In his 1979 film "The Driller Killer," Abel Ferrara sketches the life of a singularly unappealing painter who's driven to homicidal mania by the dirtiness, meanness and disruption of life in Manhattan. But not, like, "farmer's market and chain restaurants in Union Square" Manhattan as it exists today--this is the "trash in the streets and bums sleeping in the doorways of abandoned buildings in Union Square" Manhattan that resulted from the economic downturn of the 1970s. It's a place whose sense of menace was captured most famously in "Taxi Driver" and which struck a chord of dread in the hearts of many Americans at the time. The notion of escaping from New York in 2010 leaves the folks spending multiple thousands of dollars to rent apartments in Brooklyn scratching their collective heads, but when John Carpenter made a movie around that concept in 1980, it was a punchline that was appreciated internationally.
Real estate market and pervading economic conditions aside, people who live in New York can tell you that there's an echo of Ferrara's city that still exists today. The low points in the mood-swing cycle of city life don't feel so very distant from the garbage-strewn, threatening New York of "The Driller Killer." In the same way that "Ms. 45" shows the effect of overwhelming urban ugliness on its female protagonist, "The Driller Killer" shows an erosion of patience and eventual break with reality in its male lead. This is a loud, raw, angry film that's over the top in the manner of the best punk bands.
Reno Miller (played with seething oiliness by director Ferrara, who credited himself here as Jimmy Laine) is a painter living with his girlfriend Carol and her girlfriend Pamela, while working to put the finishing touches on a piece that he believes will be the pinnacle of his artistic career. His agent has cut him off from further advances in pay while Carol and Pamela continue to spend Reno's dwindling funds on phonecalls and partying. The final insult happens when Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, a punk rock band that Pamela follows, move into the apartment downstairs, practicing their abrasive, high-volume riffs day and night. Inspired by late-night teevee commercials for the Porto-Pack, a battery-powered gadget that allows its wearer to walk about freely while running electrical appliances, Reno hooks up his ominously-foreshadowed power drill and rampages through the city streets killing a host of derelicts before deciding to take things to a more personal level.
In addition to Ferrara's startlingly unhinged depiction of Reno Miller, there are several memorable performances from the supporting cast. Some may scoff at Baybi Day's turn as Pamela, but having known more than my fair share of drug-blitzed club kids and alternative fashion slaves, I've got to say that she's perfect in her doe-eyed lack of affect (to make no mention of her lack of good judgement). Also interestingly cast is real-life artist D.A. Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola (credited as Rhodney Montreal). He sneers authentically through his role, but perhaps his best contribution comes in the form of the paintings attributed to Reno. One of my frequent quibbles with movies that show artists is that they'll only show *one* painting, or an *inconsistent* series of paintings. In this case, there are numerous artworks glimpsed throughout the film, and they show a clear progression from psychedelic portraits through to Reno's (notably human-free) buffalo painting that he feels will be his masterwork.
"The Driller Killer" is a film that was destined to find its fanbase with cult film enthusiasts rather than with lovers of horror movies. It's clear from its iconic opening title card (shown above) that this is going to be the cinematic equivalent of the angry counterculture music that characterized its time. In spite of bearing a name that beckons to slasher fanatics and a spot on the UK's infamous "Video Nasties" list, "The Driller Killer" is a far more confrontational and challenging film than many will expect. The movie sports a similar pitch black satirical tone to its sister film "Ms. 45," exhibiting a nihilistic attitude to the everyday unkindnesses of just-above-poverty-line urban life. Its footing is firmly in the soil of punk rock and early new wave culture, eschewing the "tune in, turn on, drop out" attitude of the hippie generation in favor of an aggressive, often destructive, expression of frustration. The post-industrial landscape becomes a post-apocalyptic one and its inhabitants flail madly in their attempts to survive, let alone express themselves.
I've heard it hypothesized that the portrayal of Rome in Federico Fellini's films captures that city better and more richly than more literal, "realistic" interpretations. If that's the case, then I think Ferrara's depiction of New York City is the same--there's such a profound sense of place in these films that the story couldn't be uprooted and placed elsewhere without it making a significant impact on the narrative. The ghastly city streets should get top billing here.