Friday, November 1, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Duck And Cover

Year: 1982
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Jack Hedley, Almanta Suska, Howard Ross 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

The giallo genre that dominated the Italian horror landscape in the 70's may have given way to the slashers in America when the 80's rolled around, but were those exploitation filmmakers just supposed to go away after that? I don't think so, honey. The Italian genre directors knew how to adapt and survive into any new wave of cinema, and gore maestro Lucio Fulci was preeminent among them. After the slasher dam burst with the flood of films following Friday the 13th, Fulci built himself a raft called The New York Ripper, and... well, it sure is a Lucio Fulci joint.

Hope you're not a fan of women making it safely through movies!

The New York Ripper tells the sordid tale of a killer using his trusty switchblade to carve his way through the women of New York's night life. Lieutenant Fred Williams (Jack Hedley of For Your Eyes Only) is on the case, teaming up with professor of psychology Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco of that same year's The Scorpion with Two Tails - coming soon!) to profile the killer and track him down. 

That's really about it for plot. Otherwise we follow random victims of the Ripper through their daily lives until they do or don't get ripped. The most important of these are Fay Majors (Almanta Keller), who narrowly escapes an attack on the subway, causing her to interrupt her training for the Olympics - if you know what event she's training for, you have better ears than I do; her physicist boyfriend Peter Bunch (Andrew Painter), who always seems to have somewhere to be whenever the Ripper is around; and Jane Forrester Lodge (Alexandra Delli Colli), a kinky woman who has an open relationship with her husband and gets her rocks off at live sex shows in a cream-colored fedora. 

In other words, she's awesome.

Oh, did I mention the killer quacks like a duck while he's murdering his victims? That seems like it's probably important. Yes, in every scene he's doing a half-decent Donald Duck impression. And yes, this is extremely terrifying. I had heard about this element going in and fully expected it to be laughable, but I was dead wrong. The manic quacking combined with brutal, bloody violence is uncanny as all hell, and my spine wanted to curl right out of my body every time it happened.

Fulci's films are famous for their use of nightmare logic, an argument that I usually assume people adopt to defend his frequently inept editing, stilted dialogue, and sound design. But whether or not it's intentional, the way his scenes lose control and start to degrade (sometimes outright eschewing continuity and/or the laws of physics) right as the horror and - yes - the quacking kick it up to 11 packs a powerful, disorienting punch.

I'm actually much more inclined to believe that his twisted logic is intentional, because there are a great many scenes explicitly designed to knock you off kilter, even in little moments. Take the sequence where the killer makes a late night phone call to Lt. Williams, who is in bed with a woman we assume to be his wife. It's not until minutes later that it's revealed she's a prostitute who he frequently meets. Does it make sense that these people would be in a full deep slumber together*? Of course not! But it all serves the fact that every single one of these characters has a stake in the city's nightlife, twisting our expectations along the way.

*Come to think of it, every couple that has sex in this movie falls into an immediate deep sleep like they pricked their finger on a magic spinning wheel.

In addition to being surprisingly chilling, The New York Ripper provides buckets and buckets of the expected Lucio Fulci grue. Normally when I'm taking notes on a slasher film, the description of a kill will looking something like this "*Nancy is impaled on antlers." Well, for each and every murder scene here I had to keep adding note after note until it practically became a full fledged paragraph.

This movie is brutal to the women who populate it, putting them through the ringer, smashing that ringer with a sledgehammer, and building a new ringer out of shards of their own bones before putting them through that. The slasher genre (especially the Italian flavor) has a lot to answer for RE: the way it treats beautiful women, but I've gone into that a million times before. So all I will say is that the kills are grotesque, scuzzy, fabulously rendered, and hold off on the trademark Lucio Fulci eye trauma just enough that you think he might not even do it this time.

Don't worry, he does.

Ripper is one of those slashers that takes the grimy, run down streets of early 80's New York City and turns that aesthetic into a meat grinder of horror that makes you want to take a shower afterward. As in, it would make a great double feature with Maniac. These kills aren't fun. They're horrible, which is I guess a good thing, because they're supposed to be. It's just a rough watch sometimes. I suppose it all has to do with tone. There is a queasily realistic shot involving a razor blade and a nipple that is genuinely upsetting, the polar opposite of the transparently, almost charmingly exploitative scene in the daffy Bloody Moon where a knife goes straight through a woman's back and sticks out of her breast. I suppose there's room for both of these in the horror landscape, but Ripper takes the sleazy grindhouse approach rather than the... whatever the hell Jess Franco was doing in Bloody Moon.

At any rate, it accomplishes what it sets out to do: horrify. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't work quite so well, even on its own terms. For one thing, it is an absolute failure as a police procedural whodunit. 

I've already expressed my distaste for police-centric slashers, because they don't allow us to spend enough time with the potential victims that we really get a sense of their character or begin to care about them. But The New York Ripper is an absolute mess on top of that, forgetting to introduce major suspects or red herrings until the halfway mark, in scenes that act like we've already met these people half a dozen times before. It also fabulously mishandles its own tone, choosing to end on a maudlin bit of sentiment that had only been set up ten minutes before in one of the film's most narratively confusing, sloppily edited sequences. 

It's the Winchester Mystery House of movie scripts. Characters show up, are given names and personality traits, then never appear again. Crucial details (including the major decision to reveal that Dr. Davis is gay) arise and are immediately forgotten. And certain beautiful images (my favorite being a woman's reflection in a turning doorknob) are surrounded by a dreadful mire of repetitive, gloomy guerrilla photography.

I would only recommend The New York Ripper to people who know exactly what they're getting themselves into and are willing to subject themselves to it. Taken on its own terms, I'd say it's a pretty darn good exploitation offering, but it's not the type of movie I rush to rewatch or recommend. I'd say if you've seen Maniac and The Beyond and had the stomach for both of them, then this might just be the movie for you. That's a very small sliver of a Venn Diagram, but there's plenty of people who fit it, so if that's you, have a ball!

I guess I'd like to end this review with a small discussion of Dr. Davis' homosexuality, which is revealed in a purposeless scene of him buying a male nudie magazine. I'm almost entirely certain that this was included in the film to show that he is a "pervert" and position him as a murder suspect because he's a wild and crazy guy who would eschew the delights of female flesh. But it never gets brought up, and he's allowed to be a smart, capable person and survive the film. So that's still pretty damn good representation for 1982, just saying.

Killer: [Peter Bunch (Andrew Painter)]
Final Girl: Fay Majors (Almanta Keller), once she finally shows up
Best Kill: This is one of those sleazy movies where it doesn't feel right to reward the murders, but in terms of special effects, Kitty's death by razor (including it slicing through her nipple and eye) holds up stomach-churningly well.
Sign of the Times: A victim's landlady recalls the exact time she last saw her alive because Dallas had just come on.
Scariest Moment: Fay is sitting in an empty movie theater and a man starts violently grabbing at her crotch from beneath the seat.
Weirdest Moment: Jane visits a restaurant and one of the patrons pleasures her under the table with his bare foot for a loooooong time.
Champion Dialogue: "Well well well, if it isn't the big chief person himself."
Body Count: 6
  1. Rosie is slashed.
  2. Live Sex Show Lady is stabbed in the gut with a broken bottle.
  3. Jane is sliced up the abdomen.
  4. Kitty is mutilated with a razor.
  5. Mickey is suffocated with a plastic bag offscreen.
  6. Peter is shot in the face.
TL;DR: The New York Ripper is disgusting and sleazy, but that's exactly what it aims to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1592

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