“A smart-ass coroner comes out with, well, a little verbal diarrhoea and you immediately go around declaring there's a maniac on the loose in the city.”
“Yeah, so what would you rather I say - a Boy Scout's been starting to whittle on girls with his knife?”
1982 was a simply fantastic year for horror and sci-fi movies. You couldn't move for them. You not only had the mainstream attractions of E.T., Poltergeist, Creepshow and The Thing, but low-budget independent offerings like The Evil Dead, The Entity, The Sword And The Sorceror and Just Before Dawn (which had been languishing on a distribution backburner but was finally allowed out to play in '82) were also doing the rounds, blitzing cinemas with genre-pushing ideas and imagery, and subsequently stuffing the shelves of video libraries in that halcyon pre-certification wonderland. In many ways, this was the Zeitgeist of dark fantasy cinema, with themes, special effects and excessive visions that broke the mould and, no matter what has been seen since, from the latest torture-porn to the goriest, pitch-black parody, they have not been equalled either. Yet even amongst this provocative company, one title stood out in condemnation and infamy - Lucio Fulci's stalk 'n' slash epic, The New York Ripper.
A film that even Fulci-devotees were forced to concede, at the time, went a little bit too far in terms of graphic mutilation and sexual violence. Although it played at a festival or two in the UK, Ripper was unceremoniously deported from these shores under a Video Nasty-inspired storm of controversy, having been resolutely denied outright a proper theatrical presentation by BBFC head at the time, James Ferman. With hindsight, it is difficult to argue with the censor's hard-line approach to Fulci's actually quite clever Giallo, since the climate back then was suffering from an immense ”violence in movies” backlash from the media and the moral guardians of the day, and the notion of a film that brought back memories of the likes of The Yorkshire Ripper, even remotely, was something possibly more abhorrent than the atrocities that were actually seen being committed within it. But then, this being a movie from Lucio Fulci - the man behind the gory extravaganzas of Zombie Flesheaters, The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery and City Of The Living Dead (all of which ensured that whilst many considered him a hack, he was guaranteed a devoted cult following) - it was always going to cause stomachs to turn and elicit nervous censorial spasms anyway. Even many fellow gore-hounds leapt on the bandwagon and lobbied against a film that, alongside Bill (Blue Underground) Lustig's equally notorious Maniac, seemed to sear the screen with vastly unpleasant imagery of protracted sexual mutilation and, it could be argued, that The New York Ripper was the real catalyst that had authorities clamping down on such titles as The Evil Dead, I Spit On Your Grave, The Burning, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain and The Last House On The Left, as it represented probably the ultimate in macabre thrills at that time for what the tabloids would have labelled a “jaded” audience. Having none of the fantastical elements that made The Evil Dead such a crowd-pleaser and none of the zombies from his own “classic” quartet - a facet that allowed for a certain amount of audience empathy removal - the gritty urban reality and sociopathic resonance of Fulci's film, along with a phenomenal amount of undeniable misogyny, meant that it was immediately a much stronger and more dangerous prospect.
The violence against women theme that is such a prevailing ingredient in the Horror genre at large is, here, possibly at its sleaziest and most outrageous - yet no less valid and no more squalid in its conclusions than anything that Hammer or Universal ever came up with. Horror films have always been directed to shock, and the intimidation and butchery of women (whether it is overtly perpetrated or merely implied) has always been top of the reactionary scenario list. Certainly there have been disturbing films before and since that have focussed on such an emotive and divisive modus operandi - you can't help but think of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Wes Craven's original The Last House On The Left (a film, folks, that made such an appalling impact on me when I first saw it, that I vowed I would never watch it again ... simply because the revenge taken on the evil killers wasn't nasty enough for the depredations that had gone before!) as precursors and the likes of Baise Moi and Irreversible that followed in its wake - but Fulci's neon-dripping catalogue of carnage certainly represents the fullest and most sensationally vivid example of the form. But what tends to be forgotten about is the fact that as well as being one of the notorious grunge-meister's most horrible assemblies of atrocity, the film is also one of his best made and most suspenseful. Dramatic, hard-hitting and wilfully immersed in the seedier elements that most other movies only hint at, The New York Ripper gouges an accusatory path through society's sick underbelly, occasioning grim observations upon the media's slavering over despicable murders, the ineptitude of the police force in the face of wanton slaughter and the stark reality of obsessive perversion. So, in short, what's not to like?
