Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Lo Squartatore di New York / The New York Ripper

A man out walking his dog finds a severed, rotting hand. It proves to belong to a model-actress-whatever who went missing a few weeks before, but with no real leads to go on the case is quickly all but forgotten by Lieutenant Williams - after all, "eleven people a day are murdered here in fun city, and over half of them are women."

A few weeks later another young woman is butchered on the Staten Island Ferry, her screams drowned out by its horn. The killer's modus operandi suggests it to be the work of the same maniac, "a lefty with a yen for slashing up young ladies."

With pressure from the higher-ups mounting, Williams enlists the help of psychology professor Paul Davis to profile his quarry - not necessarily a wise decision since the self-satisfied genius is himself set up as a suspect through his penchant for game-playing and dismissal of the predictable patterns by which Williams and policemen like him think...

Words guaranteed to put moral watchdogs on edge and delight the moral entrepreneurs among them #1

Words guaranteed to put moral watchdogs on edge and delight the moral entrepreneurs among them #2

Following yet another murder, that of a sex show performer at a 42nd street club - following which the duck-voiced killer taunts Williams, imparting an uncomfortably personal dimension to the case - there is an apparent break in the case as a known sexual sadist by the name of Mickey Scellenda, earlier seen attending the sex show and easily recognisable through a disfigured hand pursues student and prospective Olympian Fay Majors off the subway and into a deserted movie theatre.

Somehow, despite going into a fugue state - in which she images her attacker to be her boyfriend, Peter, a physicist - she manages to fend him off.

Unfortunately by the time the all-points-bulletin goes out on Scellenda he is already with another likely victim, Jane, the thrill-seeking wife of a crippled bourgeois whom he had earlier encountered at the sex show...

The Blade of the Ripper...

... and its handiwork #1

... and #2...

There are two problems any commentator faces with approaching this 1982 giallo from Lucio Fulci.

The first is the external baggage that accompanies it, especially in the UK context. Emerging at the height of the "video nasties" affair, the print of The New York Ripper was famously escorted out of the country by the authorities who flat out denied it the possibility of being released. While now available on DVD, that a scene of one of the ripper's victims being mutilated with a razor blade remains cut on account of running contrary to policy on images of sexualised violence and, possibly, the obscene publications act, seems telling - even if these cuts are minor compared to, say, those inflicted upon Deodato's rape-revenge entry House on the Edge of the Park.

In truth I don't think there's much that really needs to be said here. The film, like many others, had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I doubt has the film-makers had any misogynistic or puritanical agenda in mind as has been claimed. Rather, their goal was more likely to simply provide their target audience with new thrills; a task necessitating greater extremity than ever before in the wake of such mainstream slasher releases as Cruising and Dressed to Kill - which one suspects were more influential than contemporaneous Italian product - and in which, for better or worse, it has to be said that they succeeded admirably.

How to tell a story visually - Scellenda and Jane at the sex show, eyeing one another up and then both suspiciously vacating before the female performer is murdered backstage

The second is the gimmick of having the killer speak like a duck, which many commentators see as ruining the mood and inducing laughter. This is a more serious criticism to address, but again I think does not really detract from the film as much as some have claimed.

The specific logic behind the killer's speaking like a duck does make a kind of perverse sense in terms of their motives, whilst further connecting back into Fulci's giallo filmography in the form of Non si sevizia un paperino / Don't Torture a Duckling.

In terms of scoring, writing, performances and so forth the general impression one gets is, to paraphrase the police coroner, of "good efficient butchery," necessarily limited by constraints of time and money but horribly accomplished within these terms.

Likewise, while there's a sense of deja-vu to Fulci's techniques and tropes - rack focus, shock zooms, extreme close-ups of eyes are all present and correct, along with his that all but patented approach to graphic violence - these at least mark the film out as his.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is that the element of going through the motions that results from this is also in ironic accord with the pervasive worldview of The New York Ripper specifically and Fulci's oeuvre during this period generally, as one of disconnection, despair and all pervading hopelessness.

