The New York Ripper (1982)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Written by: Dardano Sacchetti, Gianfranco Clerici, Lucio Fulci, Vincenzo Mannino
Starring: Almanta Suska, Andrea Occhipinti, Howard Ross, Jack Hedley
AKA LO SQUARTATORE DI NEW YORK
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD [UK release cut by 19 seconds]
RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
An old man is out walking his dog in New York City when the dog retrieves a decomposed human hand. It’s identified by the police as belonging to Ann-Lynne, a local prostitute. Burned-out detective Lieutenant Fred Williams interviews her landlady who tells him that she overheard the girl last week over the phone arranging to meet a man who spoke with a strange, duck-like voice. Another woman is murdered in broad daylight and a pathologist links it to a similar case in Harlem, the killer seemingly targeting sexually active young women, as well as having the gall to ring Williams up and taunt him – with a duck-like voice.…
This is probably Lucio Fulci’s most controversial film, a film that even many of his fans seem to find hard to like and to defend. It may not actually be quite as gruesome as Zombie Flesh Eaters or The Beyond, but the gore in those films hardly attempts to be realistic in nature and exists in fantastical settings. The New York Ripper occurs in a far more realistic world and its brutality against women is far more provocative and not easy to enjoy, though I’m not sure that the film is misogynist but just misanthropic, and there aren’t as many killings as you may have heard. There are those, such as Stephen Thrower in his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, who claim it to be among Fulci’s best work. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the latter, and even this time around I still found it to be one of those films that you feel dirty after you’ve watched it and just want to have a bath, while the storytelling is often just plain odd, at times rather original in construction but also making some serious mistakes like virtually revealing the killer early on and not really bothering to make us think it could be someone else. But it’s certainly more interesting than its reputation may led one to believe, and it could be one of its director’s most personal works. Some scenes, as uncomfortable as they may be, show Fulci at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker, even is as a whole the result doesn’t quite match the three fine giallos he made in the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s.
Perhaps unbelievably, Fulci described the film as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, stating it as “Hitchcock Revisited, a fantastic film with a plot, violence and sexuality.” Dardano Sacchetti’s script was originally more restrained, and it was Fulci who added much of the violent and sexual content, while others also made contributions. The lead role female role of Fay Majors was originally offered to Catriona MacColl who had previously starred in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, but she found the screenplay too distasteful and turned it down. The film was shot on location in New York with interiors filmed in Rome, and was released to little fuss in Italian and even some US cinemas where four minutes of sex was removed but the violence kept in. However, The UK censors, no doubt already irritated by the poster which announced FULVIA FILM PROUDLY PRESENTS – THE NEW YORK RIPPER – SLASHING UP WOMEN WAS HIS PLEASURE!, had the print shown to them escorted out of the country by armed guards. After many years of being banned in Britain the rights were purchased by Vipco who issued the film originally as an export-only VHS version under close police supervision, then eventually got it through the BBFC for UK release with only 22 seconds having to be cut, but a DVD release was canceled after some distributors refused to stock it. Consequently it was never available on UK DVD until 2007 when the movie was released by Shameless Films, and this version slightly reduced the cuts to 19 secs. Some versions also miss two brief non-violent scenes and the US Anchor Bay DVD accidentally put one tiny scene at the end of the film when it should occur much earlier!
The old man’s dog going to fetch the ball and instead coming out of the bushes with a severed hand [that really does look convincingly horrid] hints that we are watching a blackly comic piece, and I suppose there are a few nervous chuckles later on that aren’t because of iffy dubbing, but generally there’s not much to laugh at here except for right at the end which I will come to. The first killing we see adopts the murderer’s point of view as he approaches the girl in her car on a ferry and speaks in a duck-like voice, then slashes at her with his knife after which we cut to the ferry and the sound of its foghorn, and we think we aren’t going to be shown any violence – until we then cut back to the knife ripping into her skin. This may not be a likable film, but it’s hard to disagree that it shows his often overlooked directorial skill, his talent for manipulating the viewer even if it’s often in a cruel way. Our ‘hero’ Lieutenant Fred Williams is as weary and hard-boiled as you can get, Jack Hedley giving a very strong performance that I feel has been overlooked amidst the fuss made about the film’s extreme nature and supposed sexualisation of violence. For a while though the investigation virtually takes a back seat as the film is more interested in following the sexual adventures of thrill seeker Jane Lodge who tape records live sex shows for her husband and participates in a totally gratuitous scene involving – forced toe sex. The character does, though, get one of the most suspenseful bits in the whole film when she’s tied to a bed and tries to escape while her captor lies sleeping beside her.
