Midnight Ripper (1986)

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Also Known As: The Midnight Killer, You'll Die at Midnight, Morirai a mezzanotte
Directed By: Lamberto Bava (as John Old Jr.)
Starring: Valeria D'Obici, Leonardo Treviglio, Paolo Malco, Lara Wendel, Marcello Modugno
Release Date: 1986
Country of Origin: Italy

Note: This review contains spoilers

When police officer Nicola Levi spots his wife Sara out shopping he decides to pay her an unexpected visit and follows her into a nearby lingerie shop. As Sara goes to try on a pair of black panties, Nicola spies on her as she undresses but his titillation soon turns to horror when he sees a mystery man join in on the fun. Devastated by his wive's infidelity, Nicola quickly leaves, returning home to drown his sorrows in whisky and violent films. When Sara finally arrives home, Nicola struggles to contain his rage as he questions Sara on her infidelities. After an explosive argument that culminates in Nicola attempting to drown his wife after she stabs him with a ice pick, he leaves their marital home in a furious rage. Infuriated, Sara attempts to calm herself down by taking a shower but half way through her steamy session, she is stabbed to death by a mysterious gloved assailant brandishing the ice pick she had used moments prior. 

Sensing he has gone too far, Nicola seeks out the help of his criminal psychologist friend, Anna Berardi. Meanwhile, Sara's body has been discovered after a nosey neighbour phones the police about the couple's argument and Nicola's subsequent suspicious behaviour. Inspector Terzi (Paolo Malco) and his assistant inspector have been brought in to investigate the case and Terzi's assistant immediately suspects Nicola has committed the crime to get his hands on his wive's riches however Terzi is not wholly convinced. Contacting criminologist Anna, the two work together to deduce who the killer really is as the evidence begins to mount against Nicola. Anna's hypothesis is that the crimes are being committed by a killer known as the Midnight Ripper who terrorised the city a decade prior. The only problem with Anna's theory is that the ripper perished in a fire at the sanitarium he was committed to eight years ago. Anna must convince Inspector Terzi that the Ripper is still at large with the help of her criminology students, who include Terzi's daughter, Carol. As the murder spree continues, Inspector Terzi urges his daughter and her friends to leave the city and take refuge at an out of season seaside hotel but has Terzi inadvertently put the girls in the killer's sights? Who will survive in the final showdown of the Midnight Ripper?

Although not as critically celebrated as his famous father, Lamberto Bava was perhaps one of the most successful directors of gialli in the 1980s bar his mentor, Dario Argento. Whereas other directors struggled to match the success of the thrillers of the 1970s, Lamberto Bava successfully crafted several horror films over the course of the decade before he too succumbed to the changing landscape of the Italian film industry in the closing decade of the 20th century. Midnight Ripper is perhaps one of Lamberto Bava's lesser known horror films, finding itself in the shadow of the director's more accomplished earlier works. Lamberto Bava's atmospheric Southern set cinematic debut, Macabre (1980) was heralded as a triumphant entry into the world of Italian horror garnering the praise of his horror stalwart father, Mario Bava. Following up on the success of his debut film, Bava created his own take on the popular Italian giallo with 1983's A Blade in the Dark - a creatively claustrophobic low budget giallo lovingly inspired by the genre's definitive film of the 1980s, Dario Argento's Tenebrae (1982). After his foray into the giallo, Bava struck out into different territory and devised Demons with Dario Argento, a gloriously eighties gonzo horror film literally dripping with horror excess. Demons turned out to be such a phenomenal success that Bava and Argento quickly followed it up with Demons 2 but before embarking on the sequel to Demons with his mentor, Bava once again tried his hand at the giallo directing Midnight Ripper for Reteitalia and Dania Film, a made for television thriller.

