MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
You’d think a film called The Driller Killer (now playing on MUBI for the next thirteen days) would be fairly straightforward. The blunt title states in quite plain terms that the film will deal with a killer whose weapon of choice is a drill. And fear not. There are a ton of blood drill-related murders to enjoy. But the film is so much more than that.
The Driller Killer defies expectations right off the bat with a title card instructing viewers “This film should be played loud”, not the kind of thing one usually sees in front of your typical exploitation slasher. And sure enough, the film is partly a musical, focusing a fair amount of time on a subplot involving a punk-ish band called The Roosters. None of them get drill killed, yet we still follow them as they rent a practice space, break in some new singers, work on their album and play a show.
The Roosters live in the same building as our protagonist Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara himself, though credited as Jimmy Laine), a painter who is struggling with a number of issues - he can’t pay his bills, he’s having trouble finishing his latest painting, his girlfriend is getting money from strange places, HER girlfriend is a ditzy mess, his city is a cesspool, and the band in his building plays night and day.
Eventually, and without much transition, Reno snaps and starts killing homeless people with a drill attached to a portable power source. While this is where we find the horror elements viewers presumably bought tickets for, The Driller Killer’s violence feels extremely removed from the film’s real narrative. This appears to be by design, as Ferrara presents these murders almost as though they are Miller’s nightmares instead of reality. And until the more personal killings that close the film, maybe they are. Ferrara’s direction and editing is blunt. He doesn’t ease us into these murders. They just happen, dropped in between scenes of Reno’s regular life. He goes on angry tirades and sees visions of himself covered in blood, but the actual core of his character doesn’t seem capable of these crimes. He’s just a guy trying to keep his crazy life together and get some work done.
And yet he murders the hell out of people. The violence in The Driller Killer is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious all due to one detail - the drill itself. Rather than give his killer a frightening and phallic weapon of terror (á la Amy Holden Jones’ Slumber Party Massacre), Ferrara’s drill is equipped with almost the smallest bit in the tool kit, an entirely different kind of phallic symbol and one perfectly suited to this character.
Reno really has to work to kill these folks, and his victims appear to expel some effort of their own in dying. One frequently wonders why they don’t just knock the thing out of his hand and slap him around a little. Meanwhile, Reno kills with comic glee - chasing bums around pillars, jumping into frame out of nowhere to needle them a few times, and taking childish extra jabs into them after they’re already dead, comedy at its darkest pitch.
The film lives and dies with Ferrara’s performance as Reno. Equally dangerous and adorable, Ferrara manages to seem totally authentic and of a piece with his scummy New York surroundings, even when his line readings (the film’s dialogue was apparently heavily improvised) defy any sort of naturalism. He has that John Lurie quality of being both alluring and gross, and it’s a shame he didn’t act more in his younger days (though you can sure see a lot of him in his smutty debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy).
The Driller Killer is utterly unique, both in general and for Ferrara. Yes, it’s horror but it’s also a comedy and a musical. Above all, it feels purposeful and thought through despite its trappings as a barely scrapped together, lo-fi New York slasher film. I love it, and as I mentioned before, it’ll be on MUBI for the next thirteen days. Use it to throw a little variety into your Halloween marathons.