By now it’s apparent that the three fingered pimp Mickey Scellenda whom Williams think is the Ripper isn’t actually him at all. He’s – well, I find it baffling that Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti thought that viewers wouldn’t pick up on who it was unless they were attempting a double bluff. Or maybe they were going for suspense over surprise in the Hitchcock manner, it’s hard to tell. One thing that is both unusual and which works is that the ‘heroine’ Fay doesn’t appear until a third of the way through and it initially looks like she’s going to be a victim in a really odd sequence that begins with her on a train being pursued by Scellenda which becomes a dream in which she’s chased into a cinema and has hands try to pull her into the ground before gorily slashed to death – without the viewer being able to tell when the transition from reality to fantasy is. Of course the scene that viewers probably remember most, and which is still cut in the UK, is when the Ripper razor slashes a tied up prostitute in her flat on her stomach, breast and eye, and it’s indeed a horrifying moment with fine effects, but perhaps just as disturbing is the way Williams, who’s been visiting her for some time, is told by the killer on the phone what he’s doing and he hesitates to tell the other cops around him about the location and what’s happening just because he doesn’t want others to know that he was seeing her. None of the male characters are likable, even the smug, superior psychiatrist Dr. Paul Davis who helps Williams. The women tend to be portrayed more positively whatever their profession or sexual habits are, and Fay the strongest character and probably the only one who isn’t corrupt in some way – is a woman. Despite the Ripper carving up pretty young women and the obvious sexual connotations thrown up by – say – a bottle to the crotch [shot in green light, this bit is slightly less gross than it sounds], the strongest impression I get is of a city drowning under it’s own filth and grime. But there’s no doubt that the argument that this film hates women does have weight and supposedly Fulci himself had serious issues with women – but then again so did Hitchcock.
The numerous exterior Big Apple shots almost make you believe the whole film was shot there and the filming style that Fulci made his own during this period of his career is well in evidence and well achieved. There’s lots of close-ups, perhaps used best during the toe scene where shots of eyes and mouths almost reach a frenzy. Lugi Kuveiller’s camera does much of the usual zooming in and out, but it’s often quite artful, sometimes lingering on odd things like people’s reflections in door knobs, while there’s also an interesting house search which is shown in one hand held take, the hand held camera going from room to room. No, Fulci’s style was never quite as distinctive as Argento’s or Bava’s, but the man was no hack, at least in this stage of his career. Though maybe it was partly out of necessity because he tended to shoot his films quickly, there’s a rawness to his filmmaking which would fit in well today. Overall some care was taken with this one, even if there’s still one dumb bit where a character crossing a road is paused for at least three seconds before we cut to the next scene. If it was intentional and possibly intended to create suspicion of this person, then it just seems silly. How can Fulci have watched it and thought “yes, that looks fine”?
In general the acting is okay and does survive the voice-overs. Almanta Suska is maybe a little vapid as Fay – okay she’s not the brightest of characters but I don’t feel that Suska shows enough of her strength. Howard Ross, one of those familiar faces in Italian genre movies of the time whose name you may never remember but who always enhances whatever he’s in, makes for a perfectly sleazy and menacing pimp. Composer Francesco De Masi’s main theme does evoke a big city but always feels a bit too Rocky-like for me. After all, this is in no way an upbeat film. De Masi does though adapt the main motif into some fine tension cues and writes a touching theme for one important character who you don’t get to see until near the end, and just before you get the explanation for why the killer is doing all this. It’s pretty ridiculous and gives us some ridiculous lines which you just can’t help but laugh at [i.e. “it was the duck that snapped in [person’s name] mind”] – yet, despite all the cynicism, the violence and the sordidness, The New York Ripper does end quite movingly, with a literal cry for help. ”Daddy please don’t leave me alone, please answer” is heard as the camera soars above the city. The words are uttered by somebody dying whose father has just been killed. The sheer bleakness of this conclusion possibly encapsulates Fulci’s world view, the attitude to life of a man who’d suffered much tragedy and who seems to have been full of hate, just as well as The Beyond. In that film we learnt we were all going to hell, but this one seems to suggest that it’s well deserved. The world is an uncaring, festering sewer which love and compassion just have no place in.