Wednesday, August 22, 2012

B-Movie Review: "The Driller Killer" (1979)

It’s a lot like “Three’s Company”…only with WAY more lesbianism and dudes running around killing homeless people with battery-operated power tools

One of my least favorite things in the world are movies with really nondescript titles. For example, a movie called “Courageous” or “Hero” or “Warrior” could really be about anything, so if you never caught a trailer or got a good look at the movie’s DVD box art, you truly have no idea WHAT you’re getting into.

Then, there are films whose titles leave ZERO questions as to what the contents of said film are. “Bloodsucking Freaks,” “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”…with flicks of the like, NOBODY feels like they’re getting misled as moviegoers. And with that in mind, I’ll give you two guesses as to what Abel Ferrera’s 1979 cult-classic “The Driller Killer” is about.

If the name Abel Ferrera sounds a little familiar to you, it’s because he’s the director of such illustrious works as “Ms. 45” and “Bad Lieutenant” - the rare kinds of films that seem to be revered by both snotty high-art crowds and scummy degenerate cinema fans in equal proportions. “The Driller Killer,” one of Ferrera’s earliest legit films - before that, he was making low-rent XXX features starring his own girlfriend - is a public domain flick, and a movie that’s garnered a pretty sizable cult-following over the years. And while it’s clearly a B-movie through and through, it’s actually a film that teeters on the brink of being a straight-up GOOD low budget horror flick and not just hyper-exploitative sleaze and cheese. And if absolutely nothing else, it’s a WAY better movie than any film called “The Driller Killer” has any right to be.

The film begins with one of the most awesome title cards ever; a single screen shot that advises theater owners to play the film, and I quote, “loud.” There’s definitely a certain punk aesthetic to the film…and that’s something that, as you will soon see, I mean quite literally.

After the proper credits, we’re introduced to the main character of the film, a guy named Reno, who bears more than just a passing resemblance to Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez. Anyway, he’s hanging out in a church, sitting next to this old bearded guy who kinda looks like the next-door neighbor in the first “Home Alone” movie. The old dude snaps on him all of a sudden, and Reno runs out of the church, screaming “he touched my hand!” like a nasally John Travolta before hopping in a taxi with his girlfriend. So, he and his GF talk for awhile, and then they start making out. They stop at a club - where really, really awful punk rock music is being played - and the girlfriend seems to pick up this one chick. Next scene, we are in an apartment, where Reno and the blonde chick from the club argue about how to drill holes in the wall. That may or may not be foreshadowing or allusion or some other bullshit term I picked up in seventh grade literature, by the way.

Apparently, Reno, his girlfriend and the girl from the club all live together in the same apartment, “Three’s Company”-style. They argue about bills, and Reno returns to his magnum opus - this giant-assed painting of a buffalo he’s been commissioned to create by some art dealer fellow. Reno plays around with the drill some more (Freudian scholars, you are going to LOVE this movie) and has nightmares about the old man from the church. We’re introduced to the art dealer that’s paying Reno to make the bison painting, and Reno asks him for a loan. After he turns him down, Reno decides to break out some binoculars and watch street muggings from the rooftop (complete with ample stock footage of ambulances, of course.)

Rare footage of Sonic Youth from when Tommy Tallarico was their frontman. 

So, this band called “The Roosters” move in next door. You know that’s the name of the band, which apparently has more members in it than The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, because those are the words spray painted on the side of their crappy rust-mobile. So, the brunette roomie (Reno’s girlfriend, Carol, who sounds just like Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth) argues with her boyfriend some more about money and the painting. Reno says all she ever does is “bitch and shit,” and then the blonde roommate (named Pamela) starts arguing with Carol because they don’t have any dope lying around the place. The band next door starts practicing, and Reno goes outside to sketch a few homeless people. In the next scene, the trio are sitting in their apartment, watching infomercials about this portable battery pack thingy. Well, I’m sure that’s not important to the plot of the movie or anything, right?

We get another scene featuring the punk band practicing, while Reno works on his bison painting at two in the morning. He starts having visions of blood splashing all around him, and then he goes outside to have a chat with a random homeless guy. We get some more band rehearsal, and then…BAM! FULL ON SHOWER LESBIANISM, OUT OF THE BLUE! Then, the background singers in the punk band start arguing, and Carol reads a letter from her ex-boyfriend, asking her to move back in with him. Cue ANOTHER BAND REHEARSAL SCENE. Reno complains to the super about all of the noise coming out of the apartment next door, but he says he can’t do anything about it. Instead, he gives Reno a skinned rabbit (which sort of looks like the baby from “Eraserhead,” by the way), which Reno takes back to his place and starts stabbing it like a guy that is really, really upset about stuff. Then, we have a scene where he just stares at a hardware store window. And then, his painting starts talking to him. Well, I think we all know where this headed, don’t we?

Reno has some more hallucinations, and he accosts some homeless dude on the street. They bicker for awhile, and then Reno whips out his BATTERY POWERED HAND DRILL and starts stabbing the dude in what has to be the most sexually suggestive on-screen death ever. I mean, the dude is pretty much RIDING him while he drills his stomach open, so…yeah, wake up the kids for this one!

