Throwback Thursday: The Driller Killer (1979)

This is it, kids, this is the Big One. This is the movie that started the entire Video Nasties era in England. The irrational fear and wanton censorship of horror movies that inflamed and enraged Great Britain in the late 1970s and into the ‘80s literally kicked off with Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Driller Killer.’ The film’s lurid cover art and terrifying concept, telegraphed by the movie title, were enough to bring an entire nation to its moralistic knees.

That’s really funny, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, because the movie pretty much sucks.

‘The Driller Killer’ concerns an artist (portrayed by director Ferrara under the pseudonym Jimmy Raines) who, after some initial success, is working on his next big project. The artist has a girlfriend (Carolyn Marz) who has a girlfriend (Baybi Day) and they all live together in a crappy loft in New York City, back in the ’70s, before it got Giuliani-ed and Disney-fied. These are dangerous times with sketchy people in a dark part of town.

The artist is having a difficult time dealing with all the distractions in his life. The city is loud. The girls are whiny. There’s never enough money and his agent won’t give him any more upfront money. That’s enough to make anyone lose a little focus. It all really starts to go downhill when a no-wave band called The Roosters moves in right upstairs. They live there, they practice there and they are loud. They’re also not very good. There is no peace for this tortured artist. He begins seeing visions of himself raging, covered in blood.

The final straw comes late at night while the artist is watching television. He sees a commercial for something called a Porta-Pak, a battery pack worn like a belt that allows the wearer to plug anything in. You could walk around the house running a blender if you had the urge to do that. Of course – the main thing all power tools need is power. Technology has provided our budding madman with the last piece of the puzzle.

It wouldn’t be much of a movie if our anti-hero didn’t drop a couple of screws somewhere and start drilling people. He certainly does that, but the question is, will you care?

‘The Driller Killer’ is really anything but a horror film, although it does play by most of the standard horror tropes. This is a slow-decline tale, where we watch the killer slide down the slippery slopes of morality and sanity into madness and oblivion. It isn’t a particularly entertaining slide. The timing is right, though. He doesn’t suddenly turn into a madman; the pacing of his madness is good. The problem is, the artist is not a particularly likable character anyway. There’s no pathos to his madness and we feel neither empathy for him nor real fear of him.

Besides being a chronicle of the main character’s slow decline, ‘The Driller Killer’ also functions as an oddly fascinating time capsule. This is New York in the aftermath of the punk and new-wave movements, when the artistic underground was really in flux. The struggle between what was truly artistic and what would pay the bills was primary; everybody wanted the cash but nobody wanted to be branded as a sell-out. In that gritty, grimy New York scene, everyone was looking for the one big thing. ‘The Driller Killer’ shows that part of the artistic underground very well, almost to the point of being documentarian. But since this is supposed to be a slasher flick and not a travelogue, the message feels admittedly mixed

Kudos to Ferarra’s prescience! He predicted the existence of battery operated power tools long before toolmakers saw the benefits of them. The Porta-Pak is the future. Unfortunately, nothing else in the story counts as quite that ambitious or well-done. We’ve all seen guys go crazy in the movies before. This is old territory for the viewer. Nothing terribly new or unique here, move along.

Throwback Thursday: The Driller Killer (1979)

So why was this overwrought drama with a couple of kill-shots enough to make an entire country mad? I just don’t know. The violence is actually pretty underdone. It isn’t intensely graphic; the decade had already seen much worse in the cheerfully low-budget splatter films of H.G. Lewis. You’re not going to find intestines wrapping around whirring drill bits like spaghetti in this movie. You’re gonna find a screaming guy with a drill plugged into his belt making tiny, barely bleeding holes in people. Really, with all the meandering ‘The Driller Killer’ subjects its audience to, I don’t know how England stayed awake long enough to be offended.

‘The Driller Killer’ is nowhere near as graphic as it wants you to believe it is. It functions as some kind of twisted love letter to New York, to that underground DIY ethic, to poverty, filth and degradation. That’s fine, but it certainly isn’t a horror film. If you just want to see peoples’ dreams fall apart and the madness that accompanies the loss of hope and self-control, there are better choices. May I suggest ‘Requiem for a Dream?’ More tragic, more graphic (Jennifer Connelly, last ten minutes, Japanese businessmen, nudge nudge, wink wink).

‘The Driller Killer’ doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. It isn’t a bad movie; it just doesn’t know what it wants to be. I don’t see it as a horror movie at all. It seems like a precocious IFC documentary or something you would find on The Travel Channel late at night. For a movie that sparked such a wave of incendiary debate and argument, ‘The Driller Killer’ fizzles out in a big hurry.