The Driller Killer screens at the Roxy Fri., May 4, at 9 PM.
This Friday night, the Roxy presents another gem in its Deep Cuts film series, with director Abel Ferrara’s grimy, pulpy 1979 feature debut, The Driller Killer. This will be my third dive into Ferrara’s delicious catalog this month. His movies make me feel divine and disgusting at once. I always want more; I’m hungry, ashamed of myself and desperate for all of you to join me.
The Driller Killer stars Ferrara as the titular killer. A struggling painter, Reno (that’s his name; nobody calls him the driller killer) is forever clad in a chest-baring denim shirt and is a real piece of garbage in general. Reno lives with a couple of women in their New York City loft in what appears to be a pretty groovy arrangement. The brunette, Carol, seems like his girlfriend, but she’s also hooking up with the flighty blonde, Pamela, which we see in a delightful and necessary shower scene. (Remember when sex in cinema was allowed to exist for its own sake, for fun? Me either.) Later, in a dirty nightclub bathroom, a skinny girl in a tube top asks Pam, “So what, do you all fuck him? Who fucks who, who fucks what?” and Pam tells her, “It’s none of your fucking business who.” Who wrote this perfect prose? (Answer: Nicholas St. John, who also penned several of Ferrara’s other classics, King of New York, The Funeral and so on.) They should have sent a poet, and did.
You came to see an artist go mad and drill people and, don’t worry, we’ll get there, but first, there’s a shocking amount of character building going on, especially for a film born out of the Grindhouse era (so-called in part by a penchant to be “grinded out” and hurled into a drive-in theater near you). Of Reno’s painting, his agent says, “This is nothing. This is shit! Where’s the impact? It’s just a goddamn Buffalo!” He’s mistaken, by the way. The painting kills and the No Wave music clanging around upstairs isn’t half bad either. Your 1979-era art needs will be met.
The opening scene takes place in a spooky church with a nun and an old man portending doom. What follows from there seems important, and I think it is, but will the old man even reappear in the story, or are we on some kind of tripped-out fever dream replete with dead rabbits and discordant musical interludes, or both?
Ferrara is obsessed with Catholicism; the redemptive powers of the church and also nuns show up repeatedly in his other films, like a puzzle with missing pieces. We see it in Harvey Keitel’s cocaine-addled reach for absolution in The Bad Lieutenant (1992) and again in the near-perfect revenge saga Ms. 45 (1981) starring the brilliant and deceased Zoë Lund.
I mention these titles because I want you to go see The Driller Killer and then watch these other movies. Consider 1984’s Fear City, for example, a sultry noir thriller about everything and nothing, featuring a down-and-out boxer (Tom Berenger) and a very young and so beautiful Melanie Griffith. There’s a Kung Fu killer on the loose cutting up women and yet Ferrara devotes a quarter of the picture’s running time to exotic dances and romance. Are you into the newer vampire films like Let the Right One In (American remake: Let Me In) or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night? You might like Ferrara’s 1995 vampire saga The Addiction even more! The Driller Killer’s a rough and pivotal start to Ferrara’s milieu. I give it 3 ½ out of 5 pukes.