The New York Ripper: Collector's Edition Review
Note: much of the information in this review regarding the historical context of The New York Ripper's release and the furore surrounding it comes from Stephen Thrower's excellent book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci.
In 1982, the British gutter press was in the early stages of engineering the "Video Nasties" witch-hunt. Hysteria was mounting surrounding the availability of unlicensed and supposedly dangerous videos - videos containing unexpurgated versions of films that had been cut or banned at the hands of the British Board of Film Censors. It would be fair to say that The New York Ripper (Lo Squartatore di New York), Lucio Fulci's most brutal and nihilistic film to date, arrived at an extremely inopportune time. Chief censor James Ferman, whose patience with Fulci had already been tested with horrors like The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, ordered the print he had received to be immediately escorted from the country by the police (apparently, though, he kept a video copy to show to liberal-minded politicians in the event that they suggested the audacious notion of allowing freedom of speech in the film industry). The New York Ripper was quickly condemned to the notorious Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) list alongside other forbidden fruits such as Cannibal Holocaust, Tenebre, The Evil Dead and I Spit on Your Grave, and although many of the films on the list are now available to buy in the UK, many - including The New York Ripper - are so heavily cut that virtually any power and significance that they possess in their complete form has been well and truly eviscerated.
The charge, of course, that was levelled against this and so many other films on the DPP list, was that it is a deeply misogynistic piece of work. But is it? I Spit on Your Grave, for instance, was accused of exactly the same crime, when in fact I am convined that the exact opposite is true, whatever errors of judgement its director might have made in its execution. What then of The New York Ripper? Is it really a catalogue of sexist vitriol or yet another mistrial? (Of course, I am not trying to suggest that every single film on the DPP list was falsely accused. It's no secret that I oppose the very notion of censorship, but that doesn't mean I think that every banned film is a misunderstood gem. Plenty of films on the list are, for want of a better word, crap, and deeply unpleasant crap at that.)
The plot is traditional giallo/slasher fare. The city of New York is in the grip of a maniac - a serial killer who butchers attractive young women in the most horrific ways imaginable. The world-weary and cynical Lieutenant Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) is assigned to the case, and soon finds himself forced to make his way through a swathe of brutal assaults and indifferent witnesses, with the grudging help of the gifted psychiatrist Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco). A breakthrough presents itself when one victim, Fay Majors (Almanta Suska, credited as Almanta Keller) survives an encounter with the killer. But the Ripper is just getting started and Williams soon finds that the madman is prepared to strike dangerously close to home...
As a more or less entirely Italian production (only the exteriors were filmed on location in New York, and Hedley is the sole English native in the cast), it would seem reasonable to classify this title as a giallo, although in actual fact a couple of hurdles lie in the way of such straightforward pigeon-holing. It was produced at a time in which the giallo industry had virtually ground to a halt and, more importantly, aesthetically has far more in common with the new breed of gritty American slasher movies than the elegant Italian thrillers of the 1970s (Bill Lustig's Maniac probably had a far greater influence on Fulci than The Bird With the Crystal Plumage). Ugly, anonymous and uncaring, the New York City that Fulci portrays here is virtually a character in its own right and marks a stark contrast with the elegance of the London Fulci depicted in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, the rustic charm of Don't Torture a Duckling and even the dreamlike beauty of The Beyond. Indeed, in terms of its pessimistic outlook, harsh visual style and uncompromising portrayal of violence, it probably has the most in common with Tenebre (the only other giallo of note to be released in the same year), although it lacks the finesse and introspective nature of Dario Argento's seminal film.
If Fulci's 1970s expeditions into thriller territory were characterised by having better scripts than the everage giallo, The New York Ripper abandons this in favour of the minimalistic approach to narrative that he adopted with his "living dead" efforts from the early 80s, such as The Beyond, Zombi 2 and The House by the Cemetery, paying far more attention to the gore and overall mood than to the characterisations and plot twists. Indeed, a parallel can be drawn between Fulci and Argento in that both seemed to abandon logic in favour of spectacle at around the same time. The difference, however, is that while this worked for Argento (and for Fulci in The Beyond), thanks to his then-excellent visual abilities, Fulci's work undeniably suffered without a solid script to use as a springboard. The New York Ripper is all about the violence, and although the murder set-pieces are of a high standard, the narrative-oriented scenes which connect them are significantly less impressive. The highlight (or nadir, depending on how you feel about graphic depictions of violence) of these scenes of violence is undoubtedly the protracted murder of Williams' favourite prostitute, Kitty (Daniela Dora), which, not coincidentally, remains censored in the most recent UK release of the film, classified in 2002. With its extreme close-ups of eyes and nipples being sliced with a razor blade, it takes the notion of fetishistic violence to a whole other level, and the quality of the effects work is such that it is a difficult scene for even the staunchest gore-hounds to stomach.
