Sunday, July 31, 2011
The Original Ultra Violent 70's Slasher
The late 70’s especially 1979 saw an explosion in insanely violent movies, judging from the release of the classic “Dawn of the Dead” and the utterly deranged “Cannibal Holocaust” that year. Another entry in this category was “Driller Killer”, Abel Ferrara’s (Bad Lieutenant, Ms. .45) first major film effort and another in a long procession of late 70s horror and exploitation films to argue that everyone at Manhattan was losing their mind. In fact, Driller Killer was banned in the UK for the unadulterated scale of violence in it and was officially re-released only in 1999.
The premise is fairly straight forward though. A seedy artist (played with aplomb by Ferrara himself), who’s gone several weeks without a shower, has holed up in a Manhattan apartment with two equally seedy, dope addicted lesbian lovers. He’s trying to complete a large masterpiece painting of a buffalo and sell it to an art gallery so that he can pay the rent. He discovers the wonders of the "Porto Pak," a strange device selling for $19.95 that allows you to run any AC-powered appliance no matter where you are. This is handy. Since the horrors of Manhattan’s seamy side have led him to start hallucinating and flying into psychotic fits of rage, he decides to pick up a Porto Pak and start killing derelicts with a power drill. Hence, the name Driller Killer.
This one made me feel out of sorts for the rest of the day. Any fool can make a movie that’s just frankly obscene, but it takes an edge of intellect to make a film that crosses the line into the unspeakably repulsive. “Driller Killer” is such a film, and Abel Ferrara is just the man to make it.
I feel like I have got a pretty good stomach for these sorts of things, but two scenes made me flinch - a street person throwing up on himself and a highly nasty bit of business involving a skinned rabbit. There are also long sequences, recording the rehearsal of a talentless no wave band called "The Roosters," which are almost as hard to take. The vomit, the dead rabbit and the garage band are all real, by the way - used in favor of more edible pea green soup, latex and actual musical talent in a convenient intersection of budget economy and cinéma_vérité.
And yet the movie has got just enough intelligence to get you through the unwatchable parts: there’s a overt menace in the apparently purposeless, atmospheric shots of the painter drinking in Manhattan’s horrid squalor, there’s a fascinating bit after his psychotic break in which he appears to split into two people simultaneously, and the ending is quite nice, eerie and stylized.
If there's a point to be taken from this perplexing but not totally insipid film, it concerns a sort of artistic Judgment Day. The painter decries the Roosters’ ability to forge a group of followers despite their appalling and plagiaristic music. Frantic for money, the painter later agrees to do a portrait for the Roosters that will end up on the cover of their next album and this is when he splits in two - the lead singer is prancing around his apartment playing abysmal guitar and the painter is trying to work on the portrait despite the lead singer’s constant, pretentious entreaties that he "communicate" - "what part of me are you putting there?" he demands, pointing at the canvas.
The film’s culminating moment comes when the gallery owner mocks and rejects the painter’s magnum opus, proclaiming it "worthless" and calling it proof that "the worst thing that could happen to a painter has happened to you; you’ve become merely a technician." Economic and class anxiety saturates the film - the painter loathes the homeless but is only a step away from homelessness himself but aesthetic anxiety, a perceived death of art, culture and music, is what really makes this movie tick.