From among the Video Nasties

The Video Nasty craze in Great Britain was nominally due to the lurid covers of two particular movies, prominently advertised in publications where too many Nice People could catch an accidental glimpse of them (the actual reason for the Nasties list was of course a complex chain of interrelated cultural, artistic, and political impetuses, but that gets in the way of a nice clean narrative n'est-ce pas?). These films were the American psycho killer drama The Driller Killer, from 1979, and a 1976 German Nazi exploitation picture variously known as SS Experiment, Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur, and on the Nasties list, SS Experiment Camp. The correct and scholarly thing to do would be to take a long, cold look at both of these films in turn, to chip away at what (if anything!) made them so heinous as to justify the British government's epic censorship program. The problem with this approach, as explained elsewhere, is that I've seen SS Experiment Camp before, and it's one of the most god-damned boring movies I've ever sat through all the way, and I'd frankly rather set this blog on fire than rewatch SS Experiment Camp just for "scholarly" reasons.

So there you have it, The Driller Killer is going to have to do all the work by itself as the stand-in for the rise of the Video Nasties list. Let's start at the same place that the Director of Public Prosecutions did, and take a look at that cover art up there at the top. Any way you slice it, that's a pretty darn violent image to put on a video box, and the least we can say is that Vipco - the film's UK distributor - should really have had more sense, not to mention good taste.

The next thing to do is sit down and watch the thing, and determine exactly how obscene it is, right? No, not actually, not if you're the DPP in 1982. Here we come to the second way that The Driller Killer makes for an excellent start to this summer's exploration of the Video Nasties: it's not remotely violent enough, nor at all offensive to people of what I at least would consider reasonable morality, to justify its angry consignment to a list of notorious & condemned works of filth, and this fact is true of a great many Nasties. By and large, they were banned not because they were as bad as the DPP feared, but because the DPP didn't bother to watch the damn things, nor did anybody in the media, and so goes the way of a witch-hunt.

In actuality, The Driller Killer not only fails to be an unconscionably violent horror movie, it really isn't any kind of horror movie at all, but a character study of a man driven to the breaking point by the pressures of New York and that city's thriving, but anti-social and dirty punk scene at the end of the 1970s. The second feature directed by Abel Ferrara (the first is the amazingly-named pornographic film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) is the story of Reno Miller (played by Ferrara, working under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, which he used as well in the aforementioned porno), a frustrated artist living with two women, Carol (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day, a made-up name for a most mysterious one-time actress), in some kind of odd threesome that is never explained perfectly clearly, but my impression is that both Reno and Pamela are fucking Carol, but they're not into each other.

Comes a day when the next-door apartment is rented to a punk band named The Roosters, fronted by a gent named Tony Coca-Cola (D.A. Metrov, acting under the name Rhodney Montreal). The Roosters, being punks, don't much care whether or not they piss anybody off, and they practice their fairly repetitive, plonking music all day and all night, driving Reno into a state of madness, and preventing him from finishing the painting he's been working on, of a bison covered in slash marks and staring hollowly out from the canvas. "Driving him into a state of madness", did I say? "Finishing off the job", let's put it that way. Reno's dealer, Dalton Briggs (Harry Schultz) is putting pressure on the artist from the other side, Carol is growing increasingly detached, and Reno can't take it any more, which is why one night, after pulverising a skinned rabbit meant for dinner, he takes to the streets of New York with a portable power source and an electric drill, and takes his frustrations out on a harmless vagrant.

It takes 38 minutes to get to that point; the rest of the 96 minute film is going to be very little other than a variation on a theme. Reno tries to keep it together, he fails, he lets off some steam by plowing through a few vagrants with his drill. But despite what you may have heard, The Driller Killer isn't terribly violent or disturbing in its depictions of these deaths. There are only two killings out of an unexpectedly robust body count that have much blood at all to them: the first one, which involves the victim twitching in a huge pool of pink liquid, and the image featured so lovingly on the cover. Although that poor dead bunny gets its ass handed to it, I can tell you.

As the breakthrough and first non-pornographic film made by one of his generations most notorious shit-stirrers, it would be delightful to say that The Driller Killer reveals Ferrara to be a singular talent right out of the box, but I cannot say that. In a lot of very important ways, the film is stiff and clumsy; in other ways, it is so desperately sure of its artistic integrity that it's pretty much hilarious. Yet there is one way in which the film is kind of brilliant, and almost worthy of its cult following: its depiction of the New York punk scene in 1978 and '79, and the kind of squalid existence that punk rose out of. From the evidence in the film, I would not say that Ferrara or screenwriter Nicolas St. John have much affection for punk - it drives a man to murder, and I don't think anyone can disagree too fervently if I claim that The Roosters pretty much suck - but like the best exploitation films of the '70s (and I don't think I'd go so far as to call The Driller Killer an exploitation film), this movie captures something important and unfiltered about the streets of the city. In most cases - and this is no exception - this is the result of forced cheapness, that requires the filmmakers to use real settings with real squalor, and their use of 16mm film offers no glossy respite from the gritty, icky world they depict. Ferrara even goes that extra mile by having his two cinematographers, Ken Kelsch and James Lemmo AKA "Jimmy Spears" (why the Christ did so many people on this film work under a pseudonym?) shoot the movie using pools of inky blackness that give most of the film's omnipresent night scenes the suffocating feeling of a nightmare.

