Like Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone before him, filmmaker Abel Ferrara got his start in the horror genre – well, not exactly, since his (un)official feature debut would be the 1976 porn flick, “9 Lives of a Wet P***y.” And Ferrara can’t really hold company with the other two filmmakers, who have broadened out since their lowly beginnings. The exploitation grounds from which Ferrara sprung have remained his territory, through the seamy “Bad Lieutenant,” the eerie “Body Snatchers,” and the recent “Go Go Tales.”
With “The Driller Killer’s” offbeat sensibility, this 1979 budgeter takes up from the 70s grindhouse and precedes the flourishing horror-comedies of the 80s at the hands of Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Frank Henenlotter. However, “Killer” stumbles across comedy in what now plays like an accidental camp entry.
Credited as “Jimmy Laine,” Ferrara plays the killer, Reno Miller, who appears to be doing his best Tony Manero impression. A starving artist with more self-importance than talent, Reno submits to the pressures of poverty and, more so, his own lack of maturity. A head-scratching point is how Carol (Carolyn Marz), with no less than the looks of a model, would stay shacked up with him, as is the couple’s sexy punker live-in plaything, Pamela (Baybi Day, also never heard from again) – a means for Ferrara to get his gratuitous lesbo shower scene (quite lovely, nonetheless).
Reno rants like a manchild, tossing a phone through a window and threatening his patron. Soon his tantrums veer to what seems like concern for NYC’s streetbound winos, as moody keyboards blare on the soundtrack. From here, Ferrara shoves the focus to pre-Giuliani Manhattan in an attempt to channel Travis Bickle’s disillusionment, putative means to fuel Reno’s spree with a drill and battery pack. Logic goes right out the window when the Driller Killer turns his unlikely weapon upon the bums he had just pitied, before he seeks further revenge. I’m sure the father of “Bad Lieutenant” would argue that madness has no clear methods.
A loopy plot trail leads us to Ferrara’s attempt at creating a cult psycho. His lack of commitment to his creation, haphazard and impulsive as Reno’s first plunge into a victim, suggests that the filmmaker was distracted by his own future aspirations. The film’s trademark image – Ferrara quaking in ecstasy while getting showered in blood – would surely pique slasher fans, while they’d be puzzled by the film’s extensive footage of a pathetic new wave band. (Ferrara was responsible for their nauseating songs.) We can’t fault the director for trying to find his voice, but the tones often hit an irksome pitch, until we’re (eventually) served delightfully goofy hits of the killer’s revolving plunge.
Cult Epics’ basic DVD set is aimed at late-night viewing, the only time to screen a film like this. A commentary track by Ferrara is as loose-cannon and illogical as the accompanying film, as he interrupts commentary of a scene to muse, like a jazz deejay, about some related memory. Zaniness is spread throughout the package, though it ain’t quite zany enough.