By Don Stradley
It’s New York in the late 1970s, a time of punk rock and garbage strikes, of Ed Koch and Son of Sam, an endless spectacle of crime and murder in the streets. In the middle of this toxic city is Reno, a scuffling artist who shares a grimy apartment with two women. He may love one, or both. Then again, the two females seem to be lesbians. Or are they? The bigger problem is that Reno can’t pay the bills. We get the sense that Reno is going crazy. It may just be the sort of craziness that can happen to people in pressure cooker environments like New York in the 1970s, or he could be going full-bore movie crazy, as we’d expect a character to go in Abel Ferrara’s grim masterpiece The Driller Killer. The beauty of it all, and what makes this movie a kind of artsy Pop-trash classic, is that Reno manages to go both kinds of crazy. And why not? It’s that sort of movie; part cinema verite look at city psychosis, and part splatter flick. It’s like an arthouse movie made for the drive-in crowd. Or, perhaps, a splatter film made by John Cassavetes.
What was Ferrara thinking? He’s made a handful of interesting features since this herky-jerky feature debut, but none were as full-on demented and hateful as the tale of a struggling painter who finally runs through the city with a power drill, performing lobotomies and splenectomies on homeless men. By the movie’s end, Reno is sporting a monster drill nearly as long as his arm. A phallic fantasy? An answer to the massive gun fantasies in films like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry? Just a blast of wishful thinking?
When you watch The Driller Killer, the hatred for New York nearly leaks out of the screen. This isn’t Woody Allen’s New York, where people spend their afternoons at foreign films, or on their analyst’s couch. It’s not even Martin Scorsese’s New York, where well-dressed hoods eat in fancy restaurants. This is a rock bottom view of the city, where a night’s entertainment might include sitting around in your shithole apartment wishing you had some drugs, or huddled in front of your barely working television set, wondering if you’ll get through the program before the electric company shuts you off. It’s where idiot musicians move into the apartment above yours and pound out their stupid sounds until 3:00 AM, where the electric guitar shrieks are so loud that they disturb the winos in the alley below.
Though he didn’t write the screenplay (it was written by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John), Ferrara nailed the anxiety and rage, captured by a weird motif that appears three or four times in the film, that of Reno (played by Ferrara under an alias) shaking his head and howling under what looks like a shower of blood. It’s the kind of fury we feel in dreams.
Certainly The Driller Killer is a portrait of a person being whittled to a nub by his environment. Reno can’t escape. Even in the safety of his apartment, he’s forced to listen to his roommate reading nasty newspaper articles about people throwing dogs into microwave ovens. When Reno ventures outside, he sees nothing but homeless men puking in the street. (Early in the film he has an encounter in a church with a an old homeless man who seems to be Reno’s father. Does Reno fear becoming a drooling derelict like his dad?)
The ruined men in the neighborhood may provide a kind of echo for what’s in Reno’s mind. One strikes up a conversation and asks “Are you having woman problems?” Another has an argument with an imagined father figure. Reno kills both.
Reno doesn’t seem especially concerned about being caught, even after he’s killed a dozen or so people. He slips around the city, his drill powered by a special battery pack he saw advertised on television, and simply picks out random victims. There’s so much crime and death in the area that a few dead winos won’t even be missed. There’s no climactic showdown with the cops, and no last minute confession from Reno about why he kills. None that we see, anyway. All we know is that Reno’s murderous side has been unleashed, and in the cesspool that is 1970s New York, he’ll keep going until he runs out of drill bits.
The movie is cheaply made, but that’s an asset. The hand-held shooting style, the authentic New York backgrounds, the squalid streets and alleys, feel lifelike, as if we’re watching a 1970s No-Wave version of Italian neo-realism. The cast, too, is fascinating. The performers seem to be a mix of real actors and real winos. Scenes at a rock club feel as desolate and mean as what we’ve seen in documentary footage of those times. Some of the acting is bad, but some of it is surprisingly moving. The winos being murdered, for instance, are unexpectedly sympathetic, far more so than any of the screaming females who’ve been hacked to death in hundreds of lesser movies.
Ferrara is gripping as Reno. Thin, hatchet faced, he’s boiling over from the first moment we see him. Almost stealing the show, though, is an actor listed as Rhodney Montreal. He plays Tony Coca-Cola, one of the punk rock goons upstairs. He’s actually D.A. Metrov, who later went on to write and direct his own short films. As Tony, he avoids every rock cliché and creates a unique, memorable persona. I wish every actor playing a rocker would watch Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola, just to help blow the usual formula out of their heads. Though the majority of the cast had never acted in anything else (and would never act again), one fellow, James O’Hara, was a veteran character actor who had appeared in films dating back to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. He must have been the company pro. But like most of his cast mates, O’Hara never acted again.
The Driller Killer gained some notoriety in the 1980s when it was banned in the U.K. as part of their “video nasties” witch hunt, when distributors objected to what was a very graphic video box cover. But how else can you sell this movie, if not with a close-up of a drill boring into a man’s head? In 1983 European Parliament members were subject to a 20 minute sequence of scenes from films like The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, and I Spit on Your Grave, put together by British conservative Richard Simmons in an effort to stop the sale of extremely violent videos. Simmons got his wish, and thousands of VHS tapes were confiscated from UK stores. That Ferrara’s film was far better (and not half as disgusting) as those other titles was apparently not part of the discussion. The movie was banned in England until 1999, a full two decades after its first release. Still, it became a minor cult favorite, regarded by some as one of the films that kicked off the splatter film boom of the ‘80s.
Ferrara has since gone on to direct movies about vampires, mobsters, Kung-Fu killers, and corrupt cops, while New York remains his milieu. He has become a better director since The Driller Killer, but I don’t know if he’s made a better movie. He still likes to challenge the status quo – his most recent film was an account of the last day of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe in the title role – but he’s moved on to more mature subjects, leaving the strangeness of The Driller Killer behind, back in the 1970s where it belongs, I guess.
And what a strange movie it is, from its opening warning that “This Film Should Be Played Loud,” to the final tongue in cheek dedication to the people of New York. This movie wasn’t made to create a franchise, or inspire “driller killer” Halloween costumes, and it didn’t come out of a studio pitch meeting where a committee determined if it would appeal to a mass audience. So where did it come from? Abel Ferrara’s troubled mind, perhaps. Or Hell itself.