Although its interiors were mostly filmed in Rome (one palatial house of stucco walls and arches is impossible to comprehend being found in Manhattan), whilst all the exteriors were actually shot on location in the Big Apple, The New York Ripper commences with a dog out enjoying his constitutional jaunt down by the shore of the Hudson River and, after a little rummage in the foliage, coming out to present his owner with a severed hand. This gleeful little prologue then segues into the tale of a Manhattan that is in the terrified grip of a very nasty serial killer who likes nothing more than to carve women up in the most horrendous manner, the hand being the latest trophy to confound the authorities. Taunting the police, in the form of British TV character actor, Jack Hedley (who, like many stars from the fifties and sixties who had not managed to sustain their looks and status, wound up in low-budget Euro-trash projects) and affecting a bizarre Donald Duck impression, earning him the splendidly misleading (and unofficial) sobriquet of “Quack Quack”, the killer slices and dices with virtual impunity. And, as the list of suspects builds into an interesting roster of supporting players, Hedley's Lt. Fred Williams is thrust into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game as the killer seeks to harass him personally, always staying one step ahead. Williams enlists the aid of a college psychologist played by House By The Cemetery's Paolo Malco, looking a lot like a bearded James Franciscus and, thanks to some warped dubbing, sounding a lot like Burt Lancaster, to come up with a profile of the murderer and narrow down the possibilities from a city of over one million suspects.
The suspects that we are presented with are a typically Italian pot-pourri of potential maniacs. Male and female, learned and perverted, they each have underlying stresses, hang-ups and questionable traits that can be seen as setting them up for either a ripe interrogation or an even riper death. To most committed fans of the genre, the eventual identity of the killer won't be a surprise, but this does not lessen the acute guessing game that can be played in a narrative that paints literally everybody with some kind of hidden secret or fetish. Even Fulci, in one of his longer cameos as the ratty little police chief, is not entirely above some scum-level, though superficial aura of moral ambiguity.
Bolstered by lots of sordid sex - an eye-popping seduction by dirty probing toes beneath the table in a bar takes some beating - this is also Fulci's raunchiest horror movie. Bondage, voyeurism, S &M and masturbation all offer themselves up for scrutiny. Yet the exhibitionism on display is not purely there for our own titillation. The story explores the nature of lust and the hatred of casual sexuality, but the motives for the murders are not so simple and straightforward as to be flippant or off-the-peg, such as those in the Charles Bronson psycho-thriller 10 To Midnight from a couple of years later, or any number of other sexual-slasher flicks. Like most Giallo entries, there are tricks and clues interspersed throughout and even if it is easy to promote the likes of Argento's infinitely more chic interpretations over Fulci's, this does not mean that the little “offal-flinger's” film is any less stylish in terms of storytelling or plot coherence, at all. In fact, New York Ripper probably plays faster and smoother in these respects. Fulci is the sort of director who hammers out his scenes in staccato fashion, each one propelling the plot and not, as a fair few of his influences (Bava) and his contemporaries (Argento) would enjoy doing, serving some painterly, or surreal passage of ambitious visual eloquence. He is also not without a sense of humour. Check out his hairy, ape-armed coroner with his personal headphones permanently attached to his head and a truly unethical approach to discussing the grisly results of his autopsies. Or the wink-wink moment when, after a tense encounter on a train, a potential victim flees from the subway station into a street with a cinema playing An American Werewolf In London and the Stallone thriller Nighthawks - both of which feature pivotal sequences set in subway stations. And, of course, there is the absurd Donald Duck impersonation that the killer employs - Fulci taking such a bizarre and comical element and twisting it into something that, against the odds, becomes sinister and depraved.