The look, then, is great. That's about the only nice thing I have to say about a film that starts out with pretension to burn: the DNA of Polanksi's Repulsion and The Tenant is buried deep in The Driller Killer's genetic code, and that apparently gave Ferrara all the justification he wanted to go whole-hog with symbolism that's by turns obvious, under-expressed, and pointless. Sometimes he even gets to do all three: as with the film's over-the-top opening shots, lingering close-ups of the Catholic iconography inside a church that promise a Scorsesean bloodbath of spiritual and moral confusion that the rest of the film doesn't even attempt to pay off. That's the first in a long, long line of directorial fillips that are so garish as to be kind of quaint, in the way that sometimes happens when a talented first-timer uses every idea that he can come up with for fear of never getting another chance to make a movie. So we get splashes of hellish red light, cryptic (but readily-parsed) dream sequences, intensely Meaningful close-ups on Reno's paintings; and so on. Worse still, neither Ferrara nor either of his cinematographers have any intuitive sense of how to frame an image for any kind of impact: their best attempt at it is to use uncomfortably tight close-ups that mean "importance! and tension!" but say "what am I looking at!?"

I should also not allow the movie to pass by without mentioning a lesbian shower scene shoved into the film with a pragmatic inelegance that was almost inspiring - that Ferrara just wanted to see naked women on set lathered in soap could not have been more apparent. It's clumsy, crude, and shot with those same alarmingly close close-ups of nipples and necks that plays as not remotely erotic, which leads me to believe that Ferrara's porno must be an exercise in futility.

As far as the character study goes, it's simply not that interesting just because we're kept so far away from Reno that he doesn't make much sense, and his descent into madness has no context. We can pick up that he despises the homeless men all around his apartment, not unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, perhaps because his father might be a vagrant, and this at least partially explains his killing spree. But everything else about him is a closed book. He's just a nut who kills people. That's vaguely "thrilling" at moments, but it's not really much to hang a movie on.

Not helping matters one little bit, Ferrara is a pretty dodgy actor; and yet he's just about the best member of the cast. Everyone recites their lines without feeling, and most of them seem to consider that the extent of their job: Baybi Day is a colossal trainwreck, so mumbly and slack that I am compelled to believe that it absolutely had to be on purpose, though what that purpose might have been, I cannot say. This is the flipside of the "cheap is good" argument about the cinematography: cheap is bad, when it results in actors who can't fucking act. As if the characters weren't already ill-motivated and paper-thin, they're almost all played so as to make the least-realistic elements of their characterisations the most prominent. The only exception, oddly, is Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola: an oblivious shit with weird charm, played by a man who was probably pretty much exactly that in real life, but at least it translates to the screen better than it usually does when someone is cast for being like the character they're playing.

Points for trying, anyway. Ferrara and his collaborators were trying to say something about a moment and a place, and even if they couldn't quite connect all the dots, it's obvious where they were headed. The Driller Killer is sloppy and overwrought, and it constantly loses track of its own motivation, but... I'm not entirely certain I have a thought to follow that "but". I was going to talk about the filmmakers' eagerness, but it borders on desperation too often for me to concede that. Still, it doesn't set its sights as low as the death-for-death's-sake entertainment of the slasher films of the following decade (someone coming to the film for a nice dose of gore or genre terrors would be grossly disappointed), and the mere fact that it wanted to be about something - even if it mostly fails - means it deserves better than its breathless tarring as "obscene": although its presence on the Nasties list surely has afforded it a longer life than anything else about it could possibly have mustered.

Body Count: 14, I think. A lot of deaths happen very quickly, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to keep them straight. Between 11 and 14, of that I am certain. Plus a rabbit that was already dead when they brought its skinned carcass to set (this counts as a prop rather than an animal death, I ween).

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. Oh, I wouldn't want to show it to a ten-year-old, but I wouldn't be very worried if one procured a copy. It's all very insular and psycherlogical, and what violence comes is fast enough and fake enough that it leaves very little impact (that video box scene is just plain goofy in its execution). The most intense scene, in fact, depicts nothing but a black screen; a genuinely good moment, which I will therefore not further spoil.