ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.
Back in the early days of the slasher movie era, Siskel and Ebert hosted a special episode of sneak previews in which they attacked the new genre for what they perceived as its misogyny and tendency to revel in the deaths of its characters. They went so far as to claim there was an entire genre of “Women in Danger” films. These complaints remained a constant theme for the two critics throughout the 1980s, with Ebert writing in shock of going to theaters and seeing audiences cheer as Freddy and Jason slaughtered their victims.
With this in mind, it was perhaps for the best that neither critic, at least to my knowledge, ever got to see Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, which takes all the gore, seediness, and latent misogyny of the slasher genre to their logical conclusions. Depending on your view, this giallo either confirms or refutes Siskel and Ebert’s condemnation of the whole genre.
The New York Ripper traces the efforts of a hard-bitten NYC detective, played by British actor Jack Hedley with his voice dubbed over by Edward Mannix, to catch a vicious serial killer who is mutilating the city’s women. The killer starts taunting the detective over the phone in the voice of a cartoon duck who is totally not named Donald. The suspects soon narrow down to two: a sleazy, drug-addicted loner who frequents 42nd Street sex shows and the clean-cut boyfriend of a surviving victim.
The film owes its notoriety to its explicit scenes depicting the murders. In one scene, a sex show performer, played by Zora Kerova from Cannibal Ferox, gets a broken bottle shoved up what the film’s coroner colorfully refers to as her “joy trail,” resulting in the bottle filling up with blood as Kerova screams. In another memorable scene, a prostitute is tortured to death by having a nipple sliced off and, in an inevitable scene in a Fulci film, her eye cut with a razor.
On one hand, it is entirely understandable that the film is often regarded as misogynistic, given its level of violence towards women and general aura of sleaze. The killings in the film go far beyond anything even Camille Keaton experienced in I Spit on Your Grave. Aside from the sex murders, the film focuses heavily on the degradation of women, as in the scene where a promiscuous woman who records her sexual adventures for her kinky husband gets a non-consensual foot job from two men she meets in a bar. Furthermore, the film conforms all too well to the feminist critique of slasher movies in which sexually liberated women (prostitutes, swingers, strippers) get butchered while the comparatively “pure” character survives. Even the film’s gritty rock theme lends an air of sleaziness.
However, I would argue that the film actually subverts those slasher film tropes. For example, the murders are portrayed so graphically that it is hard to imagine anyone other than a straight-up pervert cheering them, even to praise the special effects. The killer’s sadism is portrayed uncompromisingly, with no attempts to soften it for the audience. Furthermore, the film’s ending highlights the human cost of the killer’s actions. Without spoiling too much, the last human sound we hear before the end credits run is a child crying, a sound that gradually fades into the traffic noise of an uncaring city. Fulci gives the ending a genuine emotional impact that takes this a notch above your typical slasher film.