It could almost be from Suspiria until we get the broken bottle to crotch incident; one suspects that to render this sequence in a more naturalistic idiom would have been too much, even for most Fulci fans

"You're either the best or you're nothing" remarks one character; perhaps Fulci's problem was that he was the best at nothing - i.e. evoking absolute nihilism; perhaps part of the reaction to The New York Ripper stems from its uncomfortable realism.

At least when Liza and John faced the sea of darkness at the end of The Beyond they do so together, unlike those left alone as the credits roll here...


Anonymous said...

I love this blog. And such a good film. I think people can shrug off extreme violence, ultimately; one grows out of being traumatised by the like of, oh, Murder Set Pieces, if you'll forgive me for even mentioning it. What shocked me at the end was of course the suffering child, and the thought that it was her pain which had motivated the killer. It's the threads that link the two which haunt and puzzle me. I remember Dennis Nilsen wrote, rather pompously perhaps, "no one will accept ever that I am just an ordinary man come to a terrible and overwhelming conclusion". It does open the question of what one does, how one views the lives of others, if life itself has no meaning. Rudyard Kipling is very good on that kind of pitiless Zen detachment - I think of one line in particular; it just comes to mind when I think of the New York Ripper, "it is the fever not the fight, time not the battle which slays". I believe Fulci himself, as well as the psychologist in the film, talked in terms of American values, and the killings as a response to a kind of frustrated American dream. I guess for a lot of artists of Fulci's generation meaning was provided by the ideals of socialism and social solidarity. I'm inclined to see NYR as in part about the consequences of living in and loving and hating in a society where such ideals are no longer thinkable. Didn't Nilsen join the Socialist Workers Party? From what I can tell reading Brian Master's book, funnily enough I think he himself might be receptive to the view that his homicidal despair was part-motivated and enabled by the "depredations" of Thatcherism. Which doesn't make it remotely true of course, but still, NYR makes me think about the way in which political deadlocks may project themselves into homicidal pathologies.

And thanks for all those screenshots. Speaking as a reader I love screenshots, and most blogs don't have enough of them.


K H Brown said...

Thanks for your comments - very insightful and thought-provoking

I think NYR makes for an interesting companion piece to Don't Torture a Duckling in terms of the killers motivations - one wants to preserve cihldren's (idealised) innocent state and kills them to this end, while the other never gets the chance to see their offspring grow up and be exposed to corruption.

Nilsen's remarks seem a bit Niezschean - gaze into the abyss and all that, and I suppose with some real life serial killers there is that sense of the perversion of the Superman idea(l), of finding it easier to dominate others than master oneself.

Your Kipling quote reminds me of the time destroys everything idea in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible - maybe it seems odd to mention him and Fulci together, but what does unite them I think is that same uncompromising "fuck you" attitude.

The socialism / social solidarity idea is again interesting when comparing NYR and Don't Torture a Duckling. In Don't Torture we have this kind of mechanical solidarity where everyone is - or should be - alike and anyone who is an outsider is a target for suspicion and violence. In NYR we seem to have a situation where it is all atomised individuals and solidarity is not possible. I do wonder about how Fulci would approach American society insofar as the main kind of solidarity that would seem to have been possible there was not a class / egalitarian minded one but more, at least as I see it, an ethnic one, where different groups - Italian, Irish, Black etc. - would be pitted against one another in a divide and conquer strategy. (That Scellenda is mentioned as a Greek - an outsider - is perhaps significant here.)

The film's notion of the country as a society where all that matter is to be the best / smartest / most beautiful also fits with this - I think one alternative title or maybe the script was The Beauty Killer. Again, it's maybe that Nietzschean ressentiment coming through, destruction being easier than creation?



Nihil and Void said...

I thought the duck voice was not funny at all and was effectively creepy and unsettling. The sound of screams with a duck quaking like mad is just so unusual that it adds a whole new extreme to the visceral kills. Reminds me of the squealing scene in Deliverance, which is very memorable for the "pig squealing" and it wouldn't be the same without it. Same with this film.