ALL THE COLOURS OF THE 80s: PART 2 – A TALE OF TWO CITIES
It’s Fulci Friday!
With over 70 credits to his name, Lucio Fulci was a prolific director of films of various genres including Horror (Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979), Giallo (Don’t Torture A Duckling, 1972), Comedy (How we Stole the Atomic Bomb, 1966) Western (Four of the Apocalypse, 1975) and Musicals (Juke Box Kids, 1959).
Fulci was one of only a handful of Giallo filmmakers whose career flourished beyond the 1970s. He would continue to make movies throughout the 1980s, largely in horror, but would create two of the most interesting gialli of the decade.
Murder Rock (1984)
An attempt to reinvent Giallo by exploiting both the Slasher genre and the success of films like Flashdance and Fame to create a beast more relevant to a new decade. Though Fulci was coerced by his producer to essentially turn the movie into a musical, the violent but melodramatic whodunit template meshes very well with 80s dance and performance art, and was an avenue that both Dario Argento (Opera, 1987) and Michele Soavi (Stage Fright, 1987) would later explore and exploit to create genre masterpieces.
The New York Ripper (1982)
A film once dubbed “the sickest movie ever made” and shown only in adult theatres, which to this day carries compulsory cuts required to remove sexualized violence courtesy of the BBFC in the UK. Copies of the film were famously gathered up and given a police escort out of the country to stop video pirates from securing copies illicitly.
Murder Rock begins like an episode of Fame directed by Paul Verhoeven. We are introduced to a bevy of beautiful female dancers by way of their thrusting crotches, rock hard glutes and heaving breasts, fighting to escape from barely-there leotards. Male dancers are present too, but peripherally - Guiseppi Pinori’s camera skips around them to home in on the sweaty, pulsing forms of Fulci’s spandex-clad babes.
Lights strobe over female flesh throughout – and there’s no shortage of it – while a Keith Emerson score pitched somewhere between Tangerine Dream and Kenny Loggins beats and pounds to remind us that, were it not for a spate of murders, we could be watching a typical piece of 80s dance-craze cinema (in itself, an exploitation genre, though a PG rated one). When the killing begins, Murder Rock maintains its sense of fun – in fact there’s a lot more Rock than Murder throughout.
The New York Ripper opens on a man walking his dog, who discovers the rotting severed hand of a woman, plunging us straight into a serial killer hunt. The violence is always front and centre in Ripper, and very graphic, daring you to be disgusted, to look away. Some scenes can be a real challenge to watch – both testament to their technical execution and a criticism of Fulci’s penchant for on-screen violence to women (here given apparent free rein). Even when not under physical attack, the women of Ripper are subdued and molested by sexual predators as thought this is simply part of a normal day in the city.
It’s not long before the murders take centre stage. In Rock, an amorous young couple in the girls’ locker room pay the price for their illicit rendezvous. It’s the young lady that gets it (naturally) – chloroform first to render her prone and emphasize her vulnerability, then a hatpin spike through the heart, which of course first must penetrate her naked breast. The same spike claims several more bare-chested victims. In Ripper, a pretty young cyclist is cornered on the Staten Island Ferry as she defaces the car of a man who insulted her. She’s punished – butchered by the unseen killer who brandished his straight razor and “stuck it up her joy trail” (although, in the UK at least, this violence is hidden, replaced with reaction shots). The violence in Ripper is often, harrowing and severe – the killer likes to take his blade to the chests, abdomens and groins of women in moments of utter sadism.
The killers in both Murder Rock and Ripper are, in true Giallo fashion, shrouded in darkness, their identity a mystery. Suddenly, every woman is vulnerable, and every man under suspicion. This is true of much of Fulci’s more exploitative oeuvre. Given the wealth of actress interviews highlighting Lucio’s preference for tormenting his female stars, and the sexually charged ends they meet on screen, it’s undeniable that Fulci’s women have their place and rarely escape it. His male characters (in Murder Rock and Ripper, at least) are seen as sleazy predators – grimy, leering, vile beasts, never to be trusted, always to be feared. The murderers brag of their conquests to the police that chase them, their voices masked (in the case of Ripper, in a truly disturbing Donald-Duck style quacking). Even the passer by in the street is under suspicion - lapelled overcoats and wide-brimmed hats shroud their identity, hiding a potential predator beneath.
Accusatory fingers are pointed at female victims even after their deaths, accusing them of lesbianism and prostitution. Even in dream sequences, Fulci’s male characters predate his vulnerable women.
