After three or four viewings of The New York Ripper I think I'm still confused about it, and you're forgiven if you are too. Touted on the cover of this latest Blue Underground special edition DVD as 'the most controversial horror film ever made', Fulci's slasher opus is certainly confounding. It's filled with graphic, arguably extremely misogynistic violence and torment. It's chock-a-block with dorky, evil and annoying men jabbering, acting arrogant and ending up more or less ineffectual - except when killing. It's got a killer who talks like a second-rate Donald Duck. Thus, exploitation fans have lined up for decades for a peek.
Of course the movie has been available for the curious since 1982, but this is certainly the best it's ever looked, likely even better than when it played The Deuce, (New York's Times Square area) that zone of sleazy sex shops and budget grindhouse theaters which acts as Fulci's most vital character and virtual fulcrum for Ripper's plot. As plots go, it's fairly simple; the duck-voiced killer is tearing up women and taunting the police with a series of phone calls. Lt. Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) directs the case. He's dogged in his determination, but not a pure man, finding solace in the arms of a prostitute. Williams explores many avenues to solve his crime, soliciting opinions from a crass coroner and pretentious profiler, among others. The question, of course, is whether these nods toward narrative are mere roadmap markers between shocks, or something more.
I'd held Ripper in low regard, viewing it as a frustrating mash-up of giallo, police procedural, and slasher picture - something existing solely to highlight nasty scenes of eyeball slicing and such. However a recent review in Fangoria magazine has given me a new perspective. Over dinner, Fulci convinced reviewer Scooter McCrae that Ripper is deeper and more clever than it seems. Armed with this knowledge it becomes easier to see Ripper as not so much a disgusting exploitationer, but more likely a snide finger in the eye of the slasher fans who used to haunt 42nd street. It may be a no-lose situation, either Fulci's constructed a layered satiric indictment of gore movies (something not so hard to believe, in light of A Cat In The Brain) or a trash-heap full of convincing slices through nude flesh.
Perhaps our first clues to this subtext are the many languid shots virtually caressing the Times Square of 1981, the place you'd have to go to see this movie. It's a virtual travelogue of Peep Shows and flea pit theaters set to groovy, seductive music. (I'm always shocked into reality as the camera passes by a marquee advertising An American Werewolf In London.) Further, maybe we should think twice when one of the beautiful ones goes to a live sex show to get off, before unwillingly enjoying a forced foot-job in a dive bar. She hates it, but she loves it - complicit in her own exploitation. A final telling affront comes when the killer, in ridiculous cartoon voice, mockingly offers up "a special sacrifice, just for you" to Williams. As far as the violence we just might need to feel guilty about for enjoying, that sacrifice is a doozy - and when someone needs shooting in the face, the violence of Taxi Driver pales in comparison.
It's really nice to think Ripper actually owns these nuanced levels - it certainly holds the movie together better than if it were a straight-ahead cut-em-up affair. It's definitely too much to expect this geek show of wispy female protagonists and aggravating men - all irritatingly dubbed - to stand simply on its merits as a gore fiesta with a loony denouement. But with this nearly pristine presentation, I'm happy to enjoy those razors slashing flesh, (dig the inner-tracheal POV shot for a new take on throat-slitting) the stunningly creepy man-missing-two-fingers and all the other offensive lunacy, knowing that Fulci's probably just jabbing me in the eye - a tender joke. I love you more each day, Maestro.