Director – Abel Ferrara
Cast – Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz, Alan Wynroth
Release Year – 1979
Reviewed by John of the Dead
For a slasher fan, there is no way one can pass over a film titled The Driller Killer. The film gained notoriety for being among the many films on the UK’s list of “video nasties”, remaining on the banned list for fifteen years (1984-1999). This title is an appropriate one, and I was stoked to see a film where the killer employs a power drill to his victims. I was also excited to see the debut film for King of New York director Abel Ferrera, where he both directs and serves as the film’s lead. Despite my excitement, I didn’t love the film like I wanted to. It comes with many faults, which isn’t surprising for a late 70s slasher flick, but the faults aren’t the kind that gave many films of this age their charm. Instead, they left me yearning for the end credits.
Ferrera portrays Reno Miller, an artist living with his girlfriend Carol and her lesbian lover Pamela. Once an established artist, Reno is living on his last dime and betting big on his next piece being a hit. When a no-wave band moves into his apartment complex and bombards the tenants with their music, Reno falls victim to his fragile mental state. The result of this is a killing spree where he uses the most convenient item he can find – a power drill.
This storyline bleeds “slasher film”, as does the film’s title, but I feel that this could be misleading. As I watched The Driller Killer I started to think this was more of a psychodrama than a slasher flick. It does have some elements of the slasher sub-genre, yet they take a backseat to the psycho/mental aspect. One could argue that slasher flicks have that psycho/mental aspect, and they do, but just know the story’s slashing takes a backseat to that.
Shot on 16mm film, this independent effort is one that may enthuse grindhouse fans and nobody else. Ferrera does well in capturing the brutality delivered by Reno, yet the film fails to reach potential on every front. You would think that the use of a powerdrill to deliver kills would result in some good horror, but I am 50/50 on that. I liked the tenacity from Reno. Ferrera’s mannerisms and execution of the kills was great. Unfortunately, the kills are tame when it comes to the effects. This could be a budgetary issue as well, but nonetheless, the potential was there and it was not fulfilled. Instead we see cheap use of the drill and some laughable goofs. You unsurprisingly should not expect good acting performances here either. Ferrera stated that setbacks forced the film to be shot in two pieces, with a year in between each one. One can imagine that such a process would result in a mess of a film.
My biggest balk with the film is how it develops. The first act is filler, and the use of the band is more annoyance than anything else. We don’t really see much of the band’s downward effect on Reno. If anything, they made me crazier than him. This was a disappointment because the band is supposed to serve as the crutch that sends him over the edge. Writer Nicholas St. John (Ferrera’s longtime writer) leaves a lot to be determined by the viewer regarding Reno’s mental state. He does not provide much regarding why he does the things he does. If you pay enough attention to the film, and grand yourself some leeway, you can make some founded assumptions for why Reno does what he does. Had we seen more development of this element I would have found more joy in the story. Because St. John doesn’t fill in the blanks very well, the film can feel like a mess. I get that these grindhouse films have quite a bit of nonsense going on due to a low budget and a need to fill up the runtime. Sadly, in the case of The Driller Killer these scenes were really detrimental to my experience.
Overall, The Driller Killer is one of those films that to me, is only cool on the surface. It has its moments, and I suppose it has its audience. If you want a flick with an identity crisis and kills that bungle a game-winning drive, then this may ber fore you. As for me, I would not recommend it.