a direct follow-up to The Driller Killer, Ferrara’s next masterpiece might just be one of the most controversial films ever made. Starring the legendary Zoë Lund as Thana, Ms. 45 follows a mute woman’s quest for vengeance after she is raped not once, but twice on one fateful day in New York. Similar to his previous film, Ms. 45 doesn’t just go for the simple shock value of a basic exploitation feature. Ferrara yet again manages to carefully craft an emotionally investing narrative through the exploration of societal issues and basic human rights. Although the viewer might not agree with Thana’s desire for revenge against any and every male, one can easily understand where she’s coming from on a human level and can easily draw parallels to our failed justice system when it pertains to defending victims of rape and sexual abuse. Ferrara clearly recognized our failed justice system and utilized these thematic elements to drive this absolutely bonkers narrative.
In more ways than one, Ms. 45 presents itself as an accurate portrayal of the sleazy streets of 1980s New York that would surely catch the eye of any Grindhouse aficionado, but also hits home when it comes to depicting the actual trauma victims of rape and sexual abuse face on a daily basis. Given these severe topics that are crafted through the narrative, some viewers might think the film isn’t one to watch on a fun-filled night with popcorn, but on the contrary, it does dish up some truly jaw-dropping sequences that deliver on pure entertainment value. To sum things up, the film is yet another timeless classic from the mind of Abel Ferrara that hits the congenial stride of an exploitation classic, while also serving its purpose as a raw social commentary. Now streaming on Fandor, Ms. 45 is an utterly essential piece of cinema that has influenced generations of film appreciators and will continue to influence for many generations to come.
Cat Chaser (1989). To wrap up our watchlist for legendary filmmaker Abel Ferrara, we’re going to take a quick vacation from the gritty streets of New York and travel to the sleazed filled beaches of Miami. Starring a phenomenal cast including the likes of Peter Weller, Kelly McGillis, Charles Durning, Frederic Forrest, Tomas Milian, Juan Fernandez, Kelly Jo Minter, and Phil Leeds, Cat Chaser tells the story of a hotel owner who finds danger when he becomes romantically involved with the wife of a deposed general from the Dominican Republic. Right from the get-go, Cat Chaser dives deeper on the sleaze and less on societal issues that served as undercurrents in Ferrara’s previous films. Instead, Ferrara uses his late 80s feature as a work of inspiration from the filmmakers that had clearly led as a personal influence for him up until this point. Perhaps the easiest to note would be Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), in which many parallels could be drawn to his own film. With both films being set in Miami, Ferrara capitalizes on the exploitative value that was emersed throughout the city from the 1970s into the 1980s thanks to rampant drug use and sex addiction that was easily recognizable with the area. To wrap together this weekend’s segment on one of our all-time favorite filmmakers, Cat Chaser is now streaming on Fandor and serves as a great “dessert” plate to the dinner-sized portions of exploitation that one is treated to in The Driller Killer and Ms. 45.