The Driller Killer (1979)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #80


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: June 15, 1979
Sub-Genre: Psychological/Character Study
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $20,000
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director: Abel Ferrara
Producer: Rochelle Weisberg
Screenplay: Nicholas St John
Special Effects: David E. Smith
Cinematography: Ken Kelsch
Score: Joseph Delia
Editing: Bonnie Constant, Michael Constant, Orlando Gallini, Jimmy Laine
Studio: Navaron Films
Distributors: 4Digital Media, Cult Epics, Wizard Video
Stars: Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz, Alan Wynroth, Maria Helhoski, James O’Hara, Richard Howorth

driller_killer_rivers_of_grue (5)

Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Rotgut “I Am The Driller Killer”

[2] Joe Delia “Driller Killer”


I often ask myself whether The Driller Killer is the work of insane genius or a steaming pool of emu phlegm? This particular poser yields two very different responses depending on whom it is fired at and many believe it to be a little of both. The first illustration to be conjured up in one’s mind when those three words are uttered is that confrontational VHS sleeve. If you were British and fortunate enough to be born before the BBFC wrapped the whole country in cotton wool then you too will have enjoyed the sight of a street urchin taking the business end of the drill in question straight in his double top. Laughably it was this image which incited enough bigots to pretty much kick-start the whole video nasty campaign.


Abel Ferrara was hot property at the time and everyone wanted a piece of the Bronx-born filmmaker. The problem was that it was his decapitated head on a spike they craved. Inevitably, the tabloids got involved before long and we all know that is like waving a freshly soiled tampon in the face of pack of famished zombies. Before Ferrara knew it, the good old British gutter press were having their rough justice with him and this witch was burned at the stake without fair trial. Looking back thirty years later at the public outcry his first full-length feature provoked, it raises more than a wry chuckle.


You see, The Driller Killer may be the most notorious of nasties but it’s actually one of the least justified when you place it under the microscope. The most shocking thing about this film is its cover image. That is the crowning moment of splatter on display right there: one admittedly fine forehead incision. Other than that, it’s much ado about nothing. Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead harbored an equally bloodthirsty drill scene and that wasn’t made such an example of (although it was still seized by our “moral guardians”). It really shows the censorship board’s knee-jerk approach to the whole sorry list.


Let’s study the evidence. Firstly, films such as Dario Argento’s fine giallo Tenebrae were singled out as reprehensible which I find utterly mind-boggling to this very day. Tony Maylam’s The Burning also made the cut, despite being no more depraved than a certain other slasher doing the rounds at the time down at Camp Crystal Lake. Meanwhile, and this one is a doozy, Tobe Hooper’s harmless Funhouse was also banished and that turned out to be purely clerical error as it was mistaken for Roger Watkins’ The Last House on Dead End Street which was also known by the same title. Fucking clown shoes the lot of them.


Of course, these theatrics are little more than ancient history now and The Driller Killer has long since been available in its original uncut form. Moreover, Ferrara has gone on to enjoy a pretty successful career in the industry, particularly on the underground scene, where his low-key depictions of human angst have gained him a fair degree of adulation. With films such as Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction and the critically acclaimed King of New York under his belt, any negative press certainly didn’t harm him. If anything, it fueled his fire further. You see, the BBFC thought they were performing a public service where, in truth, they just ended up feeding the monkey.


Anyhoots, notoriety aside, is The Driller Killer actually worthy of a second glance four decades on? Yes and no actually. For a grimy depiction of one man’s steady decline into outright madness, William Lustig’s Maniac offers a far more effective case study and is a lot more mean-spirited to boot. However, if you’re sitting in front of your TV screen steadily declining into outright madness while watching it, then Ferrara has achieved his goal fully. It’s not looking to entertain and the more jaded Grueheads amongst us will find little to sate their appetite for destruction. What it is interested in doing is asking its audience the uncomfortable question of what drives us over the edge and it does that in its own unique monotone way.