Ever since Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1963) the “ruination of beauty” (where the sexual potency of strong, liberated women is nullified by their deaths), genre cinema (Italian genre cinema in particular) has been accused of misogyny. The preoccupation of male-on-female violence and murder can be read as chauvinistic voyeurism and many critics of horror, giallo and other exploitative genres have presented strong, thoughtful arguments for why this is the case.
Fulci himself gained a reputation for being a misogynist, not least from a number of female actors who starred in his films. The New York Ripper is, above all others, the film in Fulci’s oeuvre which inspires the most criticism in this regard. While there’s no hiding how Fulci portrays his female characters at times, his reason for doing so is unclear. Could it simply be misogyny? Or does Fulci have a more nuanced agenda? It is important to note, when considering whether Ripper is as misogynistic as critics consider it to be, that the sexualized violence portrayed is brutal and extreme. This, of course, is at odds with the apparent misogyny of Giallo, and efforts to show violence against women as titillation. There is no male gaze in Ripper, no attempt to be playful or present violent actions as vicarious thrill. The violence is sadistic, deliberately so – it is meant to challenge the viewer, to sicken and repulse, rather than to entertain.
As Nisbet (2016) suggests:
“…the film revels in a borderline perverse brutality towards sexually active, young and attractive women yet…also offers a critique of sexual deviancy. The sex in New York Ripper is dirty and disgusting, a far cry from the titillating sex and rape scenes found in the majority of Italian horror. As a piece of Italian cult cinema its a million miles away from the sexually liberated films of the 1970s”
Consider also Ellinger (2017), who posits the director’s purpose is to confront the taboo:
“He takes a critical stance against the animal nature of man in all its ugliness…it’s a statement about male violence towards women.”
This is apparent throughout the film and it could indeed be that Ripper has drawn unfair criticism for its presentation of sexual violence. The more controversial acts of violence are hyper-realistic, brutal, visceral and drawn out, and the presentation places the responsibility firmly on the viewer to look away: the camera isn’t going to spare you, the choice to watch on is yours. Perhaps Fulci does not encourage indulgence in the sport of sadism, rather aims to remind that these acts are repugnant – and he firmly points the finger of blame at the men. As Clover (1992) suggests about the oft-maligned I Spit On Your Grave (1978 dir Meir Zarchi), It is hard to imagine male viewers identifying with the killer in Ripper – if anything Fulci’s technique and Sacchetti’s script encourages the viewer to assume the point of view of the victim.
Compare this with Murder Rock – where the violence is sporadic and lacking in blood, yet a perfectly lit breast is exposed onscreen before the murderer’s weapon is driven through the heart. Dance beats pound and lights strobe as nubile young things are first exposed and then finished off. It is the ‘lighter’ of the two movies, with its glistening young bodies and thrusting crotches, that perhaps represents the exploitation, sexualisation and destruction of the female form in a normalized way. In its unflinching portrayal of sadistic violence and sexual deviancy, The New York Ripper is not necessarily the example of Fulci’s misogyny that critics suggest.
What Ripper does do, quite intentionally, is provoke a conversation about movie violence and how the reactionary attitudes toward it are perhaps not proportionate to attitudes towards real life atrocities. Take one sequence, in which Fay (Almanta Keller) is approached in quite a sexually aggressive manner by a man on the New York subway.
The sequence is technically superb – a combination of Fulci’s direction, Keller’s performance, the music and editing is a masterclass in escalating tension. As the would-be victim runs (through the subway, up the stairs and to street level) we are presented with a movie theatre marquee advertising the comic horror ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981, dir John Landis).
The sequence is therefore immediately reminiscent of Landis’ film, where a male victim is pursued through the London Underground subway system by the titular werewolf. This serves to remind us that what we are watching – however visceral and shocking it may be – is just a movie.
From here, Fay is indeed attacked, but then something unusual happens. She staggers into the cinema (which is deserted) where she sits down before the silver screen. The Ripper’s hands appear from nowhere, reaching up to claim her, and she is savagely slaughtered there in the auditorium and dies.
Except she doesn’t.
Fay awakens in hospital, and it turns out that what happened – or at least part of it – was a dream. In fact, the entire sequence in the movie theatre was imagined, as was her brutal slaying. In the hospital, she looks and feels relatively unharmed. Her concerned boyfriend Peter (Andrew Painter) tells her that “reality is a hell of a lot more dangerous than a dream”. Substitute the word “movie” for “dream” (as Fay’s dream in fact took place in a movie theatre) and you have a commentary on movie violence versus real life violence. The brutal, shocking scenes we saw were make-believe, and caused no real harm, whereas the threatening man on the subway (an occurrence not without precedent in 80s New York), was real, and therefore what Fay (and we) should be worried about.
ARE THE STREETS TO BLAME? PARANOIA IS COMING YOUR WAY.
