I've finally completed my quest to revisit some of giallo's most sleazy films, and I've saved the best for last: Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper. The Godfather of Gore delivers everything we've come to expect in this controversial outing: the fetishistic eye violence, the stomach-churning special effects, and a twisting mystery reminiscent of his earlier work in this subgenre (most notably, Don't Torture a Duckling). However, New York Ripper isn't your typical Fulci film -- it's one that divides even his most ardent supporters into two distinct camps: those who consider it one of his finest creations and another group who finds it to be pure, unadulterated trash. I happen to side with the former group, because despite the debatable arguments about the film's rampant misogyny and disturbing physical/sexual antics, it's still one of the director's most competently helmed -- and perhaps most personally revealing creations.
Fulci was -- and remains -- something of an enigma in the annals of Italian horror cinema. A director capable of crafting truly compelling films in the right instances, but one who was never above doing a rush job for a few bucks too. Because of this, it's difficult to figure out where Fulci fits in with his contemporaries overall. Clearly, he's not on the same level as an Argento -- but at the same time, those who want to relegate him to the lower tiers of the Italian horror scene with directors like Lenzi and Joe D'Amato are underselling him significantly. New York Ripper seems to encapsulate the Fulci conundrum almost perfectly, but on a much smaller scale. What do you make of a film that's so well shot but is also filled with what many consider to be repulsive and abhorrent imagery? Was Fulci a hack who got lucky or was there something more to his work -- a genuine talent for the art of filmmaking? The issue isn't clear cut, particularly because Fulci's best work was so inextricably linked with that of his screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti. Sacchetti often complained that Fulci took too much credit for the things in their collaborations. When the duo split, the director's work certainly suffered. This lends credence to the value of Sacchetti's contributions -- yet when it comes to New York Ripper, the writer shunts everything to Fulci. It's as if even Sacchetti was put off by the tone and philosophy of Fulci's movie.
A maniac is slicing his way through NYC, targeting young women and leaving their sexually mutilated corpses in his wake. It's up to Detective Fred Williamson to put an end to the killer's reign of terror, but Williamson isn't exactly an angel either -- witnessed by his ongoing relationship with a prostitute. With the investigation stymied, the Detective looks for assistance from Dr. Paul Davis, a psychotherapy professor. The duo follow a seemingly never-ending string of red herrings as the killer continues to knock off women. There's a break in the case when one potential victim, Fay Majors, survives her attack. Williamson and Davis follow the trail of dead ends, while the Donald Duck-voiced madman taunts the detective at every turn. To make the stakes even more personal, the killer offs Williamson's prostitute girlfriend in one of the most infamous sequences in the movie. When one of the duo's main suspects turns up dead (and the coroner concludes he's been dead for too long to have killed the prostitute), Fay and her husband Peter become the main suspects. But is it just another dead end, or can Williamson and Davis get someone to finally quack?
Whenever New York Ripper comes up in conversation, the discussion always revolves around one of two main elements: the film's perceived brutally misogynistic tone, or the hilarious Donald Duck voice of the killer. If New York Ripper has a calling card, it's invariably one of these two things. Fulci's film was banned before the Video Nasty craze of 1984 and was put through the DVD chopping block on several occasions, but exists today complete and uncut on blu-ray. While 1982 was still early in the slasher era, films were starting to become more and more violent -- and films like Cannibal Holocaust and Ripper were entering into a new era of unrelenting nihilism and cruelty. Several reviews I've read of the film have pointed out that Ripper simply came about at the wrong time. However, New York Ripper truly is the perfect film for its era -- a period where New York City was still dangerous (long before Disney eradicated the smut theaters and strip clubs of 42nd Street), where the specter of AIDS hadn't quite killed the sexual revolution, and a time where pushing the envelope in terms of cinematic violence was being done not only in genre and exploitation films, but in the movies of mainstream filmmakers.
I'd argue that the shots of 42nd Street and the New York City landscape are far more grimy and lascivious than anything actually happening to Fulci's characters. Either way, it's a nice self-referential part of the film that makes Ripper resonate with so many people -- especially for someone like myself who grew up in New York City and has heard endless stories from her parents about what the city used to be like. It's not merely Fulci hating women, but instead more of a reflection on how things were in that particular time and place. Slasher film victims are typically women, so it's not as if Fulci singled out females -- he merely upped the ante when it came to the violence of the murders. To me, these are just a few of the things that seem to be mistaken for misogyny in the film, but one other thing stands out. Once the killer's motive is uncovered Williamson and Davis all but laugh out loud at the killer, which is interesting because for New York Ripper to be truly misogynistic it would seem as though Fulci would have to make his killer someone we identified with on some level. The fact that even the main characters blow off his motive as ludicrous serves not only as a condemnation and dismissal of the killer (thereby essentially killing the misogynistic argument in the process), but also a bit of commentary on how the motives of most giallo film killers are ridiculous at best.
Another way Fulci discredits his killer is by saddling him with the odd Donald Duck voice -- a quirky connection to his earlier work, Don't Torture a Duckling. I'm not sure why the killer has this way of speaking (the decision does make sense on one level that I'll not divulge here because it crosses into spoiler territory), but he yet again provides something that causes the audience to not take the murderer seriously. The idea of a vicious psycho killer slaughtering women while talking like he's in a Disney cartoon is bizarre -- one part hysterical, one part terrifying. In some ways, it feels almost like an homage to Bob Clark's early slasher film, Black Christmas. That film featured a series of bizarre and terrifying phone calls from a madman known as Billy. The effect in New York Ripper isn't quite the same -- Billy's calls are terrifying, but never particularly funny – but the influence certainly seems to be there.
Another benefit to using such a distinctive voice for the killer is that it ensures Fulci's film is memorable. No one who ever sees Ripper or hears one of its phone calls will ever forget it. This once again ties back into the idea of Fulci working diligently to make a film that was unforgettable in an increasingly more crowded genre. Whether one takes the voice of the film's murderer seriously or not is nearly irrelevant -- the director succeeded in making his movie one that audiences won't soon forget.
In the end, there's no denying that New York Ripper is an unpleasant film. Fulci fills the experience with a dark and nihilistic tone that snuffs out any hope of there being true good in the world like a candle flame in a hurricane. Even the film's final sequence drives this point home. The killer may be vanquished, but there's still no happy ending for anyone involved. The cohesiveness of this philosophical vision, coupled with the technical skill on display trumps anything the naysayers have to offer for me. Picking Fulci's best film is a challenge, but New York Ripper certainly belongs in the discussion whenever the topic comes up. It's not for everyone, but fans who like their gialli filled with sleaze and a mean streak should definitely schedule a viewing of this misunderstood classic.