BOO! It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but still...

After that, one of the girls in the band uncovers the rabbit carcass from earlier in the trash. She’s not too happy about it, as I’m sure you could guess. We have another rehearsal scene, and then the trio argue about going clubbing. Reno starts talking to his bison painting again, while The Roosters show up at their gig. The girls in the band argue in the bathroom, while Reno plays some pinball. The bandmates start putting on some make-up (the dudes, too) and the lead singer warms up by, apparently, speaking in tongues for about a minute and a half. Reno says that the club is too loud, while Carol tries to convince him to stay because they met at a similar bar. And after that, Reno goes on a hobo drilling spree, killing one dude while DANCING LIKE ONE OF THE BEE GEES and just flat out drilling a wino that waves at him. Reno chunks one of the corpses on the subway tracks, and we have a brief scene involving this one schizophrenic guy at a bus stop that keeps yelling at random pedestrians. Shortly thereafter, Reno shows up and drills him from BEHIND the Plexiglas terminal. And after that, that’s when the movie starts getting REALLY violent.

Before long, Reno is lumbering around the neighborhood, with his arms stretched out like Dracula and shit. He chases this one guy down, and finds another bum and DRILLS HIS FACE OPEN while he’s sleeping. After the mini hobo-massacre, Reno goes home, chugs some milk and beer and talks to this one guy, who apparently has the hots for Pamela. They talk about art for awhile, and he commissions Reno to do a self-portrait of him. Something tells me he’s REALLY going to regret that, for some reason or another.

Believe it or not, the dude in the background ISN'T the craziest person in the movie.

Carol reads about the hobo murders in the morning paper, and Reno, understandably, I guess, gets a little hostile. He and the roomies decide to have a pizza, which results in another argument, which segues to Reno beginning his portrait of that one guy from earlier (as fate would have it, he just so happens to be the lead singer of the band next door. Who’d thunk it?) The lead singer - a dead ringer for “Ducky” from “Pretty in Pink - plays the guitar for awhile, as some homeless guy sleeping in a box gets highly irritated by all of the commotion. We get a brief sex scene, which is followed up by a scene in which the homeless prowler gets his hands drilled to a brick wall before Reno scrambles his guts with a Black and Decker. Reno then sneaks into his roommates’ bedroom and tells them, not at all ominously, that his project “is finished.”

So, the art dealer gets his first peek at the bison painting, and he ain’t exactly pleased by the final product, calling it “shit” and just a “goddamn buffalo.” At this point, you just KNOW his death is going to be all kinds of exquisite. Carol just can’t take it anymore, and decides to run away. She and Reno have an argument in the street, Pamela does some sobbing and Reno goes home and starts playing with this extended, light-saber-looking flashlight thingy, before he starts having hyper-gory dreams again. Then, he calls up the art dealer, and say he has something that he wants him to “check out.” Nothing bad, surely, can come of this.

The protagonist of "The Driller Killer," seen here looking A LOT like Australian pop-sensation Gotye. 

We get our umpteenth band rehearsal scene, while Reno starts piling on the makeup (concluding his ritual by strapping on the battery pack a la “Rambo”.) The dealer shows up and…well, I’ll let you see what happens for yourself.

So, Pamela uncovers the art dealer’s corpse, and we cut to a scene where she’s bound and gagged. The screen fades out, and we now find ourselves with Carol, who has just moved back in with her boyfriend (who, judging from his General Zod-like regalia, just got back from Krypton.) He makes some tea while she showers, and what do you know! Reno decides to stop by and say “hello” for a bit. Get it, “bit”? Because drills have these things called “bits” and…well, yeah. So, Carol climbs out of the shower, slinks into her darkened bedroom and then…the credits roll. Band rehearsal music starts playing, which slowly transitions into elevator muzak over a blue screen, which then segues into the sound of homeless people begging for change on the streets. The film concludes with a message that may or may not be satirical; “Dedicated to the people of New York…the city of hope.”

Clearly not what she had in mind when he asked her if she wanted to "hang out" tonight...

Needless to say, this is one splatter flick that DEFINITELY deserves all of the acclaim and approbation it gets. It’s gruesome, yet good-humored, and there’s even a bit of character development in there before things get all stabby and intestine-covered. I’m not really sure if Ferrera was trying to make some sort of political or social point with the movie (is the whole thing about homeless rights, or consumerism, or the vapidity of punk culture, or the soullessness of modern art, or what?), but whatever his intent with the picture is, that message never gets so gummy that it keeps the onscreen mayhem from unfurling with a fury. Alike William Lustig’s legendary “Maniac” from 1980, this is a minor masterpiece of trash cinema, the kind of flick that’s persecuted by egghead film critics but will remain eternally beloved by obscure movie fanatics that, yeah, you probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, ever.

In other words? This flick is required viewing for all degenerate cinema aficionados - and if you watch it, you better take the director’s advice and watch this one L-O-U-D.

Three and a quarter stars out of Four. Jimbo says check it out.

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for No Wave Wednesday at

    Keep up the good work!


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