- Abel Ferrara starred in Driller Killer under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine.
This Saturday Doc Films will revive The Driller Killer
(1979), a low-budget horror film that marked an early breakthrough for director Abel Ferrara. The event arrives just as Ferrara's latest, 4:44 Last Day on Earth
, comes out on DVD (having not been screened at all in Chicago, unfortunately); and the two films are worth seeing in tandem, as they represent two ends of the director's creative evolution. Driller Killer
is a crude, sometimes abhorrent work that revels in the sort of beyond-the-pale milieu that would become Ferrara's stock-in-trade (he's sometimes been called the Keith Richards of American filmmaking, and if you've ever heard an interview with him, you know why). On the other hand, 4:44
is a plaintive, regretful piece. It is the first narrative feature that Ferrara's made since kicking drugs and alcohol, and though it's ostensibly an end-of-the-world movie, the director's said that it's also his statement about sobriety.
All of Ferrara's films depict characters pushed to emotional extremes. Like John Cassavetes, Ferrara depicts characters in thrall so feelings to intense they can't even articulate them (detractors of both filmmakers have accused their work of seeming unformed). Ferrara's characters tend to be much uglier than Cassavetes's, though: they're often drug addicts, louts, murderers, and corrupt businessmen. But the constancy of ugliness in Ferrara's cinema, which took off with the neighborhood-specific Driller Killer, would develop into a universal vision in films like The Addiction and New Rose Hotel. French critic Nicole Brenez has argued, in her book-length study and elsewhere, that Ferrara's overarching theme is the ugliness of modern life itself. In this regard, 4:44 marks the culmination of the director's work to date, as it proposes that modern civilization, as it currently operates, will bring about the end of humanity.
- Willem Defoe and Shanyn Leigh (the director's partner) in 4:44 Last Day on Earth
And yet within that scenario, Ferrara sees the potential for personal development. The movie takes place mainly in the loft studio of a painter played by Willem Defoe, who's clearly a stand-in for Ferrara (it's worth noting that Ferrara's alter ego character in Driller Killer
was also a painter). Over the last 24 hours of life on Earth, he will have cathartic arguments with nearly everyone in his life and, with the aid of his girlfriend (played by Shanyn Leigh, Ferrara's real-life partner), try to transcend the horror around him. In the movie's centerpiece, he leaves the loft to visit his brother, who like Ferrara himself had been a junkie for many years before cleaning up. Sobriety has made him calm and resigned—there are few characters in the director's cinema like him. The Defoe character wants to know, is he going to shoot up again, since this is the last night he'll ever have the chance? "I need a better reason," he replies.
Of all the recent movies to imagine apocalypse (a trend I considered a few weeks ago), 4:44 strikes me as the saddest. It's the most resolute in its vision and the most believable in its onscreen behavior. Perhaps the hysterical outbursts that ran through Ferrara's movies until now were leading up to this: what seemed like exaggerations of everyday anxiety were in fact preparations for the end of the world.