Working under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, Ferrara himself takes on leading man duties as Reno Miller, a struggling NYC artist treading water and slowly losing his battle with remaining topside. On the surface, things appear to be going rather well for Reno. He has a steady girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) and, while New York gradually turns to squalor before his very eyes, at least he has a roof over his head. That said, his digs ain’t exactly the Hilton. Interestingly, Ferrara used his own apartment in Union Square to shoot which shows how much of a labor of love/hate this project was for him.


Despite Reno having a functioning bed to crawl into and cry himself to sleep in every night, his home life is anything but charmed. Carol’s ex-junkie best friend Pamela (Baybi Day) also lives with them and three is proving to be quite the crowd, especially given the pair’s tendency to take their friendship to the next level when inebriated. Carol’s ex-husband keeps pestering her about wanting a reconciliation, much to Reno’s disgust. In addition, he also has to deal with loathsome neighbors (think of the fat douche from Alfred Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice minus 100 lbs or so and you’re in the right ball park).


However, his hinges are most at risk of detaching on account of a band of talentless Ramones wannabees who also happen to be tenants in the same building. Undesirable roommates he can let slide but, Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, that’s borderline unacceptable. While poor Reno is attempting to knock one out in the “comfort” of his own quarters, said Roosters are practicing the same stupid droning song on incessant loop at gradually increasing volume and with absolutely no regard whatsoever for their fellow residents.


Monotony is a key theme here so if you don’t enjoy the raucous sound of Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, and I would say that will be a given, simply press eject and your ordeal will be swiftly over. However, poor Reno isn’t afforded the same luxury. Trapped inside a dingy mold-encrusted hell hole deep in the sphincter of a Big Apple steadily turning rotten, he doesn’t have any conceivable way out of his mess. It’s the decline in social values that Abel is pinpointing and, ironically, the precise reason his film was vilified in the UK. Is it as good a movie as Taxi Driver? Of course it isn’t. Ferrara is no De Niro. And he’s no Scorsese either. That said, he is an unapologetically provocative and audacious filmmaker with some pretty large grievances to burden us with and, while The Driller Killer isn’t exactly an easy watch, it was never designed to be fluff.


The film’s main strength lies in Ferrara’s edgy turn as the tortured artist. As for the drill he brandishes, I’ve heard a lot of comments to the tune of “must have had a pretty long flex Abel”, and feel duty bound to put these minds at rest by informing you all that the cordless drill was introduced to market in 1961 and patented in 1965 so it is feasible that Reno could have brandished one. Now please don’t start on the battery life debate or we’ll be here all week and I’ve had about as much of The Roosters as I can stomach for one lifetime.


The Driller Killer is not the film to view snuggled up with your soul mate whilst feeding one other ripened cherries and whispering sweet nothings into one another’s ears. Neither is it likely to make you feel better about yourself and is far more likely to have you running a bath directly afterwards to wash away all that stubborn Manhattan sludge. What it is however is a film that you watch while taking a dump in your own breeches and plucking the wiry pubes from your ball sack, before using them to floss the fried chicken from your teeth with. In that respect, it’s just the way Abel intended it to be.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: One other scene in particular hasn’t been mentioned yet and that is a divisive mock crucifixion with a victim’s hands bored into a wall. Vagrants seem to be Reno’s preferred silage and hilariously that dim-witted band live on. Grue is present and correct and the moment when Reno bores a hole into the skull of one unfortunate bum is admittedly pretty strong but, that aside, The Driller Killer is unlikely to have you reaching for a slipper to hurl your half-digested kebab into. Indeed, it’s his recurring nightmares that leave the most unpleasant after taste. Speckled with deep red and accompanied by the deafening hum of distant drills, you will feel a little of your sanity seep away along with our main man Miller.

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Read Maniac (1980) Appraisal

Read Don’t Go In The House Appraisal

Read Nightmares in a Damaged Brain Appraisal

Read Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

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