The New York Ripper – Blu-ray Review

A film that fulfills both the positive and pejorative definitions of “sleaze,” Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER arrived – believe it or not – on Blu-Ray last week courtesy of the 21st century keepers of the exploitation flame, Blue Underground. The disc easily outstrips all previous foreign and domestic editions of the disc, and should be an essential purchase for fans of both the wildly uneven filmmaker and European exploitation of the ’70s and ’80s in general – for all others, here be dragons. The film is obscenely violent, sexually degrading, and bitterly misogynistic, but it has problems as well.

The story follows NYPD Detective Williams (featuring another staple of the genre, the slumming British thespian, personified here by Jack Hedley) as he tracks a serial killer who is brutally slashing women across Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry to a live sex show on 42nd St, all while speaking in a high pitched, duck-like voice. Williams reluctantly accepts the aid of a Columbia University psychiatrist, Dr. Davis (Paolo Malco) to help form a profile of the ripper, just as the maniac takes to calling Williams both at the station and at the home of his hooker/girlfriend, Kitty (Daniela Doria.) When young Fay Majors (the gorgeous Almanta Keller) survives a nighttime assault, she describes the killer as having a deformed hand – the very same man who was also at the scene of the sex show murder on the ‘duce (Renato Rossini, here billed as Howard Ross, an Italian exploitation fixture whose Tony Musante-looking mug and steely gaze can also be found in WEREWOLF WOMAN and THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE.) Once the man is identified as Mickey Scellenda – a two-bit punk with a history of sexual assault and an apartment literally filled with drugs and porn – he becomes the prime suspect; the pleas of Dr. Davis, who doesn’t believe that Scellenda fits his profile, are not enough to convince he police that they’ve got the wrong man, especially after Scellenda attacks Fay in her home during the abscence of her physician boyfriend Peter (Andrea Occhipinti, billed here as Andrew Painter, who went on to work with Fulci again in 1983’s CONQUEST only to learn what real on-screen humiliation means the next year in John Derek’s snore fest ode to wife Bo, BOLERO).

Glanced at objectively, THE NEW YORK RIPPER is a careless mess of a thriller. While the film nominally carries on the tradition of the Italian giallo, a genre whose name comes from the lurid yellow covers that graced the crime and thriller paperbacks on which the films drew their inspiration, it’s also very abusive of the genre’s founding principles, throwing the trace elements of grace and logic out the window in favor of a tour of humanity’s gutter. While there were certainly great giallos being made featuring strong elements of violence and sex (see Sergio Martino’s TORSO) they were made with a degree of care and artistry that is wholly missing here. Fulci earned his paycheck aboring on Italian fart comedies and nondescript westerns before a creative spark and the script for DON”T TORTURE A DUCKING arrived simultaneously in 1972 producing a taught suspense yarn containing actual eroticism rather than simply copious amounts of T&A. Fulci’s real breakthrough would come in 1979 with the vivid, gut-munching undead epic, ZOMBI. What began as a DAWN OF THE DEAD rip off morphed into an outright horror classic, with Fulci exhibiting a firm control of his Technovision frame, and boasting an uneasy, dread-fueled pace and the outrageous gore effects of longtime Fulci collaborator Gino De Rossi.

Fulci found himself the toast of the exploitation world and struck while the iron was still hot with the New England-gothic infused CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. In between those two came THE BEYOND, probably the director’s finest hour in any artistic sense, mixing his familiar doses of sexuality and violence but bolstered with a haunting, ethereal quality that seemed to indicate the beginning of an exciting new phase of his career.

THE NEW YORK RIPPER certainly signaled a new era for Fulci, but after the release of four noteworthy films, this effort felt like the work of a desperate magician whose hand had reached into the sticky bottom of the tricks bag. The film is artless, ugly, deeply cynical, and it proudly displays a misogynistic attitude that is utterly breathtaking. At the head of the pack of WTF moments is the head scratching decision to have the killer taunt his victims and the police with a grade-school Donald Duck impression that is neither scary nor funny and nearly takes the mickey out of the otherwise effective murder sequences (even if there is a justification revealed late in the film.)

And good Lord, what sequences! De Rossi’s makeup team worked overtime to devise what have to be among the most grisly onscreen deaths ever seen, from the business end of a broken whisky bottle delivered angrily to a sex performer’s privates to an agonizingly slow razor blade death (featuring one ultra-disturbing shot of the actress staring in horror directly into the camera, almost as if she were pleading with Fulci to stop the scene).

 That nearly all the film’s violent deaths are reserved for women is nothing new in the annals of horror history, but accusations of Fulci’s reported dislike of women can find no easier purchase than this film. Whether it’s the pathologist reporting that one victim had a knife “rammed up her joy trail” (thank you Dr. Giggles!) or the profoundly unappealing Det. Williams’ casually degrading treatment of both his own girlfriend and the husband of a ripper victim who was murdered during a motel room tryst. We’re not the least bit surprised to see a cop in a Fulci film flinch at the notion of an open marriage, but watching Williams strongly imply that she got just what she deserved while her grieving husband is on the verge of tears always catches us off guard.

