The Driller Killer: Abel Ferrara’s 70’s Punk Rock Psycho-Drama

Over the course of his career, director Abel Ferrara amassed some impressive Grindhouse credentials. His wide-spanning filmography includes an early pornographic movie, the cult rape-revenge Ms 45, and neo-noir crime thrillers King of New York and Dangerous Game. Ferrara made the gonzo 1992 thriller, Bad Lieutenant, and the critically acclaimed The Funeral. Few filmmakers have traversed such eclectic range of styles. Yet the common thread across Ferrara’s movies was controversy. Much of his work was characterized by unflinching violence and frequent sexual content. One of his earliest movies, The Driller Killer, was controversial enough to find its way on the infamous ‘Video Nasties List’. Now over 40 years later, The Driller Killer has been re-mastered for Blu-ray and even pops up on some streaming services.

Synopsis

Struggling artist Reno Miller shares a run-down Union Square apartment with two women – Carol and drug addict, Pamela. With bills piling up, Reno is struggling to finish his most recent painting. Neither Carol nor Pamela work and the local gallery owner refuses to front Reno anymore money. To make matters worse, a punk rock band has moved into the apartment downstairs. As Reno slowly loses his mind, he beings stalking the streets with a portable power drill, brutally murdering the city’s homeless.

The Driller Killer a Relatively Tame ‘Video Nasty’

If you’re a horror fan of a certain age, chances are, you’re familiar with ‘The Video Nasties List’. During the 1980’s, right-wing activist Mary Whitehall lobbied British Parliament to censor what she saw as increasing violence in video releases. Courtesy of her efforts, the British government passed The Video Recordings Act in 1984. In total, the British Board of Film Classification put 72 movies on the “Video Nasties List’. Not surprisingly, most of the ‘Video Nasties’ were horror movies. Like most moral panics, however, the public furor over horror movie violence died off rather quickly. By the time the 2000’s rolled around, several of the ‘Video Nasties’ would even get the remake treatment without anyone batting an eye.

Like most moral panics, the public furor over horror movie violence died off rather quickly.

What’s particularly interesting about The Driller Killer’s inclusion on The Video Nasties List was that it wasn’t particularly ‘Nasty’. Keep in mind, The Driller Killer is a grimy, exploitative, and violent movie. But when compared to other Video Nasties, like Cannibal Holocaust or The Last House on the Left, The Driller Killer is relatively tame. Somehow Maniac, which is a far more violent movie, didn’t even make the list. But that’s the thing with censorship. More often than not, it’s arbitrary. Unfortunately for The Driller Killer, it’s VHS cover captured what’s probably the movie’s most violent scene. Reno certainly ‘drills’ people. And like most Grindhouse movies, the cheap, greasy practical effects are disturbing. Yet for most of its runtime, The Driller Killer is more psycho-babble thriller than horror movie.

The Driller Killer a ’Grindhouse’ Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a classic of 1970’s cinema. It’s story of one man’s descent into madness against the backdrop of a bleak New York City inspired quite a few imitators. As mentioned above, The Driller Killer is not so a much a horror movie as it is an attempt at a similar psychological character study. Like William Lustig’s Maniac, The Driller Killer is a low-budget, DIY Grindhouse thriller with clumsily executed psycho-drama and violent. While Lustig’s Maniac was a far more gruesome and heavy-handed Freudian thriller, Ferrara takes a more methodical approach to Reno Miller’s emotional breakdown. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a closer comparison in terms of what Ferrara probably wanted to achieve.

But what’s most interesting about The Driller Killer is its 70’s New York punk rock backdrop.

In this regard, The Driller Killer’s low budget both helps and hinders. All of the actors are amateurs. Ferrara himself (credited as Jimmy Laine) plays Reno Miller. Not surprisingly then, none of the performances are strong, ranging from stiff to broad. Though Ferrara knew his way around exploitation thrills, he’s not quite as good at subtle character development. As a result, Reno Miller’s character arc is pretty thin stuff. Nevertheless, The Driller Killer benefits from its grimy, Grindhouse aesthetics. They lend a certain level of realism and shock value that outweigh some of the movie’s other limitations. But what’s most interesting about The Driller Killer is its 70’s New York punk rock backdrop. The movie is something of a fascinating time capsule, capturing a New York City that’s almost hard to believe today.

The Driller Killer a Surreal Punk Rock Nightmare

Overall, The Driller Killer is an uneven but often brutally effective psycho-thriller. While it’s not as violent as its ‘Video Nasty’ history suggests, this is still vintage 70’s Grindhouse trash. It’s a dirty, cheap looking movie that probably over-extends itself with its attempts at replicating some of Taxi Driver’s story beats. But it’s like a car crash – you can’t really look away. In spite of its limitations, The Driller Killer still works as a surreal nightmare experience, fuelled by its punk rock ethos. Neither Ferrara’s best work nor the best example of 70’s Grindhouse, The Driller Killer belongs in die-hard horror fans’ collections.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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