My introduction to Abel Ferrara, filmmaker, came in the early 90's. While flipping through a pay movie channel, I came across the images of Harvey Keitel doing various cop things. Since Keitel usually did cop things pretty well, I stuck with the movie, not knowing its title or any background information on anyone except Keitel. By the time "Bad Lieutenant" ended, I was subsequently unnerved, fascinated and energized by the preceeding 80 minutes of framed lunacy. This was obviously a film venturing into dark territory- quasi art, part exploitation but mostly galvanizing. My interest in Abel Ferrara was born and he still remains one of my very favorite artists working in cinema today. He probably plays up his bad boy image a little too much (i.e. all those late 90's pictures of him wearing shades against a beat up leather jacket), but his films often step into the abyss... and that's not always a terrible thing. The poet laurete of the grubby New York film scene, it's no surprise that he evolved into filmmaking through the late 70's exploitation/grindhouse system. Almost all of his films portray a workmanlike empathy, sparse on budget and full on mood. Basically, he's still making grindhouse features today, but they're more polished and invert the genre beautifully. From 1930's era depression chamber piece to the detailed world of drug mixers and female avengers, Ferrara is certainly not a movie-maker for everyone; but there are those of us who choose to plunge into the abyss with him. And that's not a terrible thing either.
Ferrara's first two adventures in filmmaking, "The Driller Killer" (1979) and "Ms .45" (1981) evolved directly from the New York exploitation scene, now beginning to wan due to (insert whatever you wish.. the Hollywood blockbuster, disco). But, like so many previous directors, not only did this genre of film give creative people relatively easy access into movie-making, but they set the standard for a host of Ferrara main-stays. There was the contribution by writer Nicholas St. John, a collaborator with Ferrara for years to come. And there was the simplistic photography of Ken Kelsch. Then there was the seedy urban milieu that Ferrara rarely left (and probably infused every film with more New York than even Scorsese). And there was his style, or anti-style, of filmmaking. Ferrara has never been a flashy director, and never one to call attention to his filmmaking. A majority of his films simply observe (whether we really want to or not) the emotional and psychological parade on-screen, and the early efforts of "The Driller Killer" and "Ms .45" offer no surprises in this category. So much of both films feel like hidden camera footage on the streets of New York, showing all the city's ugliness and deception. Frankly, this very well may've been the case since so many exploitation films were forced to resort to shot making on-the-fly to avoid permit and extraneous fees. The main characters of both films show just as much human ugliness and deception. In "The Driller Killer", which Ferrara began in 1977 after grinding his cinematic teeth in the 70's porn industry, observes the malaise that engulfs the main character (played by Abel himself) when he fails to sell any of his paintings. And more disconcerting than that, his latest piece of a giant buffalo, seems to be the fire-starter of the main character's homicidal impulses. He buys a drill and begins to ply his new found trade on homeless men around the city. And while the main selling point of the film is certainly attuned to the brutal and bloody killings, there's a second side to "The Driller Killer" that's equally fascinating. Ferrara himself stated he made the film mostly "just to stand next to" co-star Baybi Day, who appears just as strung out and disoriented as her character. Mingled amongst the various night time murders, Ferrara tracks the 'hanging out' of his two female roomates (played by Day and Carolyn Marz) as they visit their punk band neighbors and party at Max's (yes, the actual Max's). As stated by Ferrara, "The Driller Killer" was filmed in the shadows of Any Warhol and his factory, and it captures the same melancholy attitude of passing time as many of Warhol's documentaries. Both "The Driller KiIller" and "Ms. 45" are time capsules of a New York city in the late 70's. Even though he produced both films as slasher/female avenger pics respectively, they also exist as contributions that frame specific people in a very specific time. And, whether you agree with their themes or not, they both present New York as a violent and seedy melting pot... a reference that Ferrara would eventually return to in the future.
It would be three years before Ferrara returned behind the camera of a budgeted film. 1984's "Fear City", starring Melanie Griffith and Tom Berenger, certainly upped his "A" list status, but the film is a disappointment. It's narrative about a New York serial killer lacks both originality and flare. This normally isn't a bad thing, but for Ferrara, it definitely felt like slumming. From there, Ferrara found comfort in the confines of the small screen, jumping from project to project such as music videos for Schooly D and the odd directing gig on series such as Michael Mann's produced "Miami Vice" as well as "Crime Story". Perhaps this was the easiest thing Ferrara could do at the time. It was during the mid-80's that he reportedly began shopping his scripts for two films that would later gain momentum, and if settling within the mundane realm of the small screen helped keep him financially self-sufficient, his creative prospects could grow. Next came an Elmore Leonard TV adaptation of "Cat Chaser" in 1988 with Peter Weller that stands as one of the more involving Leonard creations. It's musty, humid feel seeped off the screen and Kelly McGillis is especially good.
If it feels like I'm rushing through a decade here, there's good reason. It wasn't until 1989 that Ferrara would burst from the background with an array of films that reconfigured the independent film movement and firmly established himself as the anti-Scorsese. While the 80's were spent toiling away in exploitative and cheap small screen excursions, Ferrara was about to re-establish some firm connections (with writer Nicholas St. John specifically) in the film industry and unleash two violent, cathartic pictures onto the American public that would simultaneously announce his arrival as well as repulse a large majority of the film-going community.