‘To paraphrase Verlaine, in subtlety lies the essence of things.’
(Dialogue from The New York Ripper)
With the media frenzy around the banning of The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011), it’s more illuminating than usual to watch Lucio Fulci’s notorious The New York Ripper (1982), a film that was not only banned in the UK, but had its review print escorted back to the airport by police, lest it infect the populace.
As hysterical as then chief censor James Ferman’s reaction might seem, there is plenty in the movie to provoke offence, even with a few seconds of nipple-razoring still redacted from Shameless Screen Entertainment’s new Blu-ray. Even so, disliking the film as much as I did (a response the film seems to welcome), I’m still glad Fulci became a filmmaker rather than pursuing the career in medicine he studied for: his keen interest in human suffering and mutilation and his apparent disdain for humanity would seem ill-suited for healthcare.
The movie itself is a basic giallo, divided between some hurried, permit-free location filming in the Big Apple and more careful studio interiors, allowing Fulci to take his time with the murder set-pieces that are the film’s raison d’ê. These feature a few striking uses of colour and framing, and Fulci pans, zooms and tracks, sometimes at the same time, to create a giddy momentum and instability. He also pulls off one the weirdest and ghastliest shots in the whole genre: since Fulci’s killer, like the real-life Yorkshire Ripper, who had only just been imprisoned when the film was released, mutilates his victim’s genitals, Fulci films a broken bottle thrusting into the camera lens, from the point of view of the victim’s vagina. As bad-taste extremes go, this easily trumps the shot in Jaws 3 where we see a shark eating its human prey, filmed from inside the shark’s mouth, in 3D.
The problem isn’t that the film includes numerous scenes of women being violently abused: the media attest that such cases do occur, and are therefore suitable for artistic treatment. The issue is the film’s gleeful cynicism in serving up such scenes as entertainment, and the slapdash and heartless way it goes about this.
Right at the start, after a dog retrieves a human hand from a bush, echoing Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and a girl is knifed to death in a car on the Staten Island Ferry (the owner of the car disappears, never to claim his vehicle, but he never becomes a suspect), the unlikely NYC detective played by Brit thesp Jack Hedley (looking world-weary, as well he might) chats with the pathologist who suggests that the two crimes are related. Hedley wanders to the front of the station house, where he meets his director, Fulci himself, playing a police chief, who berates him for telling the press there’s a serial killer on the prowl. Let me stress: this is a continuous sequence. Hedley has just been told about the crimes being related, and has had no time to talk to anybody. If that isn’t a good enough example of the film’s reckless construction, how about the fact that the medical examiner tells him, from a blood sample, that the killer is a young man who’s lived in New York all his life.
Remember, Fulci studied medicine.
Still, in an impassioned and intelligent essay culled from his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci and included with the disc, Stephen Thrower makes a convincing case for the film as a brutal vision of hell and a nihilistic assault upon its audience, while in the video extras, the director’s daughter explains that her father was a very nice man if you knew him, both of which statements I accept. It’s not so easy to guess what the director was driving at by giving his antagonist the hysterical quacking voice of Donald Duck, other than attempting to drag even the most seemingly innocuous aspects of Western civilisation into the sewer.
What doesn’t convince about the film, for me, is its equation of sexual decadence with homicidal murder. The hilarious production of a cock-shaped pipe as evidence of a minor character’s depravity is the purest example of this silliness: why should we be appalled that he likes to puff his tobacco fumes through a ceramic Johnson? By showing the forensic profiler covertly buying a gay wank mag, Fulci thinks he’s making a point about general hypocrisy and creeping perversion, but Thrower is stretching things too far when he asks ‘if a psychoanalyst is ashamed of his sexuality, what sort of help can he offer to anyone else?’ Firstly, the guy is a lecturer rather than a therapist, and secondly, his personal problems, if we even see them as such, needn’t invalidate his insights.
That’s where the film seems ultimately rather silly, in its vile way: fair enough if Fulci wants to lambast the decline of modern civilisation, but he can’t make his points stick if he doesn’t himself possess enough perspective to see the very real difference between cock-pipes and jazz-mags on the one hand, and a razor to the eyeball and a broken bottle to the crotch on the other. No slippery slope exists from one to the other.