The New York Ripper (1982)

Friday, 12 June 2015

Also Known As: Lo squartatore di New York, L'Eventreur de New York
Directed By: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Jack Hedley, Almanta Suska, Howard Ross, Andrea Occhipinti, Paolo Malco
Running Time: 91 minutes//93 minutes (director's cut)
Release Date: 1982
Country Of Origin: Italy

Despite being a fan of the giallo I've always had a fair amount of trepidation when it comes to The New York Ripper. The reputation of Lucio Fulci's 1982 depraved giallo long proceeds itself as an incredibly violent, misogynistic and most of all, controversial piece of cinema. It's often viewed as the film that went too far - a view shared by the BBFC who still won't release the film uncut 31 years after its initial classification submission. With such a notorious, nasty reputation, I was reluctant to watch the New York Ripper but I'm glad I eventually did because I found the film to be a fascinating entry in gialli cinema which is often unfairly dismissed as misogynistic, sleazy trash. I'm going to take some time here to discuss the film and examine some of the misogyny claims and ideas throughout the film. I apologise in advance for the long read...

Despite sharing many of the conventions of the typical giallo, the New York Ripper immediately sets itself apart from the giallo film by distancing itself from the elaborate Italian and European settings we are used to in the genre. Whereas the majority of giallo films tend to be set in Italy or European capitals, Fulci strikes out against the norm by setting his film in New York in all of its sleazy, early eighties glory. Fulci takes full advantage of New York's seedy reputation reveling in its sordid sex shows, run down hotels and vice ridden streets to tell his story about a serial killer who dispatches pretty young women in various, increasingly grizzly ways. As our killer continues to stalk and murder against the cold, alienated backdrop of New York, it is up to our protagonist, the world weary New York detective, Lt. Fred Williams to catch the killer entering into a deadly game of cat and mouse that reaches a brutally sadistic crescendo. 

Fulci masterfully takes the conventions of the giallo film and lures the audience into a false sense of security as he gently introduces us to his depraved tale of sexual deviancy and gruesome murder.The film opens with a scenic view of New York, the camera pans across still water and across the skyline. We are introduced to an old man walking his dog, he lets him off the lead and they begin to play fetch. After a few gos, the old man throws the stick into a bush and the dog slowly looks for it. As an audience used to horror conventions we anticipate what's going to happen, the dog is going to find something and it's going to be something grotesque. Our expectations are realised when the dog happily pads back with a decaying hand in his mouth. The man recoils in horror as a jarring crash of music plays - the titles appear and a jaunty, bass driven song kicks in as the camera pans across the New York skyline. The scene juxtaposes perfectly against the brutality of the murder scenes throughout the film - it's a laughable opening that plays up to our preconceptions of what horror and gialli are. 

The second scene compounds this idea introducing us to Lt. Fred Williams and a female police officer. The police officer laughs at Williams telling him his eccentric interviewee has arrived. The scene is very much played for laughs, as the woman, a caricature of a middle aged busy body, chatters away at the disinterested Williams. This provides us with relevant information to the film's story but it is a scene very much played for laughs to lure us into a false sense of security regarding the film's overall bleak, nihilistic tone. The first two scenes of the film puts the audience at ease and follow the classic giallo blueprint which makes the first murder scene so shocking. Fulci uses these initial scenes to trick the audience into believing that the film will be your typical giallo full of thrills, nudity and sleazy fun. It is at our first murder scene that Fulci completely flips the film by taking it to extremes with a disgustingly brutal murder that is savagely drawn out lacking the titillating, absurd quality that gialli typically possess. This initial murder takes the film in a drastically different direction to what has been initially set up and takes it down the path that has earned it the reputation as a sleazy, misogynistic piece of cinema. 

I feel that the reputation that the New York Ripper has is unjust. Yes, the film revels in a borderline perverse brutality towards sexually active, young and attractive women yet I truly believe that Fulci's film also offers a critique of sexual deviancy. The sex in New York Ripper is dirty and disgusting, a far cry from the titillating sex and rape scenes found in the majority of Italian horror. As a piece of Italian cult cinema its a million miles away from the sexually liberated films of the 1970s, the New York Ripper is very much a film caught in the jaws of the AIDS epidemic and the idea that sex is something we should be fearful of. The famous toe scene is initially titillating but unfolds into something thoroughly unpleasant as we see the emotional toil of the act on Jane's face. Fulci chastises us for enjoying the luridness of the scene by contrasting the silly, pornographic nature of the sex act with the revulsion and emotional upset of Jane. Many argue that the New York Ripper is misogynistic yet we have a lead character, Jane, who "enjoys" the sort of deviant behaviour that men are seen to enjoy i.e. visiting a sex show and masturbating to what's on stage, engaging in casual sexual encounters. Just like the men of the film, Jane is seeking sexual release which ultimately leads to frustration, disgust and her inevitable downfall. In fact, one could argue that the New York Ripper isn't really about sex at all - it is the belief that the murders are sexually motivated that allow the killer to escape detection. Those investigating the killer project their own sexual perversions onto the case failing to see the truth. Sex is a major theme throughout the film and I think it would be naive to view it purely as sensationalism although I do feel that Fulci perhaps revels in some of the more lurid sexual details.

