Director Abel Ferrara spent the '80s sneaking style and grit into straight-to-video fodder like Fear City and China Girl, then graduated in the '90s to high-art exploitation like King Of New York and Bad Lieutenant. Since then, he's alternately frustrated and perversely thrilled his fans with ponderous, unpleasant genre-benders like The Addiction and The Funeral. For the last five years or so, he's been the subject of rumors and legends, while emerging occasionally with more odd, arrhythmic movies that get unceremoniously dumped by his latest distributor. He's sort of a mystery, the kind people are afraid to solve.
Earlier this year, Artisan's special-edition DVD of King Of New York went a long way toward explaining Ferrara, courtesy of a hysterically grumpy director's commentary and a roundtable interview with his crew survivors. But Ferrara-ology doesn't get much more basic than the Driller Killer DVD. The director provides commentary for the main feature—an eccentric 1979 take on the slasher genre—as well as for two of the three film-school shorts on the second disc, which also includes an explicit trailer for Ferrara's 1976 porn effort Nine Lives Of A Wet Pussy. It's a crash course in where he's coming from.
The shorts don't amount to much: a little urban melancholy, peppered with violence and studied ennui, amateurishly acted and shot with only a modicum of control. The Driller Killer, though, is darkly fascinating, as much a document of the late-'70s New York punk and pop-art scenes as it is a grindhouse plugger. Ferrara himself stars as a misanthropic painter who lets his frustration with insensitive art dealers and obnoxious neighbors push him over the edge, into homicide by power drill. Ferrara based his character on a bum-hating friend of his, and shot the film over the course of two years, partly as a joke and partly as an attempt to cash in on gore-mania. But his fascination with New York subcultures overtook the project, leading him to spend half the picture hanging out with fringe-dwellers before finally getting around to offing them. It's not an auspicious debut, but The Driller Killer is clearly the work of a one-of-a-kind maverick.
Ferrara's commentary is even more entertaining. The semi-articulate skeptic who poked holes in King Of New York has been replaced by a near-incoherent mumbler who lays down a long rap full of dropped sentences, pop-culture word association, bursts of giddiness whenever a clever edit catches him by surprise, and the all-purpose topic-changer, "Okay, here we go." He mocks his own work mercilessly, perking up only when he spots a painting he likes or a half-dressed actress. The impression the DVD leaves is of a director making movies out of a bizarre compulsion, addicted to the power inherent in crafting compositions out of naked flesh and stage blood.