Even the hardcore Fangoria/Gorezone reading horror fans were skeeved out by The New York Ripper back in the day. This giallo/slasher hybrid from Lucio Fulci’s most fertile era as a horror filmmaker had to wait a few years to get brief theatrical distribution in the U.S., ultimately trickling down to VHS in the latter half of the ’80s. Its potent, queasy blend of sex and splattery murder setpieces got a chilly reception from the general horror audience at the time, especially the critics.
The film built up a following over time amongst the director’s fans with subsequent digital releases but it still gets stiff-armed by the critics, who often accuse it of being a misogynistic film. A close look reveals that accusation is not fair.
The premise begins with a string of women being murdered by a mysterious killer in New York. A grizzled, aging cop, Lt. Williams (Jack Hedley) tries to find the killer, utilizing the help of psychologist Paul Davis (Paolo Malco) to figure out the killer’s rationale. The only clue the killer leaves is a string of mysterious phone calls using a weird, childlike voice that often trails off in duck-style quacking noises (!!!). A suspect arises in Mickey (Howard Ross), a gigolo who crosses paths with a few victims, but the sleuths discover there are no easy answers to why the killings are happening.
This review contends that The New York Ripper is not a misogynistic film but it’s also not difficult to understand why it gets labeled this way. The majority of the victims of women and they are often boldly sexual, like a wealthy housewife (Alexandra Delli Colli) who cruises downtown for rough trade or a star (Zora Kerova) of live sex shows on 42nd Street. The murders are also depicted in a pitiless manner: Fulci spares the viewer none of the victims’ suffering and the vicious murders, using everything from a straight razor to a broken bottle, are shown up-close with clinical levels of gore.
However, if you get past Fulci’s gleeful shock tactics, a truth about the director reveals itself: he wasn’t a misogynist so much as he was a misanthrope. Whatever the proclivities of the women, they come off a hell of a lot more sympathetic than the men, who often hide their sexual obsessions under a veneer of respectability and are prone to mistreating women. In a memorable moment, the supposed cop hero doesn’t rush to save one victim because an embarrassing secret about his personal life would be revealed.
Fulci portrays a world where everyone is driven by their desires, sleaze is a bigger currency than honesty and the film’s vicious crimes simply reflect the moral decay of the citizens. The script provides a sturdy narrative to back up his worldview: it’s a bit reliant on comic-book psychology, particularly when the killer is revealed, but it pulls an effective bait-and-switch midway through the story in manipulating subplots and character focus. When the killer’s motivation is revealed near the end, it set things up for a final bit of narrative cruelty that is gore-free but ends the film on a crushingly downbeat note (one imagines Fulci grinning with vindictive glee when he first read it).
If you can roll with the film’s one-two punch of luridness and brutality, it’s made with impeccable style. Fulci makes excellent use of NYC locations, particularly some searing views of 42nd Street’s seedy side, and his fluid visual sense creates a hypnotic frame for the grim plotline. His style is aided beautifully by sleek photography by Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, editing by Vincenzo Tomassi that is attentive to rhythm and a score by Francesco De Masi that finds the meeting point between cop show funk of the ’70s and early ’80s disco. Together, these craftsmen create a film that mixes the urban alienation and sex-driven seaminess of Cruising with the chic visual stylization of Dressed To Kill.
Ultimately, The New York Ripper is advanced viewing for Fulci fans. It’s likely to be too vicious for neophytes but those accustomed to the director’s dark worldview will appreciate how skillfully made it is. No Italian horror director did misanthropy quite like Fulci and this is one of his most intense cinematic expressions of that attitude.
Blu-Ray Notes: this one’s been released more than once in digital form around the world but the new 3-disc limited edition from Blue Underground is the best set to date. The 4K restoration is stunning, easily the best it’s ever looked on video in the U.S.. It collects the extras from the prior Blue Underground release and adds a batch of worthwhile new extras including a new commentary track and killer sitdowns with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci expert Stephen Thrower. Even better, it includes the expanded 70-minute CD of the DeMasi score. The result is a must for anyone with an interest in Fulci.