“This film should be played loud,” reads the title at the start of the film, just letting you know it’s a rock n’ roll flick.
Abel Ferrara (King of New York) is the Woody Allen of grime. His love of New York is plain, but Ferrara sees a different Big Apple than Allen, preferring to inhabit the dives, finding his Manhattan amongst the homeless alcoholics, the no talent punk rock bands, penniless artists, scammers and drug addicts.
Ferrara’s film prior to Driller Killer was hardcore porn that he himself acted in and Driller Killer, released in 1979 is a strange kind of art house exploitation that’s only a few steps up from bump and grind. It’s a raw film, shot on 16mm with barely any money, charting the mental disintegration of a struggling artist Reno, played by Ferrara. It’s filled with real life New York characters, populated with freaks and drug addicts, which gives the film a realistic and unpredictable edge.
At the time Driller Killer would have tormented sicko audiences who flocked to grindhouse theatres based on the title and the infamous cover that promised plenty of drill on flesh action, but to be honest there’s not rivers of blood here. And these days it’s almost a nostalgia piece, actually working better as a time capsule of Ferrara’ seedy gang and New York in 1976 than as an exploitation shocker.
The gore does come, as Reno, driven mad by the band incessantly practicing downstairs grabs a drill and starts taking his frustrations out on the homeless, including the infamous head drilling scene. Yet it’s all a little obvious, a little ham fisted, as Ferrara hadn’ yet learnt to build tension. But even in its hokiness there’s a real curious mash of religious iconography, an unrepentantly seedy delight in the transgressive, sexist exploitation and time capsule sociology.
Ferrara’s commentary too is quite remarkable, with his super cool New York drawl playing it like a performance piece, dropping cool lines, watching himself on screen and offering sarcastic nuggets like “he’s a tough guy.’ A lot of it is personal nostalgia, like watching a home movie, trainspotting places and friends. But there are occasional gems, like deep breathing through a lesbian shower scene muttering “Oh mama” and something about jerk off fantasies in the same sentence.
Actually he spends a lot of time laughing at himself in the film and mocking his attempts at film-making. “Yeah stretch this scene out another half hour,” he dismisses or “that’s a nice shot for a change.” But he does seem genuinely impressed by quite a few moments, the light, particular shots, the odd scene and some of the dissolves. The key seems to be that Ferrara is so far removed from the person who made this 35 years ago that it’s all frequently surprising to him. He picks out themes that he was totally ignorant of at the time, such as some of the homophobic elements, and wonders why they weren’t picketed when the film was released.
Driller Killer isn’t subtle. It’s not to be. It’s a very distinct rough and ready portrait of late 70′ New York rock and roll grime masquerading as an exploitation film. It’s uneven particularly in terms of pacing, but there are a few moments of bold immature cinematic genius and it gets by on the force of Ferrara’s personality alone. The commentary in particular is a must for any Ferrara fan.