Cult Pics and Trash Flicks: Driller Killer (1979)

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Cast: , ,
Director: Abel Ferrara
Country: Thriller
Genre: USA

Editor’s Notes: The following review is a part of Matthew Blevins’ weekly series Cult Pics and Trash Flicks

Do you ever find yourself thinking “if I hear that goddamned song one more time I’m going to kill someone”? Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer takes that fangless internal quip to its literal end and follows an artist, Reno Miller (played with indefectible wretchedness by Ferrara himself under the assumed name Jimmy Laine), tortured by the endless stream of depraved distractions and treacherous blight of the inner-city. He watches others thrive in urban filth while his soul is irreparably twisted by routine drunk hobo parades and hookers that scatter like cockroaches in the daylight, images that pollute his daily life with unavoidable conspicuousness. Urban decay permeates every 16mm frame of Driller Killer, and the burgeoning Ferrara expands upon the artificial downbeat beauty of the New York streets found in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and attempts to show his version of the city with all of its divine disfigurations.

Do you ever find yourself thinking “if I hear that goddamned song one more time I’m going to kill someone”? Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer takes that fangless internal quip to its literal end…

The 16mm stock is a perfect fit for capturing the hideousness of pre-gentrified New York City streets as the muted splendor of traffic lights dot the night sky with that specific color-drained 16mm aesthetic. These incidental imperfections in the medium can turn something as innocuous as pizza into a grotesque display of sinew and carnage as the killer voraciously devours most of a manhole cover sized pie after his first kill, mimicking the indifferent savagery of nature using uniquely urban elements captured in the washed-out splendor of 16mm stock. The print would later be imperfectly transferred to home video, adding to the bastardization of the image with faded colors and incorrect framing. The images may present an inaccurate or incomplete representation of Ferrara’s original vision, but the imperfections found in every currently available Driller Killer home video release work toward unifying the film’s nihilistic urban aesthetic.

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Abel Ferrara plays the titular “driller killer” with savage candor, Reno representing the salient frustrations of Ferrara as an aspiring New York artist with soul baring honesty as those that surround him work harder toward cultivating their defining superficialities than perfecting their artistry. Reno struggles to survive as the ubiquitous plot device of owed rent money and a lecherous landlord offer uniquely urban dramatic tension, and a swishy art curator with questionable artistic sensibilities and a pretentious “No Wave” band act as antagonists that drive the sensitive artist to manifest his predispositions of madness with power tools and tortured visions. He seeks salvation in untenable lands and validation from the artistically and intellectually vacuous, but such futile pursuits can only end in frustration and mental anguish as superficiality is firmly ensconced in the tapestry of American culture. The undeserving will persevere through boldness that only a profound shortfall of self-awareness can provide and the fragile souls too acutely attuned to the inequities of the world in which they live will blacken and capitulate to the perverse forces that surround and oppress them.

Do not approach Driller Killer expecting a shocking parade of exploitation and horror because you will only be disappointed and miss the sublime squalor of Ferrara’s early artistic sensibilities.

Do not approach Driller Killer expecting a shocking parade of exploitation and horror because you will only be disappointed and miss the sublime squalor of Ferrara’s early artistic sensibilities. It isn’t an exploitation film that attempts to shock and horrify through contrived indecencies, but rather acts as an examination of urban squalor as both a subject matter and an aesthetic sensibility. The film is ugly because the realities of inner city life are ugly, and Driller Killer examines these unexposed realities with macabre fascination. It is not without flaws in delivery and form as the inexperienced filmmaker has a few minor stumbles along the way (particularly scenes of the Roosters cranking out their banal approximation of music with bombastic arrogance, vexing Reno with their pretentious attitudes and incessant playing) but these flaws and aesthetic compromises serve as essential components in the film’s rich tapestry of intentional repulsiveness it offers a portrait of urban blight that is paradoxically exaggerated and firmly rooted in realities largely unrepresented in cinema. Though this film is available in many cheap bundles of public-domain horror titles it deserves to be seen with as few compromises as possible. Seek out a copy in the original widescreen aspect ratio with as few cuts as possible to get a better approximation of an unseasoned Abel Ferrara’s budding artistic sensibilities and cinematic obsessions at their most nubile and raw.

[notification type=”star”]72/100 ~ GOOD. The film is ugly because the realities of inner city life are ugly, and Driller Killer examines these unexposed realities with macabre fascination.[/notification]

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About Author

Behind me you see the empty bookshelves that my obsession with film has caused. Film teaches me most of the important concepts of life, such as cynicism, beauty, ugliness, subversion of societal norms, and what it is to be a tortured member of humanity. My passion for the medium is an important part of who I am as I stumble through existence in a desperate and frantic search for objective truths.

  • Crispy Sharp

    For some reason I think about this film all the time – I actually really like the Roosters music in it… maybe I’m just pretentious. Nice review