Abel Ferrara is a New York filmmaker through and through. He's at his best when he's given the gritty streets and alleyways of his youth as a canvas upon which to paint his dark and depraved tales of life in the rotten core of the Big Apple. From the dopesick vampires of The Addiction to the corrupt cop of his masterpiece, The Bad Lieutenant, New York is just as pivotal a character as any actor in his films, and this is, perhaps, best realised in his first film, 1979's quasi-slasher, The Driller Killer.
Reno Miller (Ferrara, credited as Jimmy Laine) is a struggling artist on the verge of his first big sale. For months he's been slaving away at his masterpiece, emotionally absent from his relationship with live-in love, Carol (Marz), who, meanwhile, is weighing the options between supporting Reno's artistic endeavors or returning to her ex-husband. When a group of musicians move into Reno's building and begin to infringe on both his privacy and creativity, something within him snaps, and he finds himself plagued by violent visions which he soon gives in to. Armed with a power drill and a battery pack, Reno takes to the streets of the city, taking out his inner-turmoil on the legions of homeless drunks that plague his neighbourhood. As his madness grows, so too does Carol's impatience with him, and Reno soon finds his life in shambles, propelling him further into the depths of his cathartic murderous rage.
Shot on super 16mm, and rife with the pops, hisses, grain, and artifacts inherent to the stock, The Driller Killer is equal parts slasher flick and art film. Visually, it's one of the most honest depictions of late 1970's New York you're bound to see. Shot with a cinema verite' style reminscent of a guerilla documentary film, it's got an intensely personal look that draws the viewer in to Reno's world, even if we don't quite believe what we see once we're there.
The film's main problem is that Reno's descent into madness is too quick, and lacks any believable impetus to lead the man to do what he does. Then, when he does snap, he chooses to victimise people who've done him no harm over those who've lead him to this in the first place. It makes Reno a completely unsympathetic character, so that when his world does indeed fall apart, the viewer is simply not surprised, nor do we care. Of course, seeing as how this is Abel Ferrara we are talking about, this is most likely exactly how he wants us to feel.
Cult Epics presents the film in a 2-Disc Limited Edition set that features a widescreen version of the film, commentary by Ferrara, and trailer on the first disc, and a collection of four short films by Ferrara on the second disc that also feature an optional commentary by the director.
The Driller Killer isn't a great slasher film, by any means, but it's the unflinching honesty of it's portrayal of New York's darker side, as well as the first dose of Ferrara's visually uncompromising style, that make it an important one.