For all of the discussion regarding the violence and misogyny of Fulci's oeuvre, it's easy to forget that Fulci was a talented film maker. The New York Ripper is beautifully shot with some incredible looking scenes. Fay's subway ride at night is a beautifully done piece of suspense cinema that's exceptionally lit and framed utilising the subway location perfectly. The following nightmare scene in the cinema is a perfect slice of surreal cinema that uses a great array of bright coloured lights to create a nightmare fuelled atmosphere. What I really appreciate about the New York Ripper is the beauty in the more mundane details - the ferry disembarking at the start of the film is a great example of how Fulci incorporates mundane elements into his films and makes them look artful. Fulci takes great detail in showcasing the New York exteriors and landscape as well as his gruesome murders and set pieces. 

There's a real sense of loneliness that permeates the film and the New York setting perfectly conveys that sense of alienation - the characters are constantly surrounded by people who are nothing more than self serving strangers, selfish in their desires and motives. The characters within relationships seem alienated and distant from their other halves and the ones who are single are happy to get their kicks from sexually deviant habits. Our "hero" regularly frequents a prostitute, who grapples with admitting his vice to save her life or whether to let his dirty little secret die alongside her.The wise, methodical psychiatrist of the film is an expert in deviant behaviour but he himself hides his gay pornography away in shame. Characters who appear to be respectable members of society harbour dirty vices that appear to be born out of frustration and loneliness. Ultimately, the characters who reside in the world of The New York Ripper are unfulfilled without a real sense of purpose - their world is unjust and cruel and they're powerless to deal with that harsh reality. This idea crescendos in one of the bleakest endings in the Italian giallo. 

The New York Ripper is perhaps best known for its duck voiced killer who quacks down the telephone line taunting Fred over his failure to stop the killings. The duck voice has divided viewers with many finding it to be a silly gimmick that detracts from the perverse brutality of the film. The use of the Donald duck voice makes sense in relation to the ending of the film but it also acts as a nod towards Fulci's most famous giallo, Don't Torture a Duckling - something that is perhaps lost on some viewers. As a fan of gialli, I enjoyed the reference which felt particularly fitting as the two films act as bookends for the gialli period in Fulci's career. In terms of the film itself, I enjoyed the duck voice - the hysterical, silly nature of the calls gave the film a sinister surreal feel. The use of a children's character voice juxtaposed incredibly well against the savagery of the killings adding to the uneasy atmosphere of the film. 

I couldn't talk about the New York Ripper without mentioning the incredible score composed by Francesco De Masi. The main theme to the film is a fantastic bass driven, funk tune that is perhaps one of my favourite themes in Italian horror. I've talked repeatedly about the juxtapositions in the film against the brutal content and the silly/titillating and the opening theme once again cements this idea. It's a jaunty, catchy theme that wouldn't feel out of a place in an early 80s cop show. When the film begins with the theme playing, you are lured into a false sense of security believing Fulci's film to be another titillating giallo full of fun, nudity and incompetent police work. Of course, these aspects exist but the harsh nihilistic streak that runs through the film seems at odds with the musical choices, creating a brilliant feeling of overall strangeness and uncertainty throughout. Tracks such as Fay seem to convey that perfect sense of loneliness in beautiful melodic form. De Masi's soundtrack is truly wonderful filled with mellow jazz, gorgeous trumpets, saxophones and flutes that contrast brilliantly against the grimy, dark nature of the film.

The New York Ripper is a well crafted giallo pushed to the extremes of the genre. Maligned for the wrong reasons, the New York Ripper offers a rare critique of sexual deviancy and dysfunction in Italian horror utilising its seedy New York environment perfectly. If you can stomach the brutal violence you will find a film that has a compellingly bleak atmosphere, stunning photography and a well put together story with a competent cast, fantastic score and creative set pieces that are sure to satisfy the horror aficionado.


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