Q&A quotes from Driller Killer DP Ken Kelsch
Today, the slasher film is largely associated with the horde of dead teen flicks of the 1980s, endlessly sequel-ized and viewed predominantly in the decades then-novel multiplexes. But before them came a very different strain of slasher flick, a grimy and unpolished strain typified by movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the urban nightmare The Driller Killer. Movies that haunted the dying drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1970s.
The directorial debut of New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara, Driller Killer is the story of a struggling painter driven mad by the pressure of completing his latest work, his two live-in girlfriends and the incessant practicing of a band that’s moved in beneath his apartment. The film feels as if it was made under the parameters, “As long as you include a half-dozen death scenes involving a power tool of your choice and at least one lesbian shower scene, you can do anything you want.” For Ferrara, that meant erratically shoehorning death scenes into an otherwise surreal treatise on urban alienation and artistic frustration set in New York City at its crime-infested 1970s nadir.
Back in early October I caught a screening of Driller Killer at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema. The film’s director of photography Ken Kelsch – a Brooklyn native who went on to shoot more than a dozen Ferrara movies – did a short Q and A afterward. I’ve transcribed a few of his quotes below for posterity.
Kelsch on his formative years, spent in New York City grindhouses….
“I used to work as a projectionist so I would project probably four or five features a week and then I would go watch movies every day. I would park myself at the Elgin on Samurai Day on Wednesday and sit there for five movies. 42nd Street, I loved going there to see certain films. If you wanted to see a grinder, you went down there. It was the best place in the world.”
Kelsch on director Abel Ferrara…
“One thing I like about working for him is that he has a viewpoint. It may be the gutter-eye viewpoint, but he has a viewpoint.”
Kelsch on the atmosphere of the Driller Killer shoot…
“I do remember we didn’t have very much money, but we did have a bottle of Jack Daniels on the dolly at all times. And that was conveniently located for me. There was also a tiny smidgeon of drugs, which was probably how I (made it through) the last three days. I shot 50 hours straight and I don’t remember anything.”
Kelsch on shooting at the famed New York club Max’s Kansas City…
“Turning the lights on in Max’s Kansas City was frightening. Things went scurrying to all corners. But we promised the extras an open bar, which didn’t exist. So we had to shoot really quickly because once they realized there wasn’t an open bar, they were gone.”
Kelsch on the film’s gore effects…
“We had (The Exorcist make-up artist) Dick Smith’s kid (doing our effects). Dick Smith was probably the biggest special effects guy (at the time). (He had) the best blood. And (his son) Dave Smith brought with him this secret blood that was so red.”
Kelsch on the film’s reception upon release…
“(One) review was, and we were so proud to get reviewed in Variety, it was ‘Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini and the lighting was so dark it gave me a headache.’”
Driller Killer cover art