The film's story was conceived by legendary Italian screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti whose credits include classic period gialli such as The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971), Shock (1977) and The Psychic (1977) as well as some of the most lauded examples of the genre from the 1980s such as The New York Ripper (1982) and A Blade in the Dark (1983). Sacchetti and Bava co wrote the screenplay for Midnight Ripper after their successful partnership on A Blade in the Dark. I'd argue that their screenplay for Midnight Ripper is far less cohesive and well constructed than their work on A Blade in the Dark, primarily due to some of the problematic elements in the film's storyline and the explanation for the killer's motivations which I'll discuss more in detail later on in this article. Fortunately, despite some issues surrounding character motivations, the film's narrative is fairly successful operating in the narrative conventions of the genre. The film's storyline of an inspector and a civilian teaming up to solve a crime has all the markings of a classic period giallo and is sure to appeal to gialli fans who prefer their later period films to adhere to the formulaic conventions of the traditional gialli of the sixties and seventies. Like in those definitive films , Dardano recognises the  equal importance of stylish kills and comedic moments and these two facets of the giallo are balanced rather nicely throughout the film. The stylish set pieces are well paced and although some of the explanatory segments of the film feel laboured, there's enough in the film's script to keep the audience engaged with the film's story. 

The film features an impressive cast with its standout performance coming from Italian cinema legend, Paolo Malco (The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper) as pipe smoking Commissioner Terzi. The character of Terzi was envisioned as a homage to Commissioner Maigret; a French literary character conceived by Georges Simenon famed for his trusty pipe and Terzi plays the role with aplomb and some much needed humour in his police station scenes. Valeria D'Obici (Killer Cop, Escape from the Bronx) competently plays criminologist Anna Berardi but is marred by her character's lack of back story and Lara Wendel of Tenebrae fame takes the film's other prominent role as Carol, Terzi's defiant daughter. The cast is rounded out with Carol's university friends, a sullen Nicola and his unfaithful wife, Terzi's assistant inspector and a few nameless female victims as is par the course with Italian thrillers. Lamberto Bava also makes a small blink or you'll miss it appearance in the film as the police crime scene photographer. Unlike many other gialli from the period, Midnight Ripper has fairly well written characters that you're inclined to root for as well as a likeable and charismatic leading man in Paolo Malco. The character of Carol on paper feels very two dimensional but Lara Wendel manages to elevate the role to something beyond a slasher stereotype and her tenacity to survive is palpable. For a genre of film that's often deemed as sleazy and misogynistic, it's always nice to see characters like Carol and her friends who act like typical university students and are depicted as such as opposed to the scantily clad sex kittens that are often a feature in these sorts of thrillers from the 1980s. Although characters such as Nicola are poorly developed and arguably under utilised, on the whole, Midnight Ripper's characters are fairly memorable and more importantly likeable possessing adequate characterisation for a giallo of this period.

The horror elements of the giallo are undoubtedly a key part of the genre however, as many Italian thriller fans will know, an intrinsic part of many gialli is their penchant for inserting comic relief alongside the blood letting. Midnight Ripper is no exception and follows the blueprint of Argento's Deep Red in deriving humour from its policeman character. Throughout the film, Inspector Terzi battles against police bureaucracy bemoaning the red tape and incessant filling out of forms that prevents him from completing simple tasks like obtaining a chair for his office. Not only does this add a nice bit of humour to the film as we watch Terzi desperately trying to locate his pipe in amongst the madness of a station move but, it also perhaps touches upon the pervasive bureaucracy in Italy during the 1980s. This offers a real contrast to the 1970s poliziotteschi approach of the police's "screw procedure, fuck the consequences type attitude". In Midnight Ripper, the police's incompetence stems from a system that focuses on sprawling multi-layered bureaucracy as opposed to grass roots police work. Inspector Terzi is seen as the voice of reason and intelligence in a sea of ineffectualness. Inspector Terzi is a rationalist as opposed to Anna who has more of an open minded attitude when it comes to the mysterious case of Franco Tribbo - again some of the film's humour is based in this conflict between two intellects, one who is a pragmatist and the other who believes in the resurrection of a dead killer much to the chagrin and humour of Terzi. Sometimes humour falls flat in the giallo but one of the film's greatest asset is how effectively the comedic elements are played by Paolo Malco.