With scenes such as this featuring so prominently, it is hardly surprising that the film has been accused of migogyny. Personally, I am undecided as to whether or not it is the work of a man with a deep-rooted hatred for women. Ultimately, I suspect that few films are made with a deliberately anti-woman agenda, and that the vast majority of films which come across as misogynist are inadvertently revealing something about the nature of their makers rather than explicitly setting out to make a statement. As such, my opinion of The New York Ripper is that it contains elements that are misogynist in tone without necessarily setting out a specific vendetta against women. Even the most explicit images are open to multiple interpretations, and while some might see the nipple-slicing and foot-masturbation scenes as indicative of Fulci's hatred of women, others could just as easily counter by saying that these scenes are intended to illustrate the horrific depths of human depravity.
What complicates matters is the fact that it is implied, intentionally or otherwise, that the vast majority of the victims somehow 'deserve' their fate. This is because, with very few exceptions, they are completely and utterly unlikeable. The 'cause and effect' scenario is in full force here: Rosie (Cinzia de Ponti) verbally abuses a motorist and then proceeds to vandalise his deserted car, only to be slashed to death moments later; the wealthy Jane (Alexandra Delli Colli) indulges in kinky extra-marital sex games and is butchered as she attempts to leave the hotel room in which the heinous act took place. And yes, all of the victims are women, barring one special case.
That said, while Fulci dishes out the violence towards the women of the cast, he saves his most venomous criticism for the male characters. If the women are unlikeable, the men are positively repugnant, and none more so than Lieutenant Williams. This, after all, is a man who knows that the killer is torturing Kitty to death in her home, and yet hesitates to reveal her address to his fellow officers as he weighs up in his mind whether it would be better to keep quiet rather than reveal that he uses prostitutes. And the fact cannot be ignored that the only character with even a shred of sympathy is a woman, Fay Majors. A case might also be made for Dr. Davis, who is allowed to be seen buying gay pornography and not be punished for this 'crime'. Certainly, as embodied by Paolo Malco, who, along with David Warbeck, Catriona MacColl and Florinda Bolkan, was apparently one of only a handful of actors that Fulci could stand, he comes across as far less disreputable than most of the male characters. However, I feel that his complete indifference to the murderer's spree cancels out any of his more positive traits.
The New York Ripper's biggest problem for me, in fact, is not its perceived misogyny but the fact that it is not a particularly well-made film. The overall look of the film may be appropriate to its bleak tone, but it also looks cheap and rushed - which is surprising, given that Fulci had the talents of cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Profondo Rosso) and his long-term production designer, Massimo Lentini, at his disposal. I said before that the film had more in common with the American slashers of the 80s than the gialli of the 70s, and this applies to the visuals as much as any other element. The camerawork is often of the minimalist 'point and shoot' variety, the frame compositions are often completely uninteresting, and the lighting is almost entirely flat. Only the sequence in which Fay Majors is attacked and then escapes from the killer (in my opinion the strongest in the film) shows any imagination in terms of lighting and camerawork. The dubbing is also poor even by the genre's already dubious standards, with most of the characters being lumbered with caricatured 'Noo Yoik' accents and only Hedley coming away with any dignity. Unlike many viewers, though, I quite like the music. Yes, it's cheesy, but it's also catchy, and it suits the US cop show mood of the production.
I do not consider The New York Ripper to be a shining moment in Lucio Fulci's career, but neither is it entirely devoid of merit. Nothing else quite like it exists in the giallo filone (although I acknowledge that it arrived too long after the original giallo run for comparisons with the entries of the early 70s to be particularly meaningful), and for all its faults it constitutes a bleak and uncompromising look at an uncertain world by a deeply cynical filmmaker. When all said and done, this is a film that deserves to be seen by horror/thriller fans, not specifically because of the controversy that surrounds it, but for its unique style and the fact that it remains something of a missing link between Fulci's cerebral 70s gialli and the more carnal efforts of the final decade of his career.
