The Driller Killer (1979)

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*. An initial advisement tells us “THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.” As if anyone in the theatre would have had a vote in the matter. And besides, what would be the point? Does the music of Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters sound better played loud? Does the muddy and mostly pointless dialogue improve?
*. There are lots of bad reasons for liking a movie. It might be the early work of an actor or director who went on to do something you really like, so it gains something in hindsight. It might have achieved a reputation due to some scandal not really relating to the film itself. It might represent a point of view or sensibility that has since gained in cultural cachet.
*. Or, in the case of The Driller Killer, all of the above. This is a terrible movie, but (following the above order): (1) it’s a very early film from indie hero Abel Ferrara (who went on to do King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Funeral); (2) it’s often credited with being one of the original “video nasties,” meaning a videocasette release prosecuted for obscenity in Britain in the 1980s; and (3) it provides a glimpse into the underground alternative music scene in New York City in the 1970s.
*. Kim Newman calls this “the only gore movie to genuinely approach Art.” I’m not sure what he’s talking about. It’s an exploitation film made by someone who looks like they were directing under the influence (and I don’t mean of other filmmakers). One does get the sense, however, that Ferrara’s thoughts are elsewhere, which is the only indication I would have seen that he might go on to do something good. Talent-wise, he shows us nothing here.
*. It’s hard to tell if the low quality of what you are seeing is due to a lack of money or just incompetence. Probably both. Ferrara had no money, but I don’t think he knew what he was doing either.
*. Why do we not see any blood on the drill bit after it’s done its job?
*. Another iteration of the mad artist, that down-on-his-luck sibling of the mad scientist. The scientist dreams of destroying or conquering the world but the artist only wants the Freudian goals of fame and beautiful lovers. Alas, even in these departments Reno is shit out of luck. When his painting is rejected by the gallery his girlfriend packs her suitcase and leaves for a man who will bring her a cup of tea in bed. Oh Reno. It’s just not going to happen for you, man.
*. Reno blames his environment for his failings as an artist, but the truth seems to be that he’s just not very good.
*. There’s a lot of visual heavy breathing around and about Reno’s psychotic states, but it’s never clear to me what his problem is. What has he got against derelicts? They aren’t hurting anyone and for the most part seem pretty inoffensive. Is there something in Reno’s past that makes him enter these dissociative states?
*. The usual explanation for Reno’s war of extermination against bums is that his father (who may be the old guy in the church at the beginning) is a derelict. But I don’t know. The dialogue is hard to make out and I’m not sure the script was clear on this point in the first place.
*. I thought for a moment there might be some political point in play, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Reno is down and out, but he’s not a class avenger. If anything, it’s because he’s afraid of falling into the gutter that those are the people he kills. He doesn’t want to become like them (or become his father).
*. Yes, I know. It’s a stretch. But that’s the best attempt I can make at explaining this film’s incoherence.

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