On the trail of The New York Ripper

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Lucio Fulci’s 1982 notorious “video nasty” was a rare on-location giallo. What it lacks in just about everything else, it makes up for with great glimpses of vintage Manhattan

New York Ripper

The original Italian poster for The New York Ripper

I live for movies from the 1970s and early 1980s set in New York, when the most cinematic of cities had devolved into a bankrupt, Hieronymous-Bosch-with-hot-dog-stands vision of hell.

At some point around 1985 – approximately halfway through Area’s reign as the best nightclub in the world – the city struck the perfect balance of degeneracy and fabulousness. Fast forward to the new century, and I’d peg 2001 as the year that the curtain finally came down on New York as was. And not just because of 9/11. In 2001 Giuliani left office, having completed his mission of scrubbing clean every previously fragrant corner of Manhattan south of Radio City Music Hall. More significantly, Prada opened up a Rem Koolhaas-designed flagship store in SoHo. The end was nigh.

Today we only have the likes of Midnight Cowboy and The Eyes of Laura Mars to whisk us back to the bad old days of New York City, a time when the lead of the latter movie, Faye (“instant star of the world of chiiiiiic”) Dunaway, could set fire to cars in Columbus Circle as a backdrop for a photoshoot in which lingerie models dueled in fur coats and fishnets.

The opening of The New York Ripper

The opening of The New York Ripper

While I love the perennially cool likes of Liquid Sky, Downtown 81 and the oeuvre of Scorsese, one of the more offbeat movies to capture the landscape of bad old New York is Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper. It’s that rare giallo movie – one that ventures boldly off Italy’s soundstages. And, with shades of self-reflexivity, long-lost New York City movie theatres pepper its reels.

Fulci had flirted with New York two years before, in 1979. Zombie Flesh Eaters opens with one of his undead drifting into New York Harbour aboard an abandoned boat. So far, so interesting. But after the first few scenes things head a long way south and take a turn for the tropical, where the production budgets diminish as the humidity rises. With The New York Ripper he set a whole movie in the Big Apple.

Menace on the M train, The New York Ripper

Menace on the M train, The New York Ripper

For all its incidental pleasures, it’s important to point out that this is a truly dreadful film. While there are fragments of giallo flair (you can almost hear the crackle of green and red gels being clipped over the lights for the more lurid murder scenes), it’s also morally dubious at best. Provocative sex and murder have rarely been linked so closely and so distastefully, alongside the usual barely-synced dubbing and frenetic Italian horror movie soundtrack. It’s the sort of thing that Brian De Palma always threatened, but never delivered. Which is one of the reasons why the film was banned outright in the UK and has never been shown unedited there to this day.

Things kick off with the discovery – via a dog carrying a well-manicured, partially decomposed hand in its jaws – of a model’s dismembered body by the East River in Manhattan, under the Manhattan Bridge (not, in fact, the Brooklyn Bridge, as the movie claims). After a quick trip to the cop shop, where we meet the model’s landlady (straight out of a 1970s Paul Morrissey pic), we enjoy a breezy bike ride from Central Park South to Battery Park, following the kind of girl in a windcheater that would have Terry Richardson reaching into his deeply ironic disco-gold fanny pack for the roofies.

Cycling towards the Pan Am building and certain doom in The New York Ripper

Cycling towards the Pan Am building and certain doom in The New York Ripper

The girl cycles past Essex House on Central Park South and down Park Avenue towards Grand Central Terminal and the glorious Emery Roth landmark tower that many New Yorkers still, and will forever, call “The Pan Am building”. Before she makes it to the Staten Island Ferry, she has a mishap with a red VW Beetle and suffers the most scathing of Noo Yoik retorts from the driver: “You have the brains of a chicken!”

On the ferry, still wounded by the poultry insult, she finds the Beetle, hops inside, and starts to ruin a perfectly good lipstick by writing “shit” inside the windshield. The lipstick is hot sex red, and she’s wearing porno American Apparel gym shorts, so you know she has seconds to live at best. There’s a minor moment of tension as she tries to escape, before being swiftly eviscerated while her killer makes duck noises – a pithy critique of the Disneyfication of American culture? Perhaps. Chickens… ducks… It’s all foul play for Fulci.

The rest of the plot may as well be Telexed over from one of the cheaper offices in Cinecittà. There’s a kind of Looking for Mr Goodbar subtext involving a molto cool woman in a hat who looks like Amanda Lear, masturbates in porno theatres in Times Square and likes to get intimate foot rubs from Latino hustlers in pool halls. But mostly there’s lots of stabbing and slashing, and a sigh-worthy denouement that involves a little girl with terminal cancer (you can tell it’s terminal by the severity of the make up) and the explanation that her father is so upset by her fate that he’s taken to murdering any woman who looks like she might be enjoying adult life and sex, because his daughter won’t live to be a stripper… or something. You have to just go along with the often slender motives in movies like this – but as sure as night follows day, any sexually active woman or woman who dares to enjoy sex is gonna get it.

Times Square 1982, The New York Ripper

Times Square 1982, The New York Ripper

The main enjoyment in The New York Ripper is in catching glimpses of New York as was. We get to stroll around Times Square in all its seedy glory – past the 25c naked live shows, and the Hoy Cinema and the long lost Doll Theatre at 719 Seventh Avenue, which famously used to offer live sex shows between movies. There’s a glimpse of one of the much-missed branches of BrewBurger (which many Americans still rave about as selling the best medium rare burger of all time). We get shots of the kung fu chop socky theatres, Caribou Caribou, Cine 42 (which closed in 1992) and the New Amsterdam Theatre, which took on a new life after closing in 1985 when it was, quite literally, Disneyfied – the Walt Disney Company bought it, and turned into a live theatre. Years later, you could see The Lion King and Mary Poppins on its stage.

Next we head to Brooklyn and Hoyt subway station, where our heroine hops on an M train to get menaced. The train is covered in graffiti – not quite Wild Style or The Warriors levels of graffiti, but still unthinkable today.

Vintage pinball and pool hall, The New York Ripper

Vintage pinball and pool hall, The New York Ripper

There are nefarious goings on at the Cavalier Hotel, which used to be a genuinely dodgy single room occupancy hotel with a wondrous neon sign at 200 E 34th Street in the Gramercy district of Manhattan (just two blocks from where Civilian’s New York office was based for most of 2014). In 1997, the New York Times ran a report on how the hotel had turned into a lawless crack-filled “stash house”, and police arrested and charged 21 people. Drug dealers customarily blocked the hallway, and residents would have to run a gauntlet of offers going in or out. One night, when a potential customer refused to buy, a dealer became so incensed that he stabbed him. And his dog.

Towards the end of The New York Ripper, we take trip to Queens, where our heroine alights the subway at Flushing Main Street and passes the old Prospect Theatre at 4-10 Main Street. The theatre closed in 1987 – John Conway, the projectionist at The Prospect was nearly 100 when he screened his final movie at the theatre.

The film ends with a helicopter shot over the West Highway, looking east to the New Yorker Hotel building and Empire State, as it flies over a giant YORK truck depot. The area, currently being developed as the Hudson Yards, is unthinkably derelict in the movie. It looks like the fringes of Detroit rather than Manhattan; a wasteland of cheap real estate, now worth billions. C