The transfer for this French special edition of The New York Ripper (released as L'Éventreur de New York) appears to have been sourced from the American R0 release by Anchor Bay, and as such it is an NTSC to PAL standards conversion. It lacks definition and the standards conversion process results in some noticeable ghosting during scenes with a lot of movement. The black level also suffers, especially during night scenes - this, apparently, is also an issue with the Anchor Bay edition. As transfers go, it isn't terrible, but those who are sticklers for image quality will probably prefer to go with a release that features a non-converted transfer (the recent Australian release is reported to be the best-looking to date).
The audio comes in English, Italian and French flavours (all 2.0 mono), and now would probably be the best time to warn potential buyers that French subtitles are forced when English or Italian audio are selected, so those who don't have the ability to override this function on their DVD player are recommended to steer clear. The English track isn't bad, but its fidelity is limited and the aforementioned weak dubbing is a major bone of contention. Still, it remains preferable to the Italian track, which sounds significantly more muffled and, in any event, makes little sense given that the film takes place in the US and not Italy.
Whatever problems there are with the transfer, Neo Publishing have undeniably put together an impressive package in terms of supplementary material. Be warned, however, that the bulk of the material is in Italian with only French subtitles, so those without an understanding of either language will probably not find anything of value on offer here.
The first disc begins with an audio commentary by Fulci expert Paolo Albiero, interviewed by Federico Caddeo. The commentary is, unsurprisingly, in Italian with French subtitles, and for those with an understanding of either language, it should prove to be a worthwhile listen (or read). With virtually no gaps of silence in the entire track, the two speakers cover ground at a remarkable pace, discussing all the requisite issues, touching on accusations of misogyny (which neither seem particularly eager to dismiss completely) and putting it into context with the rest of Fulci's filmography. Albiero does most of the talking, with Caddeo generally just asking him questions or making brief observations that serve as a jumping-off point for Albiero.
The rest of the extras on the first disc are fairly inconsequential. A couple of screens of liner notes provide basic technical and release information that could easily have been found elsewhere, while a gallery contains a dozen or so publicity stills. Biographies and filmographies are provided for Fulci and five of the principal actors, while the disjointed and over-long English theatrical trailer completes the package.
The second disc contains a series of documentaries of varying length, working together to provide an in-depth retrospective not only of The New York Ripper but also of its key participants. Fulci, of course, is long gone, so his daughter Antonella fills in most of the blanks where possible. Other participants include actor Renato Rossini, composer Francesco de Masi, special effects artists Fabio Traversari and Rosario Prestopino, and Antonio Tentori (writer of a couple of later Fulci efforts).
The largest feature is a 52-minute affair entitled "Gros Plan: Au Coeur de la Ville", which provides an overall look at the making of the film. None of the various participants say anything particularly revelatory, but this documentary (and indeed all the others on the disc) is impressive by virtue of the fact that it shies away from providing lengthy clips from the film itself, instead focusing on the interview footage and conveying as much information as possible. What is apparent, more than anything else, is how fondly the various speakers remember their experience working on the film, speaking with nothing but good humour about both the production and Fulci.
The other documentaries focus, in more detail, on specific aspects of the production. Antonella Fulci discusses her memories of a father in a 29-minute piece on the director; Renato Rossini (a.k.a. Howard Ross) spends 19 minutes reminiscing about his career and the various filmmakers he has worked with; Francesco de Masi spends just under 52 minutes on the film's music (if any of the features is too long, it's this one); and Rosario Prestopino provides a 34-minute discussion and live demonstration of the special effects used in the film and various others on which he worked.
A 16-page booklet is also included, providing an introduction by Antonella Fulci, production notes and some cast and crew biographies.
While impressive in terms of its attention to detail with regard to bonus materials, this is not the best available release of The New York Ripper, especially for viewers who don't speak either French or Italian. Those who do, however, should be pleased with its in-depth and comprehensive account of the making of the film, although the image quality of the film itself leaves something to be desired.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:41:45