Moving along at a steady pace, the film contains some memorable set pieces that are sure to satisfy fans of the giallo. The murder stagings are well shot and set in memorable locales and always feel like a nice pay off to the events leading to them. Although not as gory as A Blade in the Dark or as stylish, the bloodletting in Midnight Ripper still feels satisfying and the creativity of the set pieces somewhat makes up for the rather subdued violence. I'd put the violence in Midnight Ripper on par with other eighties offerings such as Nothing Underneath (1985) in terms of graphicness. The film's first murder is easily its most graphic in its bloody homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Despite the lack of overt violence, Midnight Ripper's murders have a fairly sexual connotation which elevates the film's nastiness quota and the scene that takes place in a shop changing room out of hours is fairly uncomfortable viewing although manages to avoid feeling too exploitative in context of the film's narrative. The film's climax is also mostly absent of violence but is chocked full of suspense thanks to the film's inventive camera work and use of space.

Arguably the use of space and the staging of the film's climax at an out of season hotel is Midnight Ripper at its most successful. The film's last half hour is particularly effective and really heightens the overall feeling of suspense that the film successfully builds towards. Feeling the tiniest bit reminiscent of The Shining's Overlook hotel, the characters move between stark industrial kitchens and brightly lit function rooms and hallways as they navigate the danger lurking around the hotel. In many ways, the film's final scenes feel more akin to a stalk and slash horror than your typical giallo but by no means is this to the detriment of the film and its climax. The film culminates in a great twist in its final scenes leading you to believe a certain outcome before cleverly revealing the true culprit. Admittedly the film's ending is a little far fetched and in this respect it seems to, again, resemble the slasher movie more than the giallo with it's dramatic scooby doc style unmasking but it's effectively filmed despite some issues with how the twist works logistically. 

Midnight Ripper is at times rather flat but the set pieces usually exhibit some inventive camera work. Bava's camera is constantly prowling between gaps in stairs, down through cracks in a wooden table and roaming through interesting locales in POV shots. There's some great claustrophobic close up shots as well as some nicely angled shots that heighten the film's feeling of suspense as we're never sure what's being obscured from fame; the scene shot in the museum is particularly effective at delivering a feeling of paranoia and imminent danger. Shot for TV and on a fairly small budget, Midnight Ripper was never going to look like a glossy thriller but despite the limitations of shooting a film for a television network, it still manages to look fairly stylish. 

One of Midnight Ripper's greatest assets is its setting with the film's action taking place in the beautiful historic town of Ascoli Piceno. It's a nice change of pace to see a film that takes place in a small town as opposed to one of Italy's sprawling metropolis'. The beachside views from Anna's apartment to the out of season coastal hotel that the students opt to stay in creates a vivid landscape and Bava's decision to shoot the majority of kill scenes in daylight really enhances the locations. One would imagine that Bava's decision to shoot an overwhelming potion of the film in daylight, despite the film's midnight title, feels like a clear homage to the brightly lit murders of Tenebrae.

Dario Argento's influence is apparent in Lamberto Bava's work with Midnight Ripper acting as a continuation of A Blade in the Dark's series of homages to the Italian maestro of horror. As one of Argento's proteges (alongside Michele Soavi) one could argue that Argento has had more of a direct influence on Lamberto Bava than his own father and this is certainly reflected throughout Midnight Ripper. One of the most notable nods to Dario Argento is a scene lifted from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) where an eyewitness to a crime mistakes the assailant for the victim. This is revealed in the final scene by Inspector Terzi who realises that the previous events witnessed by the police officer did not happen in the way he perceived them to, partially due to how one would read a violent struggle between a man and a woman as a distant onlooker. Like with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the mirror/painting scene in Deep Red, this revelation makes the viewer want to revisit the scene in order to see what really happened as opposed to the way one would initially read the scene. Although not nearly as effective as Bird in adopting this technique, Bava's nod to Argento's seminal giallo is still an effective trick that creates a sort of "ah ha" moment for the viewer. It's a real shame that the ham fisted approach to Anna's motivation hampers the impact of her reveal as the killer as this would make the aforementioned scene far more effective on repeat viewings.