His most popular movies have, perhaps inevitably, featured ravaged and ravenous zombies and the vicarious machinations of the supernatural. But NYR (despite an earlier script version that posited the killer as being an old man who uses a rejuvenating agent that both hid his identity and was derived from his victims) harks back to his earlier efforts in the psycho-sexual realm of murderous whodunits that would go on to become the more usual kingdom of Dario Argento. Previous movies like Lizard In A Woman's Skin (which starred an obviously bitter and somewhat bewildered Stanley Baker) and Don't Torture A Duckling depicted a Fulci who was in love with surrealism, sadism and a dreamy sort of poverty-row art-house descent into paranoia. NYR, in complete contrast, shows the erratic, though never boring filmmaker at the height of his technical powers with a story that is compellingly written, by Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci, himself, full of bravura set-pieces, well acted (in comparison to many of his other productions) and tremendously gripping. He takes an obvious delight in the no-holds-barred murder sequences, emphatically and determinedly pushing the envelope for on-screen violence, but it is the shrewdness of the screenplay and the attempts that he makes to indulge in the typically traditional, though frequently maddening red herrings that continually nudge our suspicions in different directions regarding the multiple characters whose lives all contrive to converge at some point or another. It is to his credit, also, that we see New York from a lot of unusual perspectives. Oh, we get the usual high-rise skyline shots and sidewalk travelogues, but the angles, the colours and the locales he uses provide a refreshingly skewed aesthetic to possibly the most-lensed city in the movies. It is great the way that we genuinely feel as though we have just bunked-on the Staten Island Ferry, the attendants obviously real and not just extras heaved into the roles. But such is the province of low-budget, almost guerrilla-style filming on-the-hoof. The glitz and the glamour of the Big Apple was only as convincingly scrubbed away in the awesome James Brolin actioner, Night Of The Juggler, which I would dearly love to see released on Blu-ray some day.
Even though the splatter is notoriously extreme, it is nowhere near as accomplished, nor as convincing as it would have been had Fulci-regular, Giannetto De Rossi, been involved with the project. But, I suppose, considering what grim delights are served-up, we should probably be grateful that they aren't quite as realistic as anything that the grandmaster of spaghetti-grue could concoct. However, the effects are lingered on to an extent that the often bright lights that illuminate them configure their mutilations into something approaching the clinical. Although a grotesquely intimate violation via broken bottle is, thankfully, diluted by shadow and masked by a pervading green gloom, most of the killings occur in an unforgiving and vivid clarity. Mind you, that the ripping of a young woman as she sits, defenceless, in a car on a cross-river ferry is as gruelling as it is has as much to do with the grisly sound effect of flesh and cartilage being torn as it does with the flesh being seen sliced asunder. A vicious abdominal gouging and a claret-spurting throat getting opened-up are perhaps de rigour for this sort of thing, but the most notorious sequence is, by far, the drawn-out disfigurement that one poor girl suffers as the killer ties her, naked, to a bed and then takes some sweetly agonising time reorganising her body with a razor-blade. The bisecting of a nipple in close-up and, in one of Fulci's trademarks, the slitting open of a moving eyeball, ensure that this sequence is one of goredom's most riveting sequences of squirm-inducing murder. What helps make the set-piece so memorably galvanistic is the fact that the killer has allowed the impotent cops to listen-in on the killing via a very misleading phone-call, merely ramming their own inadequacies down their throat as they attempt to mount a wholly ineffectual rescue. This scene is a tour de force that many more accomplished and critically lauded directors of thriller-chillers would just baulk at committing to celluloid.
Fulci had shown in previous films that he was something of a master at eliciting purely primal reactions of horror, suspense and “at-the-screen” yelling at dumb-ass protagonists - Dr. Feudstein holding a child's head against a locked door as a desperate parent plunges an axe through it from the other side in The House By The Cemetery; Christopher George smashing another axe through the lid of a not-at-all-dead Catriona MacColl's casket in City Of The Living Dead; poor Olga Karlotos being dragged slowly towards the biggest, sharpest and cruellest splinter in the history of the world in Zombie Flesheaters - but with Ripper he actually manages to pull off some pure Hitchcockian moments of un-blinkable tension to reinforce the severity of the violence and our own useless complicity in it. One early victim trapped by the very car door she had scratched with her bicycle only moments before is a coolly ironic set-piece of cruel comeuppance. Then there is the sexy Alexandra Delli Colli, wife of the great cinematographer for Sergio Leone, Tonino Delli Colli, forced to flee for her life from the razor-brandishing murderer into a deserted flea-pit grindhouse, Fulci keeping the momentum going with devilish aplomb until the unexpected outcome that even snatches, quite audaciously, one of Argento's canny visual tricks from the same year's far superior Tenebrae. The aforementioned tied-down killing is bad enough, but just try getting through, without grinding your nails into your palms, the episode when Almanta Keller's kinky nymphomaniac suddenly realises that the smooch-hour DJ on the bedside radio has given out an exact description of the guy she has just indulged in sadomasochistic sex with, and is now snoring contentedly next to her, whilst she is still bound to the bed. This sequence, alone, proves that Fulci, even in his own repulsive way, was becoming an expert at overt audience manipulation as Keller's delectable MILF (she tape-records her own naughty antics for the later pleasure of her impotent husband back home) attempts to wriggle out of her bonds to freedom. So, rather than the carnage, it is Fulci's confidence and conviction at staging the suspense that makes The New York Ripper so memorable.
