In the up and down career of Lucio Fulci, "The New York Ripper" comes as something of a revelation. Right smack dab in the middle of Fulci's "can't lose" phase (1981), this ripper tale is a striking giallo that at times rivals the work of Dario Argento, a man Fulci will always be compared to.
In true giallo style, the film follows a handful of people (all residing in the Big Apple) who all seem to be operating on the periphery of some incredibly brutal murders being carried out by a faceless madman. There's the sexually masochistic socialite and her husband, the Olympic athlete and HER husband, the 7 fingered man who may or not be the killer, and the cop and professor who are investigating these horrid acts. Also in true giallo fashion, Fulci keeps you guessing as to the killer's identity until the very end.
What sets this movie apart from it's Italian (and American) counterparts is the extreme violence and the highly sexualized nature of the events. There are moments in "Ripper" that border on pornography, such as the sex show we are treated to early on. There are also sexualized moments that make the viewer extremely uncomfortable, like the infamous "toe job" scene, or a scene towards the end in which the killer takes a razor blade to the nubile body of his latest victim. It's no wonder that the man was something of a pariah in his native Italy.
The nudity by itself wouldn't be so unsettling if it weren't accompanied by what may be the most gruesome violence I've ever seen. Everyone is taken out by the blade here, which in itself isn't unusual. What is unusual is the fact that Fulci goes out of his way to make sure the camera doesn't flinch as the killer's knife tears the victims flesh asunder. The more I go back and watch these movies from the 80's, the more I'm convinced that latex effects are infinitely more effective than CGI can ever be. For posterity's sake, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amount of vaginal violence that takes place here. I was struck at how many of the victims are sexually mutilated. It's pretty horrific stuff to watch, and it's only partially explained when the killer is revealed to us.
Surprisingly, I found "The New York Ripper" to be a very well paced and tightly directed film. Fulci at times has a tendency to let his films drag on. He also has moments where he shows a complete ineptness for creating suspense... thankfully neither of those tendencies show themselves here. The film is tight and brisk, and extremely intense throughout. There are even scenes bathed in monochromatic light that give off strong shades of Argento's work from the same time period. The murder mystery elements of the story are also well played, keeping the viewer guessing until the final frames. The ripper's motive certainly comes out of left field and feels a bit forced, but all in all Fulci sold me on this story and that's the important part.
It certainly seems as if Fulci was trying to make some grand statement about sexuality and violence with "The New York Ripper", but I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what that statement is. For all I can tell, this is simply a twisted and perverted film made by a twisted and perverted man. With today's "torture porn" movies, all you're seeing are extremely violent scenes played out as a lurid way to draw in the masses and separate them from their hard earned cash. With "Ripper," you really get the sense that you're being let in on the psyche of a truly deviant human being, and as such the film becomes infinitely more interesting than anything being churned out of horror studios today.