The Driller Killer (1979)
By: Craig Villinger on January 13, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 94 minutes
The Movie
Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Alan Wynroth, Harry Schultz
Screenplay: Nicholas St. John
Country: USA
In the years since its original release Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer has been banned, censored, and even implicated in a real life murder or two, and now thanks to the wonderful medium of DVD and the folks from Umbrella Entertainment the film is once again easily accessible in Australia. However, after more than two decades of waiting can we finally watch the film in all its uncensored glory? Read on…

Ferrara directs and stars as Reno, a struggling New York artist with no discernable interest in the DIY handyman lifestyle and an incredibly annoying circle of acquaintances who are driving him up the wall. Struggling to put the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece (which to the untrained eye appears to be complete), Reno's tenuous grip on his own sanity is slipping fast thanks to his bitchy roommates and an overbearing landlord, while matters certainly aren't helped any by a perpetually practicing punk rock band who have just moved into a downstairs apartment. Occasional attempts to find solace and creative stimulation in the outside world prove futile too as Reno is constantly disgusted by the impoverished environment in which he is forced to live; with the sight of homeless alcoholics in particular a source of much distress. Soon enough our leading lad is having nightmares during the evening, and daytime hallucinations in which his paintings appear to talk to him, and all this eventually leads to a trip to the local hardware store and the acquisition of a new fangled portable power kit which allows Reno to run about using electrical devices wherever and whenever he wants. So, what comes next then? Well, with a title like The Driller Killer you don't exactly need to be Nostradamus to figure it out...

Occasionally compelling, but mostly just plain boring, The Driller Killer is a film which many of us have no doubt hunted down over the years based mainly on its sullied reputation alone. Here in Australia the film eventually found its way onto rental shelves in various truncated forms during the early eighties after our censors had previously banned it twice, while in the UK it was banned outright and is often cited as one of the main inspirations for the notorious 'Video Nasties' list. A track record such as this tends to elevate a films 'must have' status among cult/horror fans, and helped along by various video releases and poster artwork which played up its more gruesome aspects, The Driller Killer has earned itself a reputation it probably doesn't deserve, and almost certainly never asked for. And unfortunately for myself and many other viewers, it is this reputation that made the film such a letdown as The Driller Killer is in reality more of a laborious examination of one man's decent into insanity as opposed to the balls-and-all glorification of the protagonist's murderous actions that most of us were anticipating. Instead of well-paced outbursts of power tool induced mayhem we are subjected to other, more arduous set pieces such as Reno continuously losing his cool and whinging about anything and everything, repetitive band rehearsal footage, arguments, un-erotic make out sessions, more arguments, and some unsightly eating habits from Ferrara that were far more off-putting than any of the films gore effects.

That's not to say that The Driller Killer is a bloodless family friendly spectacle however; in fact, it's far from it. Although it takes a while to get to the good stuff, Ferrara does eventually stage several impressive kill scenes, and in its complete and uncut form The Driller Killer certainly has the ability to shock its audience. Unfortunately however if you happen to be watching the version currently under review you are NOT watching the complete and uncut print, because although no cuts were ordered by The Office of Film and Literature Classification, Umbrella Entertainment has obviously sourced their transfer from a censored release (most probably the UK Visual Entertainment disc) which is missing close to a minute of footage. The cuts consist mainly of gory close-ups during Reno's first kill, a later bus stop slaying, and the films most notorious sequence where Reno drills into a vagrant's forehead. The uncut version would have posed no problems with our local censors today, so the fact that Umbrella has given us an incomplete print here is a major disappointment. One can only hope that the sticker affixed to the font of the DVD case, which screams "Previously Banned. Now Released Uncut", was simply an oversight rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive prospective buyers. In addition, for some inexplicable reason much of the films closing credits sequence has also disappeared from this particular release.

Apart from the head drillings, the film doesn't have a whole lot to offer. As an actor, Abel Ferrara gives us a detestable lead character who quite frankly annoyed the shit out of me for much of the films duration, while the repetitive band rehearsal scenes, which feature the same riff being played over and over again, almost had me picking up a power drill and searching for the nearest vagrant myself. As a director however Ferrara shows a little more talent. His use of grimy New York locations and the almost documentary-style camera work created a suitably seedy backdrop for Reno's descent into madness, and the sensationally promoted kill scenes, while not entirely explicit, do highlight his resourcefulness while working with such a limited budget.

When approached as a character study instead of an exploitation film The Driller Killer might actually meet viewer expectations. Lacklustre for the most part, and often repetitive, the film is however still worth a look for the uninitiated, if only as a curio or an interesting example of the 70' style of no-budget filmmaking that has all but disappeared today, rather than a legitimately enjoyable filmic experience.
We could come up with several plausible excuses for the image quality on display here (age of the film, low budget, and all the rest) but to put it simply, The Driller Killer looks like absolute crap. The full frame transfer is softer than a 9th generation bootleg with drab colours and distinctly greenish blacks; however, excessive film grain and other distracting speckly artefacts occasionally conceal these imperfections.
"This movie should be played loud" says the on-screen text. A good idea in theory since the sound of a power drill entering a mans skull is best enjoyed at maximum volume , however cranking up the volume will also highlight the multitude of pops and hisses that can be heard throughout much of the films soundtrack. As with the video quality, we could roll out the excuses until the cows come home, but in all honesty the audio imperfections weren't a major distraction.
Extra Features
A five-minute introduction by film lecturer and author Xavier Mendik plays before the feature presentation. Mendik speaks with much enthusiasm and knowledge, and although he does tend to over-analyse the production his intro proves to be far more entertaining than the crass under-analysis you are currently working your way through. A Ferrara filmography and trailers for Candyman and Turkey Shoot round out this brief selection of extras.
The Verdict
The Driller Killer is a relatively boring film which will probably find its way into the average horror fans collection nonetheless based solely on its unsavoury reputation, however a distinct lack of quality extras, average audio/video quality, and an incomplete version of the film make this particular release from Umbrella one to avoid.

Those looking for the best release might want to check out the Cult Epics 2 Disc Limited Edition from the USA, which features a much cleaner looking uncut presentation as well as a host of supplementary features.
Movie Score
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