Release Date(s)1979 (December 13, 2016)
Studio(s)Rochelle Films/Navaron Films (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
Sometimes divisive, sometimes thought-provoking, Abel Ferrara is one of the most uncompromising filmmakers of any era. Mostly working independently, his films are often controversial. Such was the case with The Driller Killer when it was initially released in 1979. A gritty drama, with a terrific lead performance by Ferrara himself (under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine), the movie showcases a starving young artist with money and relationship problems. Eventually, the pressures of both trigger him to snap and he takes to the streets, murdering the homeless with no regard for the consequences, all while working to keep his deadly secret under wraps.
It’s common knowledge at this point that The Driller Killer was one of the first of the so-called British “Video Nasties” during the early 1980s (despite its non-controversial release in the U.S.). Because of this, the film’s content often gets built up in fertile young minds as something only grungy Mom and Pop video stores would keep under the counter or behind a curtain. Many of us, seeing The Driller Killer for the first time, expected a nasty, low budget horror film filled with over-the-top gore. Much to our dismay, it’s not that, causing some initial disappointment. Seeing it again more recently has only reinforced my belief that watching a movie under the wrong circumstances can alter the experience of it. Not only is it something else entirely, it’s better than I remembered.
The Driller Killer was the first of many New York dramas that Ferrara would make over the course of his career, but its authenticity to its time and place make it something a little more special. It’s a very sleazy movie – one may require a shower after seeing it, but the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde meets Taxi Driver aspect of it, as well as the sometimes frenetic nature of the camerawork and editing, make it an interesting portrayal of a man slowly descending into madness.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray debut of The Driller Killer is sourced from a new 4K restoration, mostly using the original 16mm AB camera negative, but also a 35mm print for some of the missing portions. Presented here is both the theatrical version of the film, as well as a pre-release version. They’re included separately in two different aspect ratios: 1.37:1 and 1.85:1. The pre-release version features a little over 5 minutes worth of extra material that was cut by Ferrara prior to release. Right off the bat, both presentations are extremely grainy, as is to be expected from a 16mm source. Fine detail can be sparse at times, particularly during darker scenes. Black levels are often murky to the point of crush, which is inherent to the original cinematography. Shadow detail, for what it is, is decent enough, and gives some occasional separation during brighter scenes. Colors are more accurate than previously seen, especially skin tones, while brightness and contrast levels are suitable. There’s a bit of damage that wasn’t repairable and/or was left intact for aesthetic reasons; minor scratches, vertical lines, and weak frames often crop up because of this. Personally, I think the film is sleazy enough that a perfect presentation, with even grain levels and no print issues, might alter its personality. Thankfully, the restoration effort has preserved the film in less than savory condition, but of the kind that exemplifies its grit.
The sole audio track available for all versions is an English mono LPCM track. The soundtrack is reflective of the visual presentation in terms of how it’s presented, but doesn’t contain the kind of damage you might expect. Hiss, crackle, and dropouts are virtually absent. It is a crowded track at times, particularly when it comes to both the score and the punk music played throughout the film. Dialogue is represented well enough and sound effects have some decent impact. Overall, it’s not an amazing sonic experience but it fits within the film’s aesthetic. Whether or not you want to follow the film’s opening advice that “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD” is your prerogative. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
For the supplements, there’s a healthy amount of material worth your time if you’re interested Ferrara as a filmmaker. First is an audio commentary with Ferrara for the theatrical version only; Laine and Abel: An Interview with The Driller Killer; Willing & Able: Ferraraology 101, a visual essay on Ferrara’s career; Mulberry St., a documentary that Ferrara recently made; the film’s trailer; a DVD copy; and a 28-page insert booklet with essays on both The Driller Killer and Mulberry St. by Michael Pattinson and Brad Stevens. This release is also available in Steelbook form if you prefer, although it’s much more limited. Not included from the Cult Epics DVD release is the Porto-Pack commercial presented separately, the three early short films from Ferrara (Could This Be Love, The Hold Up, and Nicky’s Film), and a trailer for Ferrara’s porn film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.
The Driller Killer is one of the grittiest films of its era, and is certainly not a movie that anyone and everyone is going to appreciate. Ferrara is an acquired taste, and his movies can either enlighten you in some strange way or disgust and turn you away. Either way, Arrow Video’s presentation of the film is definitely the go-to choice for seeing it on home video and will likely remain so for years to come.
- Tim Salmons