A further, not so subtle, nod is made to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in a suspenseful scene that takes place in a museum full of stuffed birds. In this case, Bava uses your knowledge of Argento's film to subvert your expectations. As the audience thinks the killer is about to strike in the deserted museum, a cleaning lady is revealed to be the only other person in the building much to Carol's relief. IDeep Red is also referenced when Nicola attempts to drown his wife in the kitchen sink, strongly resembling the famous bath scene from Argento's 1975 seminal giallo.

Allusions to Argento's Tenebrae are also made in the casting of Lara Wendel who played victim Maria in Argento's film (thankfully she survives this time around) as well as a nod to the film's famous death sequence in which Ania Pieroni's Elsa has the pages of Peter Neal's paperback stuffed in her mouth - in the case of Midnight Ripper the pages are substituted with several pairs of lace panties. Bava rounds out his homages to Tenebrae by recruiting long time Argento collaborator, Claudio Simonetti as the film's composer. Simonetti's score is thoroughly enjoyable with its mixture of classical strings and synthesised melody. The film's main theme is extremely catchy and conveys the overall mood of the film rather nicely. Occasionally Midnight Ripper's score feels a little uninspired but it mostly mirrors the action in the film effectively and the heart beats utilised in the suspenseful scenes are nicely done although perhaps fairly unoriginal. Although it has slight similarities with Tenebrae's soundtrack in terms of the heavy use of synths, it still feels substantially different so those hoping for Simonetti to deliver a soundtrack on par with Tenebrae will be disappointed.

Again, another comparison to Tenebrae is the effective way production design is utilised as visual shorthand for the film's setting and characters. The killer's identity is alluded to through costuming with a yellow jumper, socks and a blouse serving as visual clues to the true perpetrator of the crimes. Yellow is used to punctuate the film's set design and we see the colour used repeatedly via wallpaper, curtains, staircase and an assortment of decorative objects. When yellow is used in the set design it is mostly contrasted against whites in a similar fashion to how Argento used red and white in Tenebrae.  As well as acting as a visual clue to who the murderer is, the colour also acts as a self referential nod to the film's genre. In one scene one of Carol's friends reads a giallo titled "Blood" in another visual nod to the genre (consequentially the book's artwork was taken from the Italian artwork for the Coen Brothers Blood Simple). The scene in which Monica reads the book proceeds a dream sequence which works as an omen as well as a play on Monica reading a horror thriller before bed. Small details such as this make for a satisfying watch and feel like a display of Bava's own sense of creativity.

What can sometimes feel problematic in the film, and an accusation I would also direct at Bava's previous offering, A Blade in the Dark, is that Midnight Ripper feels like a compilation of earlier gialli. The film feels very much like a love letter to the cinema of Argento and as such, it's hard to discern Bava's own style and voice from his master's. In my opinion, Midnight Ripper would be a much better film if Bava had stepped outside of his role as Argento's protege and tried his hand at something new like Soavi successfully managed to do during the late eighties and early nineties. That's not to say that Midnight Ripper is a bad film, far from it, the film works well as a 1980s giallo despite feeling somewhat derivative. Bava's ability to construct successful set pieces leads to many memorable moments including a fight between the killer and criminology student, Monica, who wields an electric hand mixer in a desperate attempt to take down the killer. However, despite moments of brilliance, Sacchetti's script is hampered by clunky dialogue and poor explanations and character motivations that detract from the overall story. The film would really have benefited from a revised script that sought to address the issues surrounding the killer's motivations. Macabre and A Blade in the Dark have the clear edge when it comes to creativity and cohesiveness in Bava's oeuvre.

