Those who remember seeing the nasty old VHS case for "The Driller Killer" probably think it's a wall-to-wall industrial tool-strength gorefest of the nastiest kind. And these would be the people who never actually rented the thing. The box in question showed a man screaming as a drill bit presses into his forehead. Subtle. Plus the movie was one of those "Video Nasties" that the UK censors loved to bitch about, so the reputation of director Abel Ferrara's debut feature has persisted for many years.
(New York indie kingpin Ferrara had done a few skin flicks prior to "The Driller Killer", but for the sake of "movie movies" we'll consider this his actual debut.)
Those who originally marketed the movie had the right idea. Selling this flick as a horror movie was a much safer approach that calling "The Driller Killer" what it really is: a dark and desperate descent into urban madness. In actuality, "The Driller Killer" has a lot more in common with "Taxi Driver" than it does "Halloween" - for better or worse.
Mr. Ferrara himself (under the name "Jimmy Laine") stars as Reno Miller, a low-rent but plainly talented young artist who lives in late-70's New York City. Reno is a desperately angry fellow, one who withstands hateful neighbors, loud girlfriends and unappreciative patrons while struggling to maintain a tenuous grasp on reality. And although Reno does indeed suffer an inevitable break-up with Sally Sanity, "The Driller Killer" is not so much about a spurned misfit who wreaks vengeance as it is about one increasingly infuriated malcontent who's simply fed up with the ugliness of his world.
It's not just the troublemakers who end up on the business end of Reno's gigantic drill; homeless hobos and unkempt transients seem to be first on his list of dispatches, and it's this distinction that elevates "The Driller Killer" beyond that of a simple horror movie. There are tons of movies in which 'losers' finally flip out and murder their tormentors, but Ferrara's film is more than a mere revenge tale. There's a grim, grimy and rather unsettling vibe to Reno's misadventure; this is not the sort of movie where you "root" for the oft-maligned misfit. His rage comes from a deep and dark place, and it's not the sort of 'outcast outrage' generally covered in movies like "Carrie"; this movie is an indictment of desperate city living at its most bleak and unsavory.
It's also very clearly an early work from an inexperienced filmmaker. Plainly made on the cheap (which is fine) and periodically rather dryly indulgent for the first 40-some minutes (which is not), "The Driller Killer" is as intermittently dull as it is rawly captivating. There's a sweaty rawness to Reno's story that helps the movie to achieve a grungy documentary feel, but there are also large lapses in directorial judgment; scenes run on way too long, the early pacing could best be described as 'languid', a few of the more amateurish performances grate on the nerves almost immediately.
But clearly hidden beneath a spotty debut is a filmmaker with depth of vision and a knack for unflinching realism. His follow-up film would be the cult favorite "Ms. 45", and Ferrara would eventually go on to direct several truly excellent independent movies, including "Bad Lieutenant", "The Addiction" and "King of New York". "The Driller Killer" may not be the full-on fright flick that many believe it is, but horror fans should certainly find something to like here. Taken as a sort of "Taxi Driver" meets 'lunatic with a power tool' amalgam, "The Driller Killer" works...albeit fitfully and without much consistency. But given the filmmaker's inexperience at the time (and a clear intent on infusing his "gore movie" with some sort of viable social commentary), certain transgressions can be overlooked.
Cult Epics has unearthed this cult mini-classic in fine form, with the movie presented in a fairly impressive (all things considered) Widescreen transfer. (Subtitles are available in Spanish and French.) Two two-disc limited edition release boasts a wide array of Ferrara-centric goodies, most notably a rather loopy commentary track from the director himself. You'll also find the original theatrical trailer, an extended version of the movie's "Porto-pack" commercial, three short films from early in Abel's career (entitled "Could This Be Love", "The Hold Up" and "Nicky's Film") and an (extremely) hardcore trailer for a Ferrara-directed porn flick called "Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy". Extensive liner notes by Brad Stevens, author of "Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision", add some articulate perspective to Ferrara's eclectic body of work.