Driller Killer Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Reno (Abel Ferrara) is a man pushed to the edge by the economic realities of New York in the late ‘70s and the noise of the No Wave band practicing in the apartment below. His grip on reality soon begins to slip and he takes to stalking the streets with his power tool in search of prey…(From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Despite its salacious title, grotesque ad campaign, and late ’70s release date, Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer is not a slasher movie. This was a hard-learned lesson for many horror fans during the VHS era, who thought they were renting a kill-happy companion piece to Dennis Donnelly’s extra-sleazy Toolbox Murders (1978), and ended up with a depressing, arty, punk rock answer to the cinéma vérité nightmares of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Sure, Ferrara delivers a number of gory drill-related murder sequences, as well as some lusty lesbian sex scenes, but he uses most of the screen time to meditate on loneliness, artistic impotency, and the annoyance of living above a band that practices all hours of the night. This is all part of Ferrara’s original and subversive take on the genre, which pays homage to more ‘pure’ horror films (the power tool element is probably in reference to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre  and/or the aforementioned Toolbox Murders), satisfies the requirements of a genuine exploitation movie, makes fun of the obvious subtexts of such movies, and elevates the material by framing it in a very personal art-house context.
In terms of satirizing the implicit meanings of slasher and proto-slasher traditions, the drill itself is one of the more explicitly phallic murder weapons in the long history of phallic murder weapons. The Freudian inklings of Norman Bates’ butcher knife pale in comparison to a power tool that the titular killer uses while straddling and humping his victims. This metaphor is further literalized by the fact that Reno is sexually stifled and possibly even confused about his own gender identity. At home, he engages in a casual three-way relationship with a woman he cares for named Carol (Carolyn Marz) and a guileless roommate named Pamela (Baybi Day), who sleeps with Carol, but not Reno. This arrangement (which no one ever acknowledges is unusual) represents a distorted version of a nuclear family with Carol as the wife/mother and Pamela as the child. Throughout the film, Carol acts as breadwinner – something that challenges Reno’s manhood more than the lack of fidelity, because Reno actively avoids confronting his companions’ sexual connection. Then, during the climax, Reno dons make-up and drag to murder an art gallery owner, who he invites over in the guise of a homosexual encounter. Ferrara never seems fully invested or prepared to explore this aspect of the movie (Carol’s reconnection with her ex-husband certainly dulls its impact), but I highly doubt the longingly photographed lesbian sex scenes are merely crude exploitation-bait.
Driller Killer’s personal slant is the most interesting and, inevitably, its most often discussed aspect. There are many reasons why Reno becomes a merciless killer, from the incessant noise of the Roosters (the name of the band downstairs), to the harsh reality of urban decay, the aforementioned sexual frustration, and good old-fashioned psychosis. It’s difficult to point to any one of them as the culprit, especially when a mix of them appear to bring on his most violent outbursts. Essentially, this is a movie about Ferrara’s inability to make the kind of art that satisfies his unique standards. The director himself plays the title character – an artist whose lack of inspiration and who fears the poverty that creative sterility may bring (hence his murdering of homeless people) drives him to murder. This mirrors the frustration of a filmmaker forced to direct hardcore pornography (Ferrara’s first gig) and gore-soaked horror movies in order to facilitate any of his artistic needs. This theory works best at the end of the film, when the painting Reno has been slaving over is rejected by its prospective buyer and the final act turns into a series of hot-blooded revenge killings.
As I noted above, Driller Killer really rose to fame following its banned status in the UK, where a Vipco VHS tape will still cost you an arm & a leg. Here in North America, it was released by Magnum Entertainment (twice) and Wizard Video (on VHS and Beta). This led to several UK DVDs (from Visual Entertainment, ILC Prime, and Anchor Bay) and two different DVDs from Cult Epics in the US (a single-disc collector’s edition and a two-disc limited edition). Unfortunately, no matter how many times it’s re-released, it always seems to go out-of-print and the transfers have been problematic, due to varying aspect ratios and the condition of the 16mm original footage. Arrow has really gone the extra mile for the film’s Blu-ray debut. They scanned the 16mm negative at a 4K resolution and filled-in any missing footage with 35mm printed materials. The extensive restoration was approved by both Ferrara and director of photography Ken Kelsch. In the Blu-ray’s accompanying booklet, Arrow also notes that the negative they were using represented a pre-release edit of the movie. Running 1:40:52, it was about five minutes longer than the 1:35:51 theatrical cut that has been used for all previous video versions. They contacted Ferrara himself, who confirmed that he had removed the footage by choice and gave them permission to provide an option for fans to watch this longer version, despite it not being his preferred cut (there is a breakdown of the excised shots in the aforementioned booklet). Then, to make sure no one was left unsatisfied, they’ve included their remastered, 1080p transfer in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1. That’s two cuts and two aspect ratios, totaling four versions of the movie, derived from a single 4x3 remaster.
