The 1979 exploitation film The Driller Killer represented a curiously logical progression in the career of Abel Ferrara after a number of years directing softcore porn. The ejaculative violence of his first narrative film is an obvious bridge, what with the many scenes of thick red paint spurting from the penetrations of the protagonist’s phallic drill. But what makes the film so remarkable is the extent to which Ferrara, even at the outset of his career, exploits sex and violence for their popular appeal even as he reflects on the effect of such subjects on both his own art and the culture at large.
The director himself plays Reno, an artist struggling to pay the rent for his dismal New York City loft. We meet Reno mired in squalor, visiting a church with a crucifix lit in a preposterous shade of red. Seated on a nearby pew is an elderly, bearded man who looks like an immortal sage. Reno slinks toward this wizened figure, only to shrink away in horror after touching the old man and realizing that he’s homeless. The entirety of The Driller Killer hums with the power of Reno’s fear and loathing of derelicts, in no small part thanks to his own justifiable terror of being put out on the streets himself. As Reno struggles to complete a painting that he hopes will get him enough money to keep a roof over his head for even another month, he begins to hallucinate visions of violence that culminate in a murder spree.
As a chronicler of New York’s grimy streets, Ferrara has earned many comparisons to Martin Scorsese, and certainly there are numerous similarities between The Driller Killer and Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But Ferrara’s style is more primal and direct than Scorsese’s. In an early shot of Reno and his girlfriend fleeing into a cab to escape the homeless man in the church, another derelict seems to emerge from thin air to clean the window of the stopped taxi, and the gaunt man’s haunted stare into camera effectively blurs the line of reality. Scorsese scored his dingy bars and streets to the sounds of the Rolling Stones and Bernard Herrmann, but Ferrara draws from the sludgy noise of the city’s No Wave scene, using the repetitive riffs and nihilistic drawls of the band that lives in Reno’s building as both a running soundtrack and an impetus for the protagonist’s breakdown. This is raw filmmaking, not without artifice but consistently molded toward terrifying immediacy.
There’s also the extent to which Ferrara’s self-casting opens up paths to auto-critique. Scorsese may occasionally implicate himself in his films, but Ferrara directly holds himself up for analysis. As an actor, he’s not much of a screen presence, all half-intelligible muttering and shifty-eyed discomfort, but he nonetheless lays down the blueprint for future collaborations with far more accomplished thespians. In Ferrara’s wayward delivery and unpredictable, spasmodic body language are the seeds of a style that squares broad genre acting with the chaotic honesty of John Cassavetes’s work. Reno is the Nosferatu of Mulberry Street, slinking around in search of redemption before falling prey to his bestial instincts, and in his belligerent violence is an angry cry for the inability of the honest artist to survive, and of the inevitability that a violent world will corrupt those who attempt to document it creatively.
Arrow’s Blu-ray not only comes with the theatrical and slightly longer pre-release versions of the film but also full-frame and 1.85:1 widescreen editions of each cut. All four restorations bring out a surprising amount of color depth and texture in this scuzzy, no-budget quickie. Grain is healthily distributed throughout, and the gauzy, dirty neon of New York’s faded signs pops off of stagnant curb water. There’s no masking the inherent limitations of cheap 16mm stock that was used to make the film, and there are occasional instances of lines and debris, but it’s now easier to appreciate more than ever before Abel Ferrara’s innate eye for composition and the complexity of his ostensibly naturalistic direction. The mono track contains inevitable traces of tinny, flat fidelity, but often it boasts surprising depth as well as exaggerated blasts of noise in the screaming sound of Reno’s power drill.
Ferrara is one of the most colorful filmmakers working today, and his commentary track for the theatrical version of the film is a must-listen. Joined by Brad Stevens, author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, Ferrara is characteristically matter of fact, thoughtful, and thoroughly brash. In an era where you can practically hear PR agents hissing just out of earshot of any interview that an artist gives, Ferrara’s complete, frankly ill-advised honesty is joyous. The disc also comes with a separate Ferrara interview, as well as a video essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that finds the commonalities in the director’s strange career, even sussing out the thematic seeds shown in his early shorts and porn films. Unlike the old Cult Epics DVD of The Driller Killer, Arrow’s release doesn’t come with those shorts, but it does include Ferrara’s 2010 documentary Mulberry Street, a terrific, rambling journey through the Little Italy neighborhood that’s Ferrara’s home turf and frequent shooting location. Frankly superior to the feature presentation, the documentary is the clearest revelation of the genuine humanity and honesty that underpins even the director’s most nihilistic work. A booklet contains essays from Stevens and critic Michael Pattison that cover the film and its role in Ferrara’s career, as well as notes on the differences between the film’s theatrical and pre-release cuts.
Abel Ferrara’s grisly exploitation feature belies an iconoclastic vision that’s all the more easily spotted in Arrow’s gorgeous 4K restoration. The inclusion of an engaging audio commentary and the excellent documentary Mulberry Street makes this the finest Ferrara home-video release to date.