The Driller Killer

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Driller Killer
"The framing of some scenes is visually brilliant, whilst others are constructed in a way that makes no sense at all."

It was the most famous of the legendary Video Nasties, films banned in the UK because they were supposedly too scary for children to see. It was also Abel Ferrara's first non-pornographic feature, a first real look at his artistic potential; and it was a glorious tribute to the best and worst of New York punk. A notice at the start of The Driller Killer advises that it should be played loud. It's a film you'll need to lose yourself in - otherwise you might by overwhelmed by all the ways in which it's terrible.

The basic plot is simple enough. Reno (played with some panache by Ferrara himself, under his oft-used pseudonym Jimmy Laine) is a down-on-his-luck artist living with his girlfriend, Carol, and her girlfriend, Pamela, in a scummy apartment (actually Ferrara's own) in Union Square. He feels that he's close to completing his masterpiece, but it's difficult to concentrate with punk band the Roosters rehearsing in the same building, and the landlord - to whom he owes money - won't do anything about it. Under these pressures, Reno gradually begins to lose his mind. Always a bit of a handyman on the side, he finds solace in his drill, and begins going out at night and using it to kill homeless people. But is he aware of his actions, and will he ultimately turn on those he loves?

Copy picture

As Carol, Carolyn Marz also turns in better work than one expects from the genre, and lets us see the decay of her relationship with Reno in a way the script doesn't really provide for. Baybi Day is much more wayward as Pamela, but as she's a heroin addict playing a heroin addict, this works well enough. Harry Schultz and Alan Wynroth deliver enjoyably sleazy turns in supporting roles. The music is fantastic throughout and overlong, incoherent clubland scenes have a nostalgic appeal, perhaps a little like what Dogs In Space might have been if it had actually been improvised instead of just pretending to be. The film is deeply rooted in the culture it portrays and everything about this feels authentic, to the point where one can almost smell it. Here, Reno's developing madness can go unnoticed, and punk seems to become more and more a part of him even as it contributes to his breakdown.

Driller Killer is rambling and fantastically uneven. The sound quality is awful, the killings are ridiculous, and the gratuitous lesbian shower scenes risk making Blue Is The Warmest Colour look realistic. Interspersed with all this are moments of genius when Ferrara's visual flair shines through. He makes superb use of colour (ketchupy blood aside) and brings a noirish quality to the city's long shadows. The framing of some scenes is visually brilliant, whilst others are constructed in a way that makes no sense at all.

In retrospect, it's very hard to see why people found the film overly violent (though in truth this probably had more to do with its advertising campaign). The famous scene of Reno drilling into a man's head goes on for far too long and becomes sillier and sillier as the victim tries to act around the fact that the body of the drill is getting no closer to him. No victim seems to think of running away and in fact several go out of their way to get into vulnerable positions (a scene at a bus stop is particularly funny). One could get by a lot of these difficulties by choosing to interpret the attacks as fantasies, but this position becomes increasingly difficult to sustain as the plot develops and eventually there is simply no way around the pivotal question: where did Reno get a power cord that long?

Brilliant in places and rather delightfully awful in others, The Driller Killer is a lot of fun. It's also a film of considerable historic importance. Don't set your expectations too high, but give it a whirl.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 2016
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The Driller Killer packshot
A broke artist starts to lose his mind.

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