The Driller Killer (Blu-ray)Gordon Sullivan
It will shatter you!
One of the main problems with witchhunts is that they rarely stop with witches. Even starting from the best intentions can lead in some dark directions. Take the so-called “video nasties” scare in Britain. Ostensibly, there was a panic because the video market was unregulated, and anyone could put anything they wanted on a videotape and sell it to anyone else, even minors. The original list of “video nasties” included a diverse list of titles, ones that supposedly shared no redeeming value and a focus on violence. The film that supposedly kicked it all off was The Driller Killer, with its violent cover-art causing a panic amongst upstanding British folk. Almost 40 years later, and The Driller Killer is a lot weirder and more interesting than its legacy would suggest, even if it is probably isn’t quite as nasty as people thought in 1979. In either case, this Blu-ray edition is the definitive home-video presentation.
Reno Miller (writer/director Abel Ferrara) is a struggling artist in New York City who can’t make his rent. He’s trying to finish a painting so he can sell it settle his debts, but he shares an apartment building with a band that practices at all hours of the night. The various stresses gradually drive Miller insane, turning him into a Driller Killer.
The Driller Killer was marketed as a kind of slasher film, one related to the weapon-wielding stalkers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are, of course, superficial similarities. We do have a killer stalking a bunch of people in NYC, dispatching them in gory fashion as befits an urban slasher. But the film isn’t really a slasher film in the traditional mode.
Instead, The Driller Killer has a lot of other things for it. The most obvious is that it shares in Abel Ferrara’s trademark black humor. We’re not really supposed to take the film seriously as a vehicle for scares. This is obvious from the film’s opening scene, where Miller meets an elderly man in a Catholic church. The man turns out to be homeless, and he grabs Miller. From the start we know that something’s not quite right about the situation. But it’s also not a traditionally scary scene. Perhaps more importantly, the film makes us wait for the kills, which come much later in the film than in a typical slasher. When they do come, they’re over-the-top enough to be laughable rather than horrifying.
The film is also a delightful time capsule of New York City. Released originally in 1979, this was the post-punk NYC, the era before Times Square was renovated and turned into an annex of Disneyworld. This was the NYC where a young Madonna could move into a converted warehouse before making it big. The NYC where Basquiat and Andy Warhol and Sonic Youth rubbed shoulders. Where a guy like Miller, who isn’t really selling his paintings, can still live in an apartment in the city without selling his organs. It’s a grimy, cheap tribute a city that has all-but-vanished in the ensuing decades. Like other films (Basket Case, Street Trash), the film has an almost documentary value for showing us a vanished New York landscape.
The film gets a Blu-ray treatment worthy of its legacy. The first thing to note is that the film is available in four versions on this set. We get the traditional theatrical version, which is essentially unrated. But we also get the slightly long, pre-release version that was discovered when the original negative was being prepped for this release (it runs 5 minutes longer and doesn’t add too much). To please discerning cinephiles both of these versions are presented in 1.33:1/1080p and 1.85:1/1080 (AVC-encoded in both cases). Both look surprisingly good. The “theatrical” version is mostly taken from the original negative (with some interpolations from a print where the negative was damaged), and the pre-release version is also from the original negative. The main thing to note about the transfer is that it’s faithful. Shot on 16mm, The Driller Killer was always intended to look grimy and low budget. That vision is respected here. There is still some damage, but detail mostly goes towards ensuring the film’s grain is well-handled, as well as some nice texture to the 1970s clothing and locations. The color scheme skews a bit red, but that makes sense for a slasher-style film. Overall, this is probably as good as anyone can expect the film at this stage.
The film’s LPCM mono audio track does a fine job with the elements. Given the centrality of music to the plot it would be nice if the original elements had a bit more “oomph” to them, but this track respects the dialogue and music, never distorting or sacrificing clarity.
Extras start with a commentary on the theatrical version of the film with Ferrara. He’s talkative, opinionated, and knowledgeable about his own film and his influences. Ferrara appears again for a more recent interview running 18 minutes and covering a lot of info about his life and career. Ferrara also supplies a documentary feature about Mulberry Street, the location of the film. Scholar Alexandra Heller-Nichols provides a video essay that gives viewers an overview of Ferrara’s career and his obsessions as a filmmaker. The film’s trailer and a DVD copy is also included, as is a booklet with photos and info about the transfer.
If you’re looking for a more straightforward slasher picture, The Driller Killer isn’t for you. The film definitely has some gore and the basic elements of a slasher film are there. But you’ve got to wade through some weird narrative elements to get there, and the payoff might not be quite enough to justify sitting through the rest of the film’s plot to get to the “good stuff.”
The Driller Killer is not to everyone’s taste. It’s a low budget almost-slasher full of New York City locations and lots of black humor. For those who enjoy that kind of thing, this Blu-ray is the definitive edition to own.