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Schlock & Awe: THE DRILLER KILLER

Schlock & Awe: THE DRILLER KILLER

Friends and regular readers of Schlock & Awe, this week we’re heading back down that fertile cinematic path that leads to the Video Nasties: 72 movies deemed obscene and unfit for rental in Britain in the ’80s. The idea of prosecuting a movie for its content seems absurd to me and it’s my goal to watch these movies and find out if they do indeed warrant such stigma. I’ve already covered such trashy gems as The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Eaten Alive, The Burning, and Anthropophagus.

This week, friends, we’re talking about 1979’s immortal The Driller Killer.

Of the 72 movies labeled “video nasties,” 39 of them were successfully prosecuted under Britain’s obscenity laws and were banned outright, some later released with cuts and some released uncut many years later. The Driller Killer was banned in 1984, released with 54 seconds cut out in 1999, and eventually released uncut in 2002. But, again, that was just in Britain; in the U.S. nobody gave a shit and it was released uncut always. And, to be fair, the movie has a lot of violence and blood, but I think it’s not quite as gory as the kind of movies that usually resulted in banning. If anything, the movie’s uncomfortable, sleazy, trashy look and tone are what contributed most to its controversy. It’s definitely not a pleasant movie to watch.

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Directed by Abel Ferrara, who’d go on to more reputable rough indies like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, The Driller Killer is a very gritty portrait of insanity and the bohemian lifestyle in the late-70s New York art scene. There’s a punk quality to the movie, both in attitude and the fact that nobody in it knows how to act. At all. It didn’t stop them from making a movie, though.

Ferrara himself, using the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, stars in the film as Reno Miller, an artist in New York who’s struggling to finish his latest painting, and steadily losing money in the process. He lives with his girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) and a super weird punk girl named Pamela (Baybi Day), who’s Carol’s lover. Every little thing gets on Miller’s nerves, not least of which being the phone bill, and the three-months-late rent.

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To make their living situation more irritating, the vacant apartment below gets rented out by a No Wave band that likes to rehearse loudly at all hours of the night. Reno complains, but it seems he’s the only one who’s bothered by raucous noise rock. Reno begins having strange hallucinations about Carol with her eyes gouged out, and other pictures of death and decay. He’s transfixed by a commercial for a portable battery back for hardware, specifically large drills (we see him using a drill at the beginning of the movie). He begins using the device and his trusty drill to kill vagrants in and around his building, seemingly without any repercussions.

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Reno really breaks down when the art dealer who had commissioned his latest piece sees it and utterly hates it, calling Reno a loser and a has-been. Carol has a huge reaction, but Reno just sits stunned. This, naturally, translates to a murder spree where Reno drill kills a ton of vagrants, and eventually he invites the art dealer back over, for a case of drill killing. Carol, it seems, also is attempting to patch things up with her ex-husband Stephen, which very likely won’t sit well with Reno, will it? Who’s safe with a driller killer out drilling and killing?

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The Driller Killer is an intensely weird movie. I’d seen it when I was in college, but it moved a little slow for my liking (and not enough rampant gore, to be honest). Now, I’m baffled by how shoddy it appears, and how meandering and needless a lot of the plot is. Ferrara’s character is loud and rambling in his anger and disdain, and comes across like a nutcase who’s complaining about “the man” keeping him down. The thread about the band also comes from nowhere and goes nowhere — it only contributes to Reno’s slowly unraveling world…at least, all these things are true until you recognize one very important factor:

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The movie opens with the above caption, “This Film Should Be Played LOUD.” I was fascinated by it, and for the first few minutes I was confused about why it needed to be played loud. Was this just a pretentious first-time director trying to make a cool, edgy statement with his trashy horror movie?

It wasn’t until the appearance of the No Wave band that it hit me: this movie is a No Wave movie. No Wave music was an avant-garde movement borne out the punk scene in New York in the late ’70s. The music was a bunch of people who had just as little talent as the early punks but also no regard for musical form. Say what you will about the Ramones, but they put together songs — No Wave bands had minimum song structure and were a cacophony of distorted guitars, growling basses, and arrhythmic drum beats.

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So, the movie is just a horror film version of No Wave music. The plot meanders with little pace, there are interruptions of nightmare sequences that look like they were edited with a band saw, there are loud musical performances that go on forever, and the sequences of violence are almost never set up with tension or scare tropes. More often than not, Reno just comically pops into the frame and starts drilling. It made me laugh a few times, and I’m not sure that wasn’t the point. It made me appreciate The Driller Killer a lot more, though I would never say I liked it.

Does The Driller Killer deserve its title of “Video Nasty?” Well, it was a video and it was pretty nasty, but the murdering in it, despite the amount of gore, is certainly not as objectionable as some. It’s as if Herschell Gordon Lewis made a noise rock version of Rent. So, like, if that’s your thing, there you go.

Images: Cult Epics


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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