Anyone even remotely familiar with genre conventions will know whom to instantly rule out as a suspect, as well as spot the real killer about ten seconds after they appear onscreen. Still, there is lip service paid to the notion of a ‘who done it’ – enough to keep the picture at least technically in giallo territory. But in Fulci’s world, unlikely coincidence reigns as the supreme story element; the mysterious man with the deformed hand appears at the scene of so many sexual assaults in the greater metropolitan area that you wonder why the police don’t simply follow him around! A search of his apartment (located in the Same Chelsea building that contained at least one of the area’s notorious S&M leather bars – you half-expect him to run into Al Pacino while shooting CRUISING) turns up a king’s ransom in pornographic magazines, shots of oiled bodybuilders, at least a dozen syringes, a penis-shaped hash pipe, and the coup de grace, a theatrical poster-sized print of himself – naked – pressed up against a giant image of Marilyn Monroe.

However, it’s these very outrageous elements that confirm the film’s status as a cult favorite (not for nothing is the screenplay credit buried halfway through the end crawl). There’s a scent of rapidly fading glory that permeates RIPPER and informs our appreciation almost 30 years later. Fulci (who cameos as a vague NYPD authority figure) was still regarded as an exciting filmmaker on a rapid rise up the exploitation food chain, but post-RIPPER his career nosedived into a mix of embarrassing trash that would make Jess Franco take an Alan Smithee credit (SODOM’S GHOST) or sad, faint echoes of prior glories (VOICES FROM BEYOND.)

One pleasure that does grow stronger in retrospect is the unprecedented tour of the fleshpits and grindhouses in and around 42nd St. THE NEW YORK RIPPER’s Manhattan has changed quite a bit since Italian directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari scuttled about the island, using its natural grime and urban decay as gratis art and set decoration. It’s also hard not to get a little wistful at the numerous shots of the World Trade Center towers, reminding us of how often filmmakers used them as a means of instantly fixing a location. We’re still trying to figure out exactly where Det. Williams’ apartment actually is, with its distinctive circular fire escape (poor Hedley seems like he’s on the verge of cardiac arrest after climbing to the top floor), and those familiar with Greenwich Village will note that Peter and Fay’s apartment is located in the bucolic Grove Court, making for a surprisingly good match with the Rome-shot interiors. Of course, the city has changed quite a bit since then (a fact lovingly documented on a new extra on the new Blu-Ray edition) and how amazing is it that a loose team of Italian exploitation artisans would wind up as the prime chroniclers of New York’s bleakest 20th century period?

Very few low budget European films of this vintage were shot with live sound, particularly those with the sort of extensive location filming that THE NEW YORK RIPPER showcases. The bigger British and American stars were almost always contracted to provide their own voices during the dubbing process (as Richard Johnson had done in Fulci’s ZOMBI a few years earlier), but apparently Jack Hedley was not considered a big enough star to make it worth going outside the usual pool of voice over talent. Hedley’s résumé consisted largely of small roles in large productions (he appears in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as the reporter outside St Paul’s and a has a featured role in the Bond picture FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), and it’s unlikely that schlepping permit-less around New York for Lucio Fulci did much for his subsequent career. It doesn’t help that ‘Detective Williams’ is one of the most unlikeable protagonists in eurosleaze history (a huge statement), whose character building moments consists mostly of stress smoking and calling his prostitute girlfriend a “stupid bitch”. Much better is Paolo Malco – a minor genre staple in the early ’80s who already appeared for Fulci the previous year in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and for Sergio Martino in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS – whose Columbia professor is far more sympathetic (even though Fulci tries to pull the rug out from under him as well by showing him secretly buying gay porn mags from a newsstand – a hateful no-no in the director’s oddly Catholic world view).

Blue Underground presents THE NEW YORK RIPPER in a staggering 1080p image on the newest edition to their Blu-Ray catalog. Long consigned to the domain of fuzzy VHS bootlegs, the film was previously available domestically on a non-anamorphic (and out of print) DVD edition from Anchor Bay, which presented the uncut version in the US for the first time. The amount of detail revealed here will be a revelation to fans, occasionally even revealing some EFX makeup inconsistencies that had always escaped us. The image might be a bit too bright at times, though this could also be due to flat lighting playing havoc with inexpensive Technovision lenses. The negative also has instances of dirt that show up just often enough to remind you what a miracle it is that this nearly 30-year-old, low-budget Italian offering has no business looking as good as it does here.

As if the image upgrade wasn’t enough reason to quack like a duck, there are two new featurettes (presented in HD, no less.) Aside from the aforementioned “NYC Locations Then and Now short,” there is also a brief interview with actress Zora Kerova, who played the female half of the couple performing the live sex show.

About the Author

Drew Fitzpatrick

By day, Drew Fitzpatrick toils at publishing in the black heart of Manhattan. But by night, he dons a pair of fetishistic black leather gloves and grinds out the "Internet’s only horror-themed Blog": The Blood-Spattered Scribe.

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