Although the dubbing is atrocious, the cast is actually very switched-on. Jack Hedley was the unfortunate Sir Timothy Havelock in For Your Eyes Only, and had appeared in many TV shows such as Only Fools And Horses and Dixon Of Dock Green, but it is a cinch that he had never been involved with a scenario quite like this before. He does a fine job, too. His look of helpless frustration when Williams realises that he has been duped by the killer whilst someone he actually cares about is being disembowelled, and his subsequent desperation to get to her in time, is particularly arresting. Italian horror starlet Zora Kerova - here playing a doomed participant in a live-sex show - would become synonymous with nudity and extreme violence throughout her career, yet even with this throwaway role she proffers personality and elicits our sympathy. Howard Ross, minus two fingers on his right hand, becomes a tremendous bogeyman, who looms over the proceedings with such a leering malevolence that, killer or not, he is certainly not someone to be messed with. And both Andrea Ochipinti (as a concerned boyfriend) and Paolo Malco acquit themselves well, the pair able to bounce reassurance and suspicion in the air at the same time, like juggling balls. Eagle-eyed genre-fans will also spot Michelle (Stagefright) Soavi cropping-up to buy a magazine at one point. But you really have to hand it to the gorgeous Daniela Doria who, as the unlucky recipient of the killer's slowly cutting razor-blade in that scene, possibly deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for services to mutilation - Fulci rammed a knife through her skull at the start of House By The Cemetery, had rats nibble off her face in The Black Cat and she even obligingly vomited up the sum total of her inner organs for him in City Of The Living Dead.
Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller had also worked on Paul Morrissey's Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) and even Argento's Deep Red (1975), so his pedigree with “extreme” material was already without question. Although Ripper is not the most visually sublime of Fulci's films - I would reserve this accolade for Zombie Flesheaters, myself - it still fish-hooks plenty of atmospheric, though agreeably grubby, shots of New York's less respectable enclaves and that unflinching eye captures the blood-letting with a zeal that few genre films from more modern times can lay claim to. The score from Francesco De Masi is, initially, a let-down when you compare it to the hugely atmospheric and Carpenter-inspired soundtracks from Fabio Frizzi who had delivered some of Fulci's previous big-hitters, but that main title theme sure as hell gets inside your head with its sleazy, jazzed-up, funky rhythm.
Although the film was made available again in the UK by Shameless, it was still cut by 19 seconds, and it remains doubtful whether it will ever receive an uncensored outing on these shores even with the apparent leniency of the BBFC these days. And the biggest, but most obvious irony of all, is that The New York Ripper, for all of its blood and thunder and its inescapable anger, does now seem, inevitably, a lot tamer than it once did. Now, when we view it today, it comes across as a lot less volatile or incendiary. But here we have an important thing to remember - this isn't simply because effects have improved, that torture-porn is all-too commonplace in movies nowadays, or that we have had innumerable excessive offerings of the controversial and the taboo down the years since Fulci cut such a distinctive dash ... it is because we, ourselves have seen, read and heard about far too many real-life atrocities of sickeningly protracted violence to be anywhere near as disturbed by the latex and prosthetic mutilations on display here. Now Fulci's film, as shocking an experience as it still remains, somehow becomes much more entertaining than it once seemed, its outrage diminished and its killer's sick-bag of tricks actually much less distressing. This isn't to say that witnessing helpless women being mauled by a variety of wickedly sharp implements is now bland and unmoving in any way, but rather that we now know that the real sickos out there probably do a whole lot worse than our resident Quack Quack does. And that, folks, is the really scary thing, isn't it?
Vilified, outlawed and hated by many, Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper arrives on Blu-ray into a world that has left it behind in terms of wanton cruelty and inter-personal evil. Yet it remains a wonderfully sordid and grim little tale of mutilation and fury and stands as a tight and gripping thriller in its own right. Let's just hope that the late director's most famous quartet of blood-soaked gut-spillers soon carve their way onto BD, too.
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