What They Say:
In [a] career that has encompassed such controversial classics as Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant and Welcome to New York, none of Abel Ferrara’s films have quite managed to match the shock, extremity and downright notorious nature of The Driller Killer.
Ferrara plays struggling artist Reno, a man pushed to the edge by the economic realities of New York living in the late seventies and the No Wave band practising in the apartment below. His grip on reality soon begins to slip and he takes to stalking the streets with his power tool in search of prey…
One of the most infamous ‘video nasties’, in part thanks to its drill-in-head sleeve, The Driller Killer has lost none of its power to unnerve and is presented here fully uncut.
“THIS VIDEO SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.” (Original Uncompressed Mono PCM audio) Occasionally blaring/distorted or muffled dialog is the only issue here – one that eardrums grow accustomed to as part of the audio’s closet rock club aesthetic. What’s lost on select dialog clarity, however, is easily made up during punk performances. Lo-fi quality also enhances some of the audio effects used to create an atmosphere of discombobulation and rage.
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios are made available. In all its grainy glory, The Driller Killer benefits from a visual grittiness that complements both the era it captures and the cloudy mind of the protagonist. I was not keen enough to notice any difference between screen ratios and can only say the Blu-ray viewing experience is superb regardless of the environment – be it the dark streets of ‘70s NYC, the red and blue lit interiors of small punk rock venues, or the brightly lit studio-cave of a 2D buffalo.
A screener’s Blu-ray disc, sans marketable packaging, was supplied for review purposes, so all I can say is that a sweet-looking, limited edition SteelBook with original artwork is available. Snatch that up while you can!
For the Blu-ray, select sequences from scenes throughout the movie play in the background while a Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters song loops. Great to let play on max volume while you ready food to annoy the neighbors.
- Limited Edition SteelBook has original artwork
- Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative of the never-before-seen pre-release version and the theatrical cut
- Audio commentary by director and star Abel Ferrara, moderated by Brad Stevens (author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision) and recorded exclusively for this release
- Laine and Abel: An Interview with the Driller Killer, a brand-new interview with Ferrara
- Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101, a new visual essay guide to the films and career of Ferrara by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Cultographies: Ms. 45
- Mulberry St., Ferrara’s feature-length 2010 documentary portrait of the New York location that has played a key role in his life and work, available on home video in the UK for the first time ever
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Reno Miller is an artist on the cusp of a breakthrough, but that revelation doesn’t pertain to his perpetually unfinished masterpiece – a seemingly stupefied, wide-eyed Buffalo with gaping maw surrounded by electric-colored ribbons on a nondescript plane. Reno suffers under the mightiest of weights all too familiar to artists: aimlessness. And when vexed by such a humiliating hand, the minutiae of the everyday, coupled with the soul-draining routine of life-preventing poverty, turn into bits that bore through Reno’s very sanity. As if sent from the heavens to clear his mind and set him on his true path in life, a divine intervention, by way of momentary interaction at a local church, looses his murderous talent. Nurturing that newfound nefariousness, Reno grows from curious murderer to expedient assailant as (and in) The Driller Killer.
If unfamiliar with Abel Ferrara’s catalog, it would be easy, judging by the cover, to pass by The Driller Killer as just one of myriad horror/slasher titles crammed into the local video rental store shelf or in the lineups of usual suspects on your streaming service of choice. This film is, by the director’s own admission, his first attempt at “making it” after university. But the influence of the experimental stylings of Michael Snow and Stan Brackage, applied to what Ferrara called “a documentary of the life we led” (as scripted by Nicholas St. John), fingerprints a crime scene that now serves as an homage to 1977/1978 New York City.
Like its main characters, The Driller Killer revels in visceral thrill and, by doing so, incites nostalgia for a more dangerous time – when the city was more trial-by-fire commune than family-friendly weekend spot. The film, as didactic as it tries not to seem, paints a sentimental portrait of unsafe subways, gangs running amok, and the prevalence of homelessness to make points about class, poverty, and “where desperation can take people” (Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101). All of this was accomplished organically; Nicholas St. John supposedly wrote the script for the movie as it was being filmed. This is how, as relayed by Ferrara, the process helped defined the film. While certain plot points and scenes were in mind and the basic outline was conceived, the city, by simply being itself, helped shape tone and visual discourse.
In the included documentary, Ferrara refers to The Driller Killer as splatter film and comedy, and this is a just assessment. The gore is wonderful; blood flows thick, apropos to paint, and there is a lot of killing, but the comedy lies as much in hokey dialog and as it does with attack scenes that are cut to too quickly. The latter, I’m guessing instituted to instill a sense of surprise, instead inspires laughs by taking the viewer out of the movie itself to recognize how silly a man murdering via drill really is. Despite the aforementioned pigeonholes, The Driller Killer seems more at home under arthouse label. Although filmed in 1979 for less than $100,000, the movie’s visual aesthetics remain strong. Ferrara’s talent for visual metaphor as well as his sense for color, framing, and camera angles make the all of the 96 minute runtime enjoyable even with the sound off (or while listening to the brand new commentary).
With the sound on, however, audiences are treated to a no-wave/punk cacophony intermittently punctuated with dialog, screams, and sound effects. Ferrara, in making this film, used Jung’s book on schizophrenia, so the volume and screeching of certain sound effects go a long way in relaying Reno’s battle with the voices inside his head. To the contrary, certain choices and dated techniques hurt more than enhance some later scenes – particularly those in which what sounds like machinegun fire is superimposed upon the drill’s mechanical, maniacal whir. This is pure detraction despite intention, which is so obvious that it reaps chuckles or sighs every time it’s employed…at least through the lens of nearly forty years later.
Each member of the cast fits perfectly into his or her role. Director Abel Ferrara himself, credited as Jimmy Laine for homage, played Reno Miller. (Amusing aside: this casting choice was not for vanity’s sake but because the director and editor had no clue as to how long the film would take to make.) He brings a hunger and swagger to the role that’s indispensable. Carolyn Mars as Carol Slaughter aptly delivers the loyalty, disenchantment, disgust evolution, while Baybi Day (Pamela) thoroughly commits to a feature-length spacey, blissed-out drug trip. Even actors for the side characters, namely Harry Shultz as Dalton Briggs and Allan Wynroth as Al, lend some charming cheese to the film as, respectively, the art buyer/critic and super/landlord. (For what it’s worth, Schultz gets enough lines and situations to flesh out his character a bit, while Wynroth is primarily relegated to a one-note comic relief role.)
You gotta love a slasher/comedy that was put on something called the “video nasties” list. Depicting an artist under emotional and financial strain in late ‘70s NYC, The Driller Killer is a portrait that does not glorify so much as accurately capture (to the point of inducing nostalgia for) that period and place. The rawness and volatility of the film provide an environment perfectly suited for the violence that ensues. Ferrara’s eye brings substance to a slasher pic akin to the way he made 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy a classier skin flick (or rather a skin flick with at least some artistic sense). The film is as visually entrancing as it is unintentionally funny, which makes it infinitely re-watchable – alone or while inducting new fans to a bloody classic.
Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: A
Extras Grade: A+
Released By: Arrow Films
Release Date: 11/28/2016 (UK), 12/13/16 (USA)
MSRP: $44.95 (List), $27.99-$29.99 (Amazon), $19.99 (Arrow)
Running Time: 96 min
Video Encoding: Anamorphic, NTSC, Widescreen
Aspect Ratio: Both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 are offered as viewing options
Sony BDP-S5100 BD player hooked up via HDMI to Toshiba 40” LED 1080P HDTV. Sony 5.1 home theater system.