When I think of sweaty, greasy, dirty, possibly heroin addicted, unhinged Noo Yawk filmmakers from the late seventies-early eighties, I naturally think of Abel Ferrara. And then when I get to thinkin' about Abel Ferrara, I start thinking about Harvey Keitel's naked ass in Bad Lieutenant. Well, Driller Killer is sans Harvey's naked ass, but it does have some thrills and good times (and some unreconciled issues!), in a seedy grindhouse sort of way.
Ferrara's a double threat in Driller Killer, directing the film and playing main character Reno, a starving New York artist struggling to make ends meet. Reno has been busy perfecting his masterwork - a giant painting of a buffalo (which incidentally looks like it should be on black velvet). It's been a struggle getting this buffalo juuuuust right and the bills haven't gotten paid. Carol, Reno's girlfriend, and Pam, Carol's girlfriend, live with Reno and do basically nothing but run up the bills and complain about when the buffalo is gonna get finished. As patiently as possible, Carol pays the rent with an alimony check from her husband, who is still trying to get her to come back to him.
If the women and landlord and telephone company all being on his case ain't enough, Reno has to contend with the garage band, Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters (yes, seriously, that is their name, I had to back up the DVD twice to make sure I heard it correctly), that's moved in underneath him practicing at all hours of the night. Distracted as ever, Reno appeals to the landlord to no avail, but the landlord does bestow upon him a dead skinned rabbit, one he was cutely feeding cucumbers in a prior scene. Reno takes the rabbit back upstairs and runs a knife along it, then starts stabbing it maniacally. Stressed much, Reno?
After seeing a commercial for a power pack - a device that allows the user to operate any plug-in device without the plug-in - Reno heads off to the hardware store to get one to operate the drill. At least, I'm assuming that's his thinking, after the incident with the rabbit. See, there was already a drill in the house, because towards the beginning Reno helped a strung-out chick who was inexplicably in their apartment drill an arbitrary hole in the pantry door, after some painful deliberation upon its placement. About the thirty-minute mark, things start to get little confusing. Since some of it is so dark, the copy has been public domain for awhile, and parts of it were supposedly shot in 1977 and then other parts shot in 1979, it's difficult to discern sometimes what happened/is happening.
Anyway, it's safe to assume Reno is becoming a little unhinged - he starts hearing ghostly voices and decides it's best to get out the drill and do a little homeless killin.' His first kill is a bum he previously tried to council, telling him - 'why don't you get off the street, man? Go home to your girlfriend'. Oh, you don't have a girlfriend because you're a bum. It went a little something like that. It's a pretty bloody mess and has a certain realistic quality to it, like most of this.
After Reno gets his first taste of murdering the homeless by power tool, there's really no stopping him, and he goes on a rampage wearing some tight red pants. The Roosters keep right on practicing their horrible brand of punk rock. They practice A LOT. (Every other scene is literally a shot of them practicing.) But there's a job to do and despite all the distractions, Reno manages to complete the buffalo (although it really looks no different from when we first see it), and invites his art dealer over to see it. Behold!
The words 'unacceptable', 'mockery', 'work of unadulterated ego', 'waste of time', and 'worthless' are all used to describe the poor buffalo and the art dealer leaves in a huff. Carol flips her shit, and starts screaming at the art dealer and I almost (almost) feel a little bit sorry for Reno (and Pam). Carol then decides she's had it with the starving artist and returns to her husband.
So his woman left him, his art dealer called him mean names, what's there left to do but play with a light saber toy in the dark, answer a non-ringing phone and have an imaginary conversation with your ex, and kill, kill as if you're life depended on it! Kicking it up a notch, Reno decides to call the art dealer over for dinner, but not before donning a face full of makeup and an outfit of tight women's clothing, and of course, his power pack and drill, so he's ready when that son of a bitch who renounced his mighty buffalo gets there.
Now, you might be asking yourself, why would the art dealer come back over to the apartment after he got all pissy about the painting, calling Reno and the buffalo all sorts of ugly names and storming out? There was a early scene, between Reno and Pam, about the art dealer's sexuality. Pam urges Reno to have sex with the art dealer; it could help Reno's artistic career. She says something like, 'use KY, it won't hurt. I know this.' Reno denounces her and figures he'll get famous on his own abilities, rather than a casting couch type situation. Sooooo, when Reno calls the art dealer back over, I think it's strongly alluded to that their may be sexy times in the art dealer's future on the part of Reno.
I might just be imagining all this (because I'm always thinking about sex), but there are some sexuality issues here. All of Reno's victims are males. He does kill Pam at the end, however, Pam is bisexual based on her relationship with Carol, as well as her coming onto Tony Coca-Cola and eventually sexing him. Reno's initial victims are homeless men. Perhaps it's just a matter of accessibility; he must kill someone (the 'disposable' homeless) because of his burgeoning insanity, and the majority of the homeless are men (at least in Reno's neighborhood), and perhaps he's sane enough to realize he does care about Pam and Carol enough to not kill them. Is Reno a closeted homosexual? Well, is he? I really only mention it because, you know, you watch a lot of horror movies, women are usually the victims. Especially when a killer wielding a phallic instrument, such as a drill, is involved. (Ferrara plays with genre gender conventions again in Ms. 45, a superior Ferrara film and favorite here at the Cavalcade.) I won't get into a long drawn out literary analysis here, but it did intrigue me. Driller Killer is a seemingly gritty inept grindhouse feature on the surface, but a complex (?) gender and sexuality study beneath. But isn't everything? :P And chock one up for a random lesbian shower scene thrown in there!
Don't get me wrong, this thing has an extremely labored pace, much akin to actually descending into madness, is my guess. And the quality of the print I watched was horrible. And there was a thunderstorm raging outside and scaring me and the power was flickering on an off so I had to keep restarting the damn thing, so I think I missed a scene or two. And the continuity is terrible, even without the power going out. (For instance, Carol's husband is named Peter in the beginning; Stephen by the end.) But if you get through it, there's enough here to entertain and perplex. You'll be scratching your head over why The Roosters have so many groupies.
In closing, I will leave you with this line of dialogue, spoken by Pam, which can easily be appreciated out of context, since there was no prior context in the film anyway - 'You don't have to kiss to make babies. I told him, you gotta fuuuuuck.'