When I penned my fourth column for The Offbeat Marquee series centered around the aesthetic of mid-century New York City on film, one film mentioned as a chief example of the gritty NYC look in the 1980s was Lucio Fulci’s legendary 1982 video nasty, The New York Ripper. The tale of a modern-day Jack the Ripper with a preference for beautiful young women (what else) and for sounding like Donald Duck whenever cryptically conversing with others, has risen to be a reviled effort in the wild world of 42nd street cinema. As over-the-top as Fulci gets, one of the formative figures in the giallo genre proceeds to blend two genres of film in both aesthetic and narrative ways in what was his attempt to achieve a tribute to one of the vanguards of genre cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. With its status of having repulsed the BBFC and mainline critics both then and now, and reappraised by cult cinema fans, one must ask a simple question: how bad is it really?
The New York Ripper takes two of my favorite niche styles of crime cinema and fuses them into one superb display of vice and violence. On one hand, you have a superbly stylized 80s giallo. Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller shoots the film with plenty attention paid to lovely neon lighting (including a prominent use of the color red), prolific composer Francesco De Masi dishes up an exercise in banging, guitar-laden crime jazz, and Fulci concocts an insane killer who commits acts so depraved that it’s debatable if they would make it into the pages of an issue of Heavy Metal. On the other hand, it has the attitude & grime of a 70s urban crime flick, a picture that could be set on the shelf alongside Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Lieutenant Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) and half the cast would fit right in with the guys in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, exuding a smartass demeanor that is absolutely fun to watch. Kuveiller also aids in one of Fulci’s greatest location shoots in New York City, conjuring up the chilliness of Owen Roizman’s photography in The French Connection with plenty of grease to spare. Sentimental fools like me also love seeing that footage of the Big Apple from back then.
And then there are the heaps of gore. If Maniac had Gene Siskel out of the theater in 30 minutes, I can’t imagine him watching New York Ripper for more than 15. Fulci refuses to fuck around with this, producing some of the most grotesque deaths in his career. Not by the power invested in insects and zombification in the ways that fueled the “Gates of Hell” trilogy (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, & House by the Cemetery), but by sheer, unbridled mutilation of the human form. Makeup effects artist Germano Natali is working overtime with his team here to bring effects work that is so disgusting, it makes up for any lack of conviction by sheer conceptual brutality. Be worn that the moment a broken bottle or a razor blade is on screen, shit will hit the fan in the most grindhouse way imaginable.
So, it is plain to see that the film is vile in nature and has its perverse ways of playing out. However, what I really appreciate about this, and what makes this one of my favorite gialli of all time, is what exactly Fulci accomplishes. A key to the killer’s motives is that of beauty, and Fulci is able to (at least for this viewer) bring you into the film expecting a stock standard giallo before being plunged into an underground maelstrom of kinks & fetishes that keeps pulling you in with a blend of fascination and revolting sensations. It’s said best by the excellent writer and podcast host Rachael Nisbet on her blog Hypnotic Crescendos: “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.” It’s also worth mentioning issues of gender dynamics in the film as it is clear Fulci is cognizant of such dynamics at play. I find Letterboxd user Sally Jane Black’s reading of the piece the most compelling in highlighting this. In her review, she writes, “Note how the violence against women in this film aren’t just from one fucked up weirdo, but from men everywhere. Every man in this film is depicted as at the least sexually obsessed and at most a sex offender.”
The key to understanding The New York Ripper is simply getting a handle on the film’s approach: taking the giallo format and infusing it with incredibly repulsive material and a style that isn’t common for the genre to dabble with. It is the sex and violence of the genre through a French Connection lens, where all are imperfect actors in a grizzly and grimy tale, indulging in vices, oft times at the expense of others. A twisted New York where our killer’s ultimate goal is the apparent destruction of beauty. There aren’t many people to root for so to speak, and it may be home to one of the most downbeat endings in the history of genre film. Italy’s Godfather of Gore ensures that this notorious flick is not for the faint of heart, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if a ready-and-willing cult cinephile decides to pluck out this greasy gem, they’ll find it most fascinating. Perhaps not as fun as Fulci’s zombie pictures, but most fascinating.