Driller Killer (1979) was his calling card. Falsely notorious as a "video nasty", it bludgeoned you with more than the gore that spurted as its "hero", a painter crazed by New York, drilled through the heads of punks and winos. Ferrara had made the film with little thought of release. He was just trying to get out the images that were in his head, working alongside friends he's still with; cinematographer Ken Kelsch and screenwriter Nicholas St John. For the next few years, Ferrara kept working. But it's in the Nineties that he's leapt up and shaken cinema by the neck. In six years he's made six films, all extraordinary. The King of New York (1990) started the rush, rewiring the gangster film as a cold expose of race, class and the economy. Bad Lieutenant (1992) pushed Harvey Keitel's cop deep into the murk of his own degeneracy. Body Snatchers (1993), an Invasion of the... remake with a mood of slick physical sickness, and Dangerous Game (1994), an expose of the emotions on a Ferrara-like set, followed. Dangerous Game and Bad Lieutenant brought back the ferocious, almost unmediated photography of Kelsch after an absence, suggesting that Ferrara was heading somewhere still rougher, deeper. His two new films, released simultaneously, crystallise where that might be.
Both films may be unwatchable for many. The Funeral is about the aftermath of the killing of a gangster in 1930s New York, as his brothers Ray (Christopher Walken) and Chez (Chris Penn) contemplate revenge. The Addiction is about a philosophy PhD candidate (Lilli Taylor) who becomes a vampire. The Funeral gives its actors their head, letting scenes run too long, letting performances rage past the point of credibility. The Addiction, shot in black and white, lingers on exposed, delicate flesh and the oil-slick blood which gushes from it. Both films are written by St John, a committed Christian. Both are about the sin and redemption of creatures abandoned in the slime. "If I were you, father, I'd forget about last rites," someone tells a priest butting in on The Funeral. "What they need in there's a fuckin' exorcist." "I'm ashamed of nothing. I didn't make the world," says Walken's gangster. "We do evil because we are evil," spits Taylor's vampire. Low- budget, these are films coming up from the deep underground, scraping clean moral absolutes the high ground sullied years ago. They'll bore you, shock you. In an era of numbed mainstream films, they may wake you up.
It's a world Ferrara came to know early. Born in the Bronx in 1951, he moved upstate a few years later, to the "rural paradise" where he met St John. He admits he was an innocent child ("My childhood was an extended one, by a lot of standards"). It was an innocence lost to Vietnam. Though he didn't go, the war defined his adolescence. "It brought the world in very quickly," he says. "My teenage years were wrapped up around the fact of seeing my friends being sent off to war, and some of 'em not coming back. It made things more precious. People try to dismiss it. They try to forget that it happened. Those 50,000 guys aren't going to forget. And I'm not going to forget. It's a sin what happened, and it's a sin how it's been dealt with. They say, 'Oh, Oliver Stone, all he wants to do is make films about Vietnam.' I don't think there's enough films about that experience." Is it an experience that he's put in all the films he's made since?" He pauses. "I guess... Yeah, I never thought of it like that. Yeah. I would say so. Obviously."
The Addiction is possibly the first Ferrara film to put that displaced obsession on screen. Lilli Taylor's vampiric excesses are mixed in with grim, blown-up photos in her philosophy classes, photos of Dachau, of Cambodia, and of My Lai, the village in which American troops massacred Vietnamese children. What did Ferrara think when he heard about My Lai? "It was more of the same," he says, dismissively. "I mean, what did you expect? That's an everyday occurrence in a war like that. Why is My Lai any different ? There were a million My Lais. Every day was My Lai."
The Addiction suggests that the impulses that make My Lais are in everybody. Ferrara only narrowly escaped the Vietnam draft himself. Does he think he would have been capable of such an act ? "I would hope something would've stopped me, but considering who I was and what the military is... well, I never wanna think I would have been able to pull the trigger on a five- year-old, but fuck." He walks away, comes back. You can't fantasise these situations. Who knows how people are gonna react under circumstances that incredible? That's why you make these movies. To put yourself in these situations, to look at what life may really be about."
Ferrara's new films aren't only about sin. Like all his work with St John, they're about redemption, too. The Addiction includes a moment where Lilli Taylor's vampire is offered forgiveness as she takes communion. In The Funeral, Walken's gangster Ray is reminded, as he's about to shoot someone, that he doesn't have to pull the trigger. Both moments are reminiscent of a speech in Dangerous Game, when Harvey Keitel's Ferrara-like director ponders how an SS man might take a child to the gas chamber, and why he might stop. If he was like Ray in The Funeral, if, 500 kids down the line, he realised what he was doing and did stop, could he be forgiven? "Are you asking in the eyes of God, or are you asking in my eyes? Or are you asking in Ray's eyes ? I'm not God today, I'm more where Ray's at. I'm more 'an eye for an eye' man."
It suggests a difference between St John's confrontational, Christian scripts and their director. Is the gap significant? "Yeah," Ferrara says. "What's the difference between a believer and... a trier?" He half laughs to himself. "And a wannabe. But he and I are at basically the same place, or close. I'm trying to come to terms with where he's at. We've been through so much together. Friendship is a gift from God. He's my friend, in the true sense of that word, if you know what I'm talking about. I'm so glad that you appreciate that it's his work. These films are written by him, and he's on the set every day. He's watching all the shots. He's directing right along with me."
Ferrara has said he believes in God, like St John. Is he a Christian, too? "I'm trying to get away from those words. I think if I keep using those terms I'm going to be stuck in the same world." How do his actors respond to St John's scripts? Do they have to be moral to play them? "They tend to be, but it's not a prerequisite in my book." But is moral a word he's OK with? "Sure. That's not a word I'm going to put out the window."
Ferrara's film about film-making, the rough-and-ready Dangerous Game, ends with Harvey Keitel's director keeling over, killed by the strain of directing. Like Lilli Taylor's vampire intellectual, he's a victim of his addiction. Does Ferrara, a film-a-year man, recognise the symptoms? "Yeah, sure. I think Dangerous Game kinda puts it where it's at. It's like Kubrick says, a film takes more than anyone can possibly give it."
Still, Ferrara carries on. He's said that he and his confederates make films to improve their lives. That's what makes them righteous. Is it a righteousness he wants to offer the world, too? Is he trying to do some good, by making movies?
"I can't imagine any other reason. This is the one way I can see that I can bring something to the mix"
'The Funeral' and 'The Addiction' go on release on 18 AprilReuse content