The motivation behind Anna's killing spree is revealed to be a result of her repressed trauma of rape at the hands of Franco Tribbo. Unfortunately, Sacchetti's script doesn't explore the reason as to why Anna's trauma reemerged in such a violent fashion unlike Tenebrae, where Peter Neal's suppressed murderous desires were stirred upon hearing of a killer lifting his murders straight out of the pages of Neal's latest novel. Anna's revelation as the murderer makes little sense in relation to the explanation Inspector Terzi gives us at the end of the film. It would have been far more satisfying if another individual imitating the crimes of Tribbo was behind the initial murder a la Tenebrae. This would have stirred Anna's murderous rage and would have paved the way for the rest of the killings in the film. Alternatively, the character of Nicola could have been utilised in a better fashion. Anna running into him could have set off murderous feelings due to some sort of unsavoury sexual encounter between the two in the past that reignites memories of her rape. The film certainly alludes to some sort of sexual/romantic angle to their relationship but sadly, this is never explored. My biggest complaint about the film is the slap dash way in which this major plot point is handled as it makes little sense as to why Anna has chosen to start killing. What's also perhaps strange about Anna's motivation is that Terzi goes on to explain that Anna targeted individuals close to him as part of a game - she was proving that she could outsmart Terzi who she viewed as a worthy intellectual challenger. The explanations for Anna's crimes are at odds with each other - is she a calculated killer who murders to taunt and play games with Terzi or is she a deeply damaged woman who has tried to gain back control of a tragic past event?

On a second watch of the film, it is evident that Sacchetti's script does allude to Anna's rape (just not as to why her trauma from the event has resurfaced). In one scene, where Anna dressed as Franco, threatens a shop assistant with a knife, she says "You like being watched by other men! You like it, right? You wear such things to provoke men! You know what they think!" whilst forcing the woman to undress and wear a bra that Anna has taken off a shop mannequin. This scene has an overly sexual tone to it and reading it in a rape context, it appears that Anna is trying to claim back power by forcing another individual into a situation that she found herself in many years ago. The comments about men liking women in provocative clothing may suggest that Anna feels some sort of sexual shame or blame for what Franco did to her. One could also argue that when Franco raped Anna, part of him stayed with her and became part of her persona. In fact, Nicola foreshadows this idea when he says to Anna that it's like she has a double personality. Interestingly this idea would go on to be explored in Dario Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) when protagonist Anna Manni takes on the personality and physical attributes of her rapist, Alfredo.

A sexual element to the crimes

It's debatable as to whether the shower murder has a sexual tone to it and the majority of the other murders seem more violent than sexual despite the aforementioned changing room scene however,, there is one exception in the murder of criminology student, Monica. After Monica attempts to fight Anna off with an electric mixer she is stabbed to death and her body is moved away from the kitchen. Laying Monica's body on the floor, Anna then proceeds to penetrate Monica's vagina with the whisks of the mixer. This act, in my opinion, is further proof of Anna's sexual trauma and if the rest of the murders had been conducted in a similar way, would have made far more sense in relation to the explanation we are given for the crimes. Interestingly, this murder scene is reminiscent of Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and Body Double (1984) where victims are penetrated with electric drills. Lamberto Bava was clearly inspired by De Palma's interpretation of the giallo in Body Double and Dressed to Kill (1980) as is evidenced in the aforementioned whisk scene however, Bava also makes a reference to Body Double in Midnight Ripper in the final chase sequence between Anna and Carol which takes place on a beach with striped beach huts evoking an iconic scene from the film. In Bava's previous film, A Blade in the Dark, the killer's reveal is very similar to the reveal in Dressed to Kill. De Palma was clearly inspired by the Italian giallo so it's fascinating to watch a director like Bava take inspiration from those who contextualised the gialli of the golden age.

Another problematic issue with the ending is that earlier on in the film we see Franco Tribbo in Anna's mirror. The ending establishes that Anna was the killer all along, using a mask of Franco Tribbo to conceal her true identity. However, re-examining the film knowing that Anna is the killer, one of the more glaring issues is that Anna sees the reflection of Franco Tribbo (or someone wearing a mask of him) in her mirror and is suitably frightened. This is why one might immediately discount her as the killer. Again, this may lead the viewer to conclude that Anna was suffering from some sort of psychosis as a result of her trauma but Sachetti's script fails to identify this so we are left trying to figure out the true nature of Anna's condition. As mentioned above, if the film had two killers this scene would have made a lot more sense as we could attribute this version of Tribbo to Nicola. Unfortunately, we are left trying to figure out if Anna was aware that she was taking on Tribbo's persona and as such, we the audience aren't entirely sure how sympathetic we should be to her character as we are not entirely convinced of the reasoning behind her crimes.

