Early in Lucio Fulci’s censor-baiting controversy-magnet ‘The New York Ripper’ – that staple of the BBFC and DOP hit lists, a film that remains so infamous that even mentioning the title gets you filthy looks in most social situations (try it; five points for talking about it at work, ten at the kids’ playground, fifteen in front of your mother, twenty in church) – there’s a scene where pathologist Dr Jones (Giordano Falzoni) performs an autopsy on a young woman who has been brutally murdered by the eponymous nut job, and describes his findings to Detective Williams (Jack Hedley). The murder weapon: a fucking big knife. The application thereof: “He stuck it up her love trail.”
Allow me to repeat that, just in case you didn’t pick up on the subtleties and nuances on a first reading:
“He stuck it up her love trail.”
Ladies and gentlemen, abandon your sense of aesthetics, put your aspirations to classy entertainment in cold storage, mothball your morality and drape the dust covers over your finer feelings. We’re about to submerge ourselves in 93 minutes of sleaze, depravity and nastily sexualized violence. (Well, what else were you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?)
An old man out walking his dog finds the mutilated corpse of a young woman. Williams pegs it as the same modus operandi as the killing of a hooker some weeks earlier. A cyclist in hot pants has an altercation with a motorist and is brutally assaulted and killed on the Manhattan ferry shortly thereafter. Jane Lodge (Alexandra Delli Colli), the sexually provocative wife of respected academic Dr Lodge (Laurence Welles) attends a sex show after which one of the performers is murdered by way of a broken bottle applied to her nether regions. Jane’s taste for the seedier side of life brings her into the orbit of Mickey Scellenda (Howard Ross), a small time thug who might know more about the “Ripper” case than he’s letting on.
Meanwhile, troubled student Fay Majors (Alamanta Keller) has a narrow escape from a stalker on the subway. She’s the only witness Williams has, but with the taunting phone calls he’s receiving from the killer, and his somewhat seedy private life about to go public, can Williams hold it together, nail the “Ripper” and keep Fay out of danger? And does Fay herself have something to hide? Will her milquetoast boyfriend Peter Bunch (Andrew Painter) be able to defend her? And why does cynical psychologist Dr Paul Davis (Paolo Malco) so eagerly respond to Williams’s invitation to help profile the killer?
On the one hand, ‘The New York Ripper’ has all the elements of a clinically efficient giallo, ticking all the boxes as regards sleaze, nudity, protracted death scenes, cod-psychology and a pass-the-parcel red herrings game in which most of the major characters have good reason to invite suspicion at one time or another. Add to this the presence of Lucio Fulci – a man who, for all his notoriety, was a highly capable director who knew how to generate tension and keep a film’s narrative going, even when the script was no great shakes – and there ought to be enough here to mount a sterling defence of ‘The New York Ripper’ as a minor classic, undeservedly tainted by the smug, hyperbolic moralizing of the chattering classes.
But for one small problem.
It is fucking nasty. It is, in fact, one of the nastiest, seediest, grubbiest and downright unpleasant pieces of work I’ve seen. I’d make a case for the artistic integrity of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ over ‘The New York Ripper’. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ at least reserves its journey into the most joyless recesses of the human psyche for the last half hour or so – and delivers its catalogue of cruelties in the service of a statement about the manipulation of the medium and whether “civilized” man is actually more reprehensible in his actions than the so-called savage.
‘The New York Ripper’, however, presents an interminable succession of women being murdered and sexually objectified, usually at the same time. Even scene that don’t end in slaughter treat the female characters like so much meat. Case in point: the narratively redundant but gratuitously lingered-on moment (for “moment” read “about ten minutes”) when Jane wanders into a pool hall and gets frigged by a latino thug’s toe. (Which is not a sentence I imagined myself typing when I got up this morning.) It’s a scene that serves no discernible purpose (it’s already been established that Jane likes it kinky), yet Fulci’s camera gloats over it like a voyeur.
Moreover, there’s none of the visual brilliance of ‘The Beyond’, ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’, ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ or ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’. In fact, the only commonality with that straight-up giallo classic is the duck-like voice the killer adopts prior to offing another poor woman or making a “you can’t catch me” call to Williams. Subject of whom, for all that Hedley tries to imbue him with some world-weary characterization, there’s no backstory to the cop, no motivational factor, and no indication of why the “Ripper” targets him when he rings the cops to bait them about his latest atrocity. In fact, this entire element seems to have been included purely as parallel to the actual Jack the Ripper case, where JtR wrote provocative letters to the press, mocking the police’s inability to catch him.
I’m not sure whether Fulci took the decision from the outset to make the film as visually dreary as possible, but he certainly succeeds in painting one of the unloveliest cinematic pictures of New York.
So, with an arguably deliberate anti-aesthetic, little to no emotional investment in the characters, and the procedural aspects of the story purely an exercise in mechanics (even the race-against-time finale is blandly by-the-numbers), all that is left are the killings themselves. All of which of have an explicitly sexual imperative. When the defining shot of a film is a close-up of a straight razor being applied to a woman’s breast, that pretty much tells you all you need to know.
There’s a lot of hate for ‘The New York Ripper’ – and it’s been earned.