Giallo mystery thrillers that employ prolonged murder sequences entailing graphic depictions of the victims’ demises and an excessive amount of young female nudity and sexually explicit imagery are one of the main innovators of the slasher film. A prime example of this is Sean S. Cunningham’s successful borrowing from Mario Bava’s excellent 1970 giallo/slasher prototype ‘A Bay of Blood’ ten years after its release with the effective Friday the 13th as it slashed its way through box office receipts igniting the slasher boom of the early ‘80s. The encapsulation of its giallo-esque atmosphere that would transcend through to its first three sequels, SFX maestro Tom Savini’s excellent work creating the blood-drenched set-pieces and supplemented with boobs and nookie cemented this Italian genre as a prime stylistic influence on this American horror sub-genre.
After delving into various other genres in the 1960s - adventures, comedies, historical dramas, musicals and westerns - in the 1970s director Lucio Fulci would carve out a career making gialli with modest commercial success. He would contribute four of the genre’s finest entries - ‘Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘Lizard in a Woman's Skin’ (1971), ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ (1972) and ‘Seven Notes in Black’ (1977). The director’s giallo masterwork ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ controversially meshed religion, murder and sexual perversion in a tale set in a small town in backwater Italy and using his soon to be primary auteur trademark of detailed violence with the use of gory special make-up effects it gained a notorious reputation in Italy. It also has a distinct connection to Fulci’s later giallo work in review here.
When the giallo genre became passé taking a dip in popularity Lucio Fulci would find his most commercially successful niche in outright horror filmmaking recreating himself as a horror maven as he delved into all things zombies and supernatural and upped the gore factor to considerable levels earning him the nickname “The Godfather of Gore”. This was with his most famous work the overrated 1979 zombie movie ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (the UK title for ‘Zombi’ and my preferred title for it). He would follow it up with the unofficially named Gates of Hell trilogy - 1980’s solid City of the Living Dead, then in the same year with his greatest horror work, ‘The Beyond’ and he capped it off in 1981 with the mixed bag offering of The House by the Cemetery.
Fulci would return to making gialli again though the following year with one of his most divisive films in his body work ‘The New York Ripper’. It was also obviously cashing in on the American slasher boom of the period that the filmmaker partly had a hand in influencing with his earlier work and would further establish the giallo genre’s important influence on the modern slasher. This feels like an outright slasher more than any gialli released prior to the early 80’s when this American horror sub-genre was at its peak and the similar mean spirited material in the New York City setting harks back a couple of years previous to William Lustig’s powerful 1980 urban slasher Maniac.
A serial killer in New York who has it in for healthy grown attractive young women uses a variety of weapons including broken bottles, knives, razors and switchblades to brutally cut up the female body with careful precision like bloody water melon. The press labels him “The New York Ripper” and he speaks in a Donald Duck voice on the phone taunting burned out police detective Lt. Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) who teams up with psychiatrist Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco) to track down the psychopathic woman slayer.
Lucio Fulci displays himself at his cruellest here as he graphically depicts in prolonged sequences the sadistic murders of young females. It was rumoured he hated women and that this was a misogynistic fantasy adding fuel to that fire as it features some of the vilest acts ever committed against the female anatomy put to celluloid. Although the majority of victims in slasher horror are young women anyway, and personally, I think it was that Fulci seemed determined to go more over the top to compete against the American slashers of the day rather than a loathing for the females of the species. As usual, he does not shy away from showing the audience absolutely everything with no cutting away at all from the depictions of such brutal sickening depravity on the female flesh. These are visceral and extensive set-pieces of torture making for extreme exploitative cinema in all of its disgusting glory.
However, the movie is largely devoid of suspense and tension with only one genuine moment of such. In this scene, a woman tries to escape a prime suspect in the case as she hears his description on a radio station’s news broadcast as she is tied to a bed for sexual submission lying right beside him in a seedy little motel room. That is your lot. The screenplay is deeply flawed - there are a load of sub-plots just thrown in forming no cohesion within the overall narrative and it lacks the supreme mystery of the best examples of the giallo genre with lame red herrings thrown in for the killer’s identity that are so obvious they can be seen coming a mile off. Lucio Fulci also directs scenes of outright softcore pornography to illustrate a dishonest wife’s infidelity (the same character in that sole suspenseful scene in the entire proceedings). He builds a world of sleaze that perfectly captures the New York City of the period making the viewer want to scrub down with a wire brush. Every character here is perversely corrupt in their own way and the protagonists are more anti-heroes - Williams’ preference is sleeping with prostitutes and the shrink Davis loves an ogle at hardcore gay porn magazines. This painting of a grimy picture of the New York of the day is also trying to say something with a half-arsed social commentary in this world of perverts and prostitutes. The women are made out to be victims of their choice of lifestyles but none of this is involved in the killer’s motivation.
The murderer’s motive is not due to any sexual aggression towards his victims as no rape or sexual abuse of any kind takes place nor is he on a moral crusade against the ladies of the night. It is solely out of desperation and rage - anger, bitterness and resentment towards the female form - an uncontrollable urge to take his severe frustrations out on the bodies of fully grown attractive women that he sees day in day out that have contributed to his sadness and descent into madness. So why does he not just go after regular working women? His reason for his evil doings is disturbing and tragic stuff although obviously it is not just cause for such heinous crimes. The significance of his Donald Duck impersonation goes back to ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ and although the duck voice did not feature in that, a toy duck is crucial in revealing the killer’s identity in both films.
Simply put though a woman-slaughtering killer sounding off like a stark raving mad duck is just fucking stupid; maybe Fulci was striving for subversion but there is really no excuse for this downright ludicrous decision as it is just jarring. The other terrible sound is Francesco De Masi’s piss poor cheese ridden score. This soundtrack comes across as a mix of 70’s porn and TV cop shows of the decade but considering the seedy nature of the New York City portrayed here the porn element fits the mood just right adding to that atmosphere. The director of cinematography Luigi Kuveiller also did beautiful work in ‘Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ and Dario Argento’s 1975 masterpiece ‘Deep Red’. The acting is not too bad overall but the shitty dubbing aids the laughable dialogue.
‘The New York Ripper’ was a turning point in Lucio Fulci’s career and in a negative respect as it headed for a downward spiral with this odious sleazefest. This would be the second to last time he would work with talented screenwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti. I cannot help but think his input here was minimal as with the also abysmal ‘Manhattan Baby’ that followed in the same year because the un-involvement of Sacchetti thereafter would contribute to the director’s limp dick offerings and a huge commercial decline. Fulci's return to the giallo genre here to reap the benefits of the early 80’s heyday of the slasher sub-genre is downright atrocious - badly written and scored and depressing, dull, hateful and repellent stuff with little convincing substance to justify it all making for a hollow experience. A forgettable mess.
* out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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