Whilst Bava's 1983 giallo, A Blade in the Dark is often cited as one of the best examples of a 1980s giallo, his follow up thriller, Midnight Ripper is often forgotten. The lack of release on DVD/Blu Ray in English speaking territories has somewhat contributed to the film's forgotten status as well as its reputation as a lacklustre 1980s TV thriller; one that Bava was supposedly so disappointed in that he released it under the directorial pseudonym John Old Jr (although this is far more likely to be a homage to his father who used John Boy as his own pseudonym). Whereas Midnight Ripper undoubtedly fails to match the successes of Bava's other gialli of the decade (A Blade in the Dark and 1987's Delirium) it's still, in my opinion, a solid example of a 1980s Italian thriller. Unlike the vast majority of gialli from this period, Midnight Ripper is fairly conventional echoing the established tropes of the genre. The film does stray somewhat into the confides of the slasher film as it nears its conclusion but this is symptomatic of many Italian thrillers of the 1980s. Fundamentally, the Midnight Ripper holds up as a later period giallo transplanting the tried and tested formula of the 1970s into a mid 1980s setting to relative success. 

As a giallo slasher hybrid the film works fairly successfully and has many of the stalk and slash aspects that fans of the genre will appreciate. Connoisseurs of gialli will appreciate the references to the classic period of the genre, in particular the references to the work of Dario Argento, but may find the formulaic plot and slightly clumsy reveal problematic. Never the less, I'd thoroughly recommend Midnight Ripper to fans of eighties gialli and Lamberto Bava's more recognised work.

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  1. I thought this was a pretty good giallo, well worth a couple of viewings. For any fans in the U.S. seeking a copy, carries it. It's not an Arrow-quality transfer by any stretch, but good enough.

    Brian DePalma is my favorite director -- I read an interview with him a few years back where, if I am remembering this correctly, he more or less denied any influence from gialli, but even as much as I hold him in high esteem, it's hard for me to wholly believe that.

    1. That's the same copy I have! It's probably the best we're going to get at the moment and I'd encourage anyone else reading this comment section to seek it out if they're wanting a physical copy of the film.

      I agree that it's a pretty decent giallo especially for this period in time. I think the lack of discussion about it is purely down to the lack of availability and I hope that changes soon because it's an enjoyable film that I'm sure a lot of gialli fans would appreciate.

      DePalma is such a wonderful director and Blow Out is one of my favourite films although I also love his other thriller like films. Excellent taste, Wayne. I remember reading the same interview many years ago and it put me off DePalma for a while because I couldn't believe that he wasn't somewhat influenced by the gialli when the influence appears so apparent at times especially the famous Raising Cain scene and it's startling similarity to Tenebrae! I suspect there's a little influence there and that's no bad thing. DePalma himself went on to influence the gialli of the 1980s considerably!

  2. So glad to hear you like DePalma. He's definitely a polarizing director -- usually opinions rarely stray from "He's a Hitchcock wannabe hack!" to "The guy's an absolute genius!" While the truth may lie on some area between that, I definitely lean toward the "genius" end. I just rewatched "Passion" again recently and am still reeling from how good that is, at least to me.

    I need to re-watch Raising Cane and see what you are referring to regarding's been so long since I've seen RC, while I've seen Tenebrae more than a few times over the last few years. Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks Argento might have "borrowed" a bit of that scene in "Dressed to Kill" where Angie Dickinson is sitting on the museum bench, and used it in "Tenebrae", (SPOILER ALERT) right before John Saxon's character is murdered? The tone and POV of it so similar, with Saxon sitting on the park bench, watching the other people in the park, the way his attention shifts to this and that person? It's very close to the museum scene, at least for for those first 30 seconds or so...

    That's so funny you have the same DVD from Cult Action! I think it is the only physical copy of that film available. I feel compelled to give that company another shout out -- they have some other hard-to-find gialli on the site; I picked up a few during one of their sales that I haven't even watched yet, but will at some point over the holidays: "Marta" with Marisa Mell, and "Psychout for Murder" with Adrienne Larussa. Not to mention, my copy of the Synapse 4k restoration of "Suspiria" should be coming in the mail any day now -- that is the one I am really looking forward to!


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