It seems clear to my eyes that the 1.33:1 framing was what Ferrara & Kelsch had in mind while shooting the movie. The 1.85:1 AR doesn’t block out any vital information, but it is uncomfortably tight and, of course, the already gritty 16mm grain is magnified when the footage is zoomed to fit the wider aspect ratio – not that grain is exactly a problem for these particular compositions and not that I would’ve really noticed its magnification if I didn’t have the 1.33:1 transfer to compare it to. Whichever transfer you prefer to view, there is no doubt that Arrow has juiced the negative for every ounce of detail available, vastly outdoing their standard definition competition without sacrificing the structure or texture of the original material. The colors are much more vivid than they’ve ever appeared on home video (especially those burning reds) and the contrast is better balanced than the overly dark DVDs. Print damage artifacts remain minimal throughout the entire film, consisting of the occasional white dot or blotch (a big blob of hair is stuck in the gate for one extended shot as well). The 35mm printed inserts are not particularly obvious. They’re probably the shots towards the end of the movie that feature black vertical lines.
Driller Killer opens with a crude title card that reads “This film should be played loud.” It’s easy to oblige the request with this Blu-ray’s new uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack. Due to the film’s low-budget, off-the-cuff production, the dialogue and incidental effects tracks are often muffled. Sometimes, this is the point, like during sequences where the Roosters’ raggedy No Wave sounds are overwhelming Reno’s concentration, but, other times, vocals are understandably fuzzy and flat. I’m not sure there’s anything Arrow could’ve done to clean it up. The live band pieces are very loud, but Joseph Delia’s synth and guitar soundtrack is the most intense aural element. The score flows from melodic mood music to utterly discordant cues, sometimes within a single sequence, and it eventually comes to represent the drill itself with a sort of electronic ‘machine gun’ noise.
Commentary by director and star Abel Ferrara (available only with the theatrical cut) – This is not the same track that was recorded for Cult Epics’ two DVD release, but a brand new Arrow exclusive track moderated by Brad Stevens, the author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (FAB Press, 2004). This incredibly informative track thrives on the difference in the commentators’ personalities – Ferrara’s jokey and confrontational New York-ness vs. Stevens’ charming, factoid-driven British-ness.
Laine and Abel: An Interview with The Driller Killer (17:31, HD) – Ferrara talks about his earliest memories of watching movies, making films as a student (including some footage from his first shorts), being influenced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre to make a cheap horror movie, developing the Driller Killer script, casting himself out of necessity, and the film’s place in his filmography.
Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101 (34:19, HD) – A new visual essay/career primer on the director’s films by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Cultographies: Ms. 45 (Wallflower Press, 2017). This scholarly approach to Ferrara’s brutal and intellectual filmography includes plenty of footage from his movies/television episodes/music videos (not all of it in HD, unfortunately).
Mulberry St. (87:52, HD, 2010) – At the end of the last decade, Ferrara made three documentary features – Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009), and Mulberry St., which is a portrait/ode-to the New York location that has played key roles in his life and movies. It’s not a typical retrospective with loads of video clips and talking heads, but a slice-of-life that mostly follows Ferrara along the street and into restaurants/shops as he talks to friends (some of them celebrities) and takes in the sights of a street festival. Eventually, he starts recalling some of his filming experiences on the block (along with clips from corresponding movies) and invites the camera crew into the studio while his band records some songs.
Like David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Driller Killer is a (non-pornographic) low-budget debut that tells audiences everything they’ll ever need to know about a future cult director. It’s not as complex or deep as Abel Ferrara’s later movies, but his favorite themes are all here. Arrow has gone all out for this release, including an extended cut option, a beautifully remastered picture (with two aspect ratio choices), and a collection of brand new extras. Fans might still want to hang onto their Cult Epics LE DVDs, though, for the exclusive commentaries and short films.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.