New York is arguably the most cinematic city of all-time. It has been filmed by the likes of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Sidney Lumet, among others. On the surface, there is so much life, elegance, and sophistication that comes out of every pore of this most famous of cities. However, there is always a very dark side to every beauty; the dark side that usually goes unnoticed, especially in film. With its authentic ugliness, raw documentary-like atmosphere, and punk-rock insanity, director Abel Ferrara’s 1979 notorious masterwork, The Driller Killer, is probably the ultimate depiction of New York’s grim underbelly. It is a film that continues to divide critics and audience to this day, especially because of the fact that is was on the UK’s ‘video nasties’ list and banned for two decades.
Ferrara himself directed, co-edited, and stars as Reno Miller, a struggling artist living in an apartment in Union Square with Carol (Carolyn Marz), his bisexual girlfriend, and her lover. Soon, with piling bills and the rent not getting paid, not to mention his turbulent relationship with Carol, and the fact that this very loud New Wave punk group has moved into his apartment building, his grip with reality starts to collapse. With nothing left to lose, he basically snaps and goes on a murder spree with his trusty power drill.
If you’re looking for a routine slasher film, you may want to look elsewhere. Make no mistake, this is a truly unique film about the brutal effects of how your surroundings and everyday mundanity can get the best of you. Ferrara does an amazing job of pacing his character Reno’s slow departure from reality into nightmarish fantasy; a fantasy that causes him to lose his mind and turns him into a bloodthirsty killer. A horrifying example of this is the sequence where he is painting and he starts to hear Carol’s voice; he then sees a vision of her turning around and her eyes are drilled out and bleeding. With this, you get the sense of art and horror blending together to create a blistering descent into the abyss.
With the kill scenes (including the famous drill to the head moment), which are nasty and gruesome for their time, there is almost a level of comic savagery put into them. You find yourself squirming and laughing because of the over-the-top nature in which they are executed. However, Reno isn’t entirely unsympathetic; he becomes a serial killer, but against his own will. While he loses his mind, he never loses his overall humanity. That’s the twist: sometimes the most insane people turn out to be victims of either circumstance or their surroundings. He is just like ‘Travis Bickle’ from “Taxi Driver” (which ‘Driller’ is always compared to), meaning that they are both men who turn into unwitting monsters, especially due to their own failing mental health and the environment in which they live.
Again, Arrow pulls out all the stops, giving this infamous classic the release it deserves with both the theatrical and pre-release versions. The other great special features include an uncensored audio commentary with Ferrara, moderated by author Brad Stevens; Laine and Abel: An Interview with the Driller Killer, which is a brand-new and unedited interview with Ferrara; Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101, a terrific new video essay of Ferrara’s career and films by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; Mulberry St., Ferrara’s 2010 documentary snapshot of his beloved New York location that played a key role in his and work. There is also the trailer, a booklet with new essays by Michael Pattison and Stevens, and a reversible sleeve featuring original and new cover art by the Twins of Evil.
In my opinion, The Driller Killer is a totally underrated and bold film of urban chaos that has lost none of its insane power to go far and beyond the ‘slasher film’ to truly have something to say. It also says alot about Ferrara as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker with both a mind and creativity of his own. He is the ‘bad boy of American independent cinema’ and I love him all the more for being so.