The New York Ripper is sleazy. It contains sleaze. It is about sleaze. In its semi-coherent narrative, it indulges in the ugliness that its story decries. This is an ugly, gross film. It’s also a weirdly beautiful document of late 20th century New York.
The New York Ripper was directed by Lucio Fulci, who made many interesting, intriguing horror films, though I would be hard pressed to say he ever actually made a good one, a movie that could be enjoyed without reservations. He has a knack for crafting devious scenes, that start out relatively benign then become uncomfortable, and move further, relentlessly into the horrific. The opening scene of The New York Ripper involves a man playing fetch with his red golden retriever. He tosses the stick into the bushes, and the golden comes back not with the stick, but with a severed human hand.
It belongs to a beautiful girl, a model, and she is the third victim of serial killer. He loves to cut up his young, female victims. This is completely familiar territory to any fan of the Italian giallo, and The New York Ripper follows that tradition as much as it does the early ’80s slasher movie model. What it dispenses with in the murders is much sense of style or wit. They are merely brutal, and “gritty”, and nasty.
The plot here is extremely thin, but basically centers around police detective Lt. Fred Williams investigating the various grotesque murders. The murderer begins to target Williams (through methods that are never explained) and phones him at his regular whore’s home. Then there’s a rich couple with an open marriage: the wife who goes to sex shows and tape-records them for her husband to listen to. And there’s a young blonde genius almost-Olympian (in what sport, again, the film does not explain) who gets attacked coming off the subway.
These myriad details congeal, like a jelly, into some kind of a story but it can barely be called a plot. And all of the murders are connected by a detail that might honestly be the stupidest thing I’ve even seen in one of these movies… the killer likes to make phone calls using a duck voice. And when he kills, he makes quacking noises. However stupid that sounds, it plays out even worse on screen. The murderer cutting a woman’s eyeball in half while quacking away like Donald Duck yelling at Huey, Dewie, and Lewie is a rare thing in cinema. But boy, is it completely freaking ridiculous.
By most proper standards of movies, The New York Ripper is a terrible film. If only it were terribly made, it could be ignored, but there’s a distinct sense of style to it. I think this is what keeps Fulci’s reputation alive where so many other Italian horror filmmakers are rightly relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history. His compositions are interesting. He never settles for the dull master shot and over the shoulder back and forth for conversations. The New York Ripper contains many involving, moving POV shots and is restless in the way it portrays its scenes.
There’s also the pervasive strangeness. There’s a scene, which comes from nowhere and leads to nothing, where the rich wife of the aforementioned open relationship goes to a street-side diner, where she gets (for lack of a better term) foot-banged by a Puerto Rican pool hustler. It’s gross in its content and nearly pornographic in its execution but damned if I’d seen anything like it in another slasher movie.
The New York Ripper‘s interiors were apparently shot in Rome, but the exteriors are all early ’80s New York, so the film works on another level as a documentary of the time. This was sleazy New York, just a few years removed from Taxi Driver and certainly well ahead of the reforms that would divest it of its festering criminal nature. It captures some of the vitality, and plenty of the ugliness, of the world it inhabits.
The plot makes no sense, and doesn’t develop in any way that generates concern or interest. There’s not much sense of an inner life to any of the characters at all, or that they exist outside of the necessities of the plot, as thin as it is. There’s maybe a single complex character in the film, that rich wife who ends up a victim of the Ripper but she’s more part of the film’s red herring than any central element of the plot. The New York Ripper is not an example of complex story craft.
It is, however, a strangely beautiful film. There are multiple sequences shot on location in New York, including a bravura murder sequence on the Staten Island ferry that take as much advantage of the location and scenic beauty of the city as possible. This is especially notable on the 4K Ultra HD disc which highlights the painterly beauty of cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller’s lens work. An Italian master also responsible for filming Dario Argento’s Deep Red and who worked on Antonioni’s L’avventura, his images rise above the material presented by the film’s grotesque, absurd, and sometimes completely stupid story.
The New York Ripper straddles, in storytelling terms, between a horror film and a more traditional Italian giallo. Those are murder mysteries, the best of which, like Blood and Black Lace, bring an artful, stylish eye to the murderous capering of their characters. The New York Ripper isn’t particularly artistic. It is nasty, and mean, but like most of Fulci movies it fascinates with its nastiness. It isn’t most movies that have the murderer slashing an eyeball with a razor blade, after all. It’s horrible to see, but it isn’t derivative.
I do not love The New York Ripper. I’m not bothered by the supposed misogyny of its sexual violence, but by the incoherence of its narrative, and some of the baffling decisions especially that duck voice. Whatever sense its story makes, it’s not compelling. But the individual scenes are, and their lack of connection with one another does not diminish the individual attractiveness of each, separate bit of drama. The New York Ripper cannot be called a good film, but for its particular audience, those who do not mind the blood, the grossness, the coarseness of a story that does not hold together, it has power.
The New York Ripper has been released on 4kK Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray set by Blue Underground. Extras include a commentary track by Fulci expert Troy Howarth. Two hours of video extras include “The Art Of Killing – Interview with Co-Writer Dardano Sacchetti” (29 min), “Three Fingers Of Violence – Interview with Star Howard Ross” (15 min), “The Second Victim – Interview with Co-Star Cinzia de Ponti” (12 min), “The Broken Bottle Murder – Interview with Co-Star Zora Kerova” (9 min), ‘”I’m an Actress!” – 2009 Interview with Co-Star Zora Kerova” (10 min), “The Beauty Killer – Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci” (23 min), “Paint Me Blood Red – Interview with Poster Artist Enzo Sciotti” (17 min) and “NYC Locations Then and Now” (4 min).