The Driller Killer (1979)

by Jaime Grijalba.

This review is part of a survey of all the films that were labelled as “Video Nasties” in England.

The movie starts with a plea, a cry for attention, one that is not really original or innovative, but that strikes as something completely anarchic and almost mandatory. THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD. This isn’t the first time that a message like this has preceded the movie, but when looked in context for the rest of the plot of the movie, does it really have a purpose? Well, I can think of some elements that would require the loud volume, but in itself it seems more and more like a random statement, as if it were an announcement of the randomness that would continue, the anarchic features and plot devices that evolve into something that is strange, hypnotic in some way, but in the end it just ends up being dirty and barely recognizable when compared to other features that want to become something new or exciting in the new panorama of horror at that time.

I mean, this was released a year after ‘Halloween’ (1978), that in many ways managed to stir up a change in the way that horror movies worked in the future, kickstarting the slasher into a more coherent and beautiful shape than the earlier experiments had going for them. What did ‘The Driller Killer’ (1979) truly achieve? Is there a spiritual succesor in any way to the musings of anarchic camera movements, intercutting with footage of bad punk bands, with an aesthetic that is almost unbelievable unconvincing in the way that it creates a world on its own? Well, I could think of something, and that would be the Direct to Video, or Shot on Video features made by independent amateurs of the 80’s, and how their plots and elements of discourse are mostly strictly related to the crazyness present in this film.

But there are some obvious differences, specially because the anarchic elements of those movies are, most of the time, a cause of an inhability to watch beyond their own maimed and unprecise visions, in a way, it’s a result of their own sloppyness and faults, and not the work of belief of a director who was strictly perturbed by the life he was living in New York at that time, Abel Ferrara doesn’t play himself, but he is the protagonist of his own film about an artist that makes a product under pressure and finally cracks under the pressures of the ambience and society, taking a drill in his hand and then trying to put a hole in everything that bothers him.

So, are there any real reasons to play the film loud? Well, the quality of the film itself is not exactly the most desired, specially since the film (for some reason) has fallen out of copyright or didn’t have a copyright notice, thus falling into public domain, and hence available for anyone to make a copy of it, without any care taken towards the quality of the identifying elements, specially when it comes to the sound of the film, that is jambled and barely understandable at times. The punk soundtrack is barely understandable, specially when it comes to the lyrics of the songs that the band plays above our protagonist’s head and that make him go crazy (but strangely, never truly targeting the musicians themselves, and serving more as a soundtrack of his life, cutting randomly to bits and pieces of the song while he keeps on drilling the head of somebody that gave him a bad look in the street).

The film feels personal, and it tries hard to achieve some kind of mental status, as if it by playing it loud it would entrance the viewers into understanding the actions and the bloody violence that happens on screen, but whenever it tries to get to an interesting topic or plot element, it prefers to drill it to the ground, blasting us with the unhearable soundtrack or just filling us with pointless boring scenes, or atrocious acting from the bit players here and there, that for some may be the charm of the film on its own, but I was actually engrossed by the elements of barely audible speech that the protagonist managed to mutter here and there, how he managed to resist and survive everything that came unto him. But, for whatever reason, that keeps getting interrupted by other elements.

And I guess that’s what it comes down to, it feels so filled with other distracting elements, and yet at the same time all those elements are so fully devoid of any interesting ideas, that the movie becomes something empty, as if the whole thing was an exercise in style (it might as well be that), but in a style that no one dares to imitate except due to pure accident, clumsyness and unexpert hands. It’s own anarchic infusions are something that in the end feel tacked on, as in the same way they are over saturated in the context of the film, as even the main character can’t stand the over artistic indulgences in which everyone seems to drop into around him, and hence, his boss can’t stand his own artistic approach to the made by demand statue or whatever that thing ends up being.

The drilling of the mind of the people, or their stomach, may be seen as something more artistic, as if the art was in the hurt and the maim, but in the end it just feels as if it was the first prop that was around, or the thing that Abel Ferrara had in his hand when he was talking to someone and he got angry and thought: ‘hey, there COULD be a driller killer’.

I wish that I could like this movie more for its own artistic pretentions, but it ends up being a mess. But I don’t discard it as the rest of the fluff direct to video/shot on video horror schlock that was made in the 80’s as this has something of an art around it.

Sorry Steve.



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