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The Driller Killer (1979)


Driller Killer poster
96 minutes
Cast and Crew
Production Company

I can remember the first time I saw this, and I wasn't expecting much. I was anticipating a poorly acted exploitation movie. Good for a few laughs, maybe some halfway decent gore effects. Instead, what I found was a suprisingly deep character study of a budding serial killer. The director, Abel Ferrara, went on to make many other good films following this one. But none of them, with the exception of Ms. 45, packed such a punch.

The story involves an artist who lives in a run-down New York apartment with his girlfriend. He isn't successful at what he does. He's attempting to complete his latest painting, and the bills are piling up. His relationship is hanging by a thread. A loud band moves in directly above his apartment. And in the midst of these factors, he begins to slowly lose his mind.

The main focus of this film is the artist's worsening mental stability. Viewers expecting a gorefest from the word go are likely to walk away dissapointed, and I believe that one of the most serious flaws of this film is its title. It sets the expectation for a completely different type of movie. There are graphic murders, of course, but they aren't going to happen for awhile. Ferrara is much more interested in putting you inside this guy's head, so that you have a front-row seat when the first homicidal tendencies begin to take shape.

If I remember correctly, it wasn't the original plan for Ferrara to play the lead for this film. Whatever the circumstances were that led to this, it was a good thing. As the director, he understood this character forwards and backwards, and it shows. Every note of his performance rings true. There is one scene early in the movie where he is working on his painting. The girlfriend suggests that he simply call his agent, because the painting looks like it's done. He responds to this remark with a lengthy verbal attack of barely contained fury. It does a perfect job of capturing his current mindset, and it makes his later actions entirely believable.

Driller Killer is far from perfect. The pacing is occasionally uneven, and the scenes don't always flow and build on each other like they could have. There were several points, including a lesbian shower scene, that had me scratching my head and wondering if was watching the same movie. But these faults don't obscure the serious talent that was driving this project, and in the end what we have is a thoroughly disturbing ninety-minute experience. Enjoy.