Without a doubt, the central character in Fulci’s Giallo/Sfruttamento double bill is New York. However, the two films very much represent a tale of two cities.
While Murder Rock shows Manhattan by night, a decadent beacon of multi-coloured lights and neon graffiti, Ripper gives us New York by day – filthy, paranoid and sleazy, an island-wide no go area populated with sirens and blaring horns.
The sets and streets of Rock are presented in almost perpetual darkness, yet there is always a party atmosphere to be lapped up, mostly because of a constantly kinetic camera and Emerson’s pulsating score. Despite the constant blanket of night, there is a lightness to the film’s tone and in its presentation of NYC, which evokes disco, Studio 54 and the bright lights of Broadway and Midtown Manhattan. An abandoned underpass looks innocuous, enticing even, brightly lit and filled with the cartoon shapes of neon graffiti art. The big city is alive with light, and our cast live in decadently decorated loft apartments dripping with the colourful European style we are used to see in Giallo. Even groups of African American teenagers wear happy-go-lucky smiles as they pop, lock and breakdance on polished dancefloors until dawn, in the city that never sleeps.
In contrast, Ripper’s daylight scenes show a much more oppressive city – a Rotten Apple. Looming brownstone buildings tower over a low, fixed camera (forcing the audience down into the gutter). The city is a dangerous place, the seedy streets rife with crime, drugs and prostitution. Some areas of New York in the 1980s had fallen prey to intense periods of urban warfare – residents fled their homes as the government mismanaged the city and policing was scaled back, crack-cocaine was unleashed upon the streets and gang violence reigned. It is these streets, these harsh, unwelcoming areas that Ripper is interested in showing us. The film reminds us of New York’s great disparities of income and wealth, reinforces the message that the tall gleaming towers of Manhattan are held up by decades of urban and social decay.
These two, very different portrayals of New York sit almost in contradiction to the traditional assumed knowledge of horror and thriller movies – that the daylight hours are safe, benign, while the darkness of night brings with it crime, danger and the killer. Rather, in Fulci’s 80s gialli, the opposite happens. The night is exotic, intoxicating and exciting, filled with lights and life and passion and sex; the day exposes the harsh reality of the city streets, where the shadows can no longer hide the despair and the neon tint cannot permeate the smog, the filth and the shattered lives.
Neither Murder Rock nor The New York Ripper is often included in conversations about Fulci’s best works. Murder Rock is usually dismissed as a waypoint in the final descent of Fulci’s career, while any discussion about The New York Ripper finds itself dominated by the scandal and furore surrounding the film’s content. In fact, both films are very well put together and bear many of the director’s hallmarks.
Murder Rock is quite light-hearted – it combines its Giallo tropes with an 80s sense of fun, and more than a dash of melodrama, a soap opera of gender war taken to the extreme. It presents Fulci’s playful nature and the broad appeal of his family films such as White Fang (1973). The New York Ripper is a much darker beast – a stark, oppressive movie, presenting an overwhelming sense of dread and terror throughout. Despite its very linear narrative it provokes the same visceral reactions as Fulci’s surreal Gates of Hell (1980-81) triptych, and must be considered among the director’s most effective work.
Both movies are of course tremendously technical, with fantastic camerawork, lights and sound that create (in each case) a dizzying spectacle for the viewer. Ripper has some sequences that absolutely drip with suspense (the aforementioned subway sequence in particular), and even its most brutal moments are shot with a style that simply outshines that of many of Fulci’s exploitation peers – more akin to the gritty 1970s films of Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976) and William Friedkin (The French Connection, 1971). Murder Rock couples expressionist shadow with neon light to create a visually arresting aesthetic later adopted by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016).
The two films stand out as a complementary pairing when viewed together. A combination of the director’s technical and storytelling prowess, and the films’ contrasting portrayals of New York City, show that there is a definite yin-yang feel to this double header of 1980s giallo.
ON TUESDAY: The final article of the series takes a look at newcomer Michele Soavi’s instant genre classic Stage Fright (1987)
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Carter, David (2012) The New York Ripper
Clover, Carol J (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
London: British Film Institute
Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2012) Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci http://filmint.nu/?p=6616
Ellinger, Kat (2017) Hell is Already In Us
Video recording; Arrow Video’s Blu Ray release of Don’t Torture A Duckling
Fischer, Russ (2015) Black Gloves And Knives: 12 Essential Italian Giallo
James, Sarah (2017) Sarah Reviews Murder Rock: Dancing Death
Knight, Jacob (2015) Fulci Lives! A Beginner’s Guide to the Italian Sleaze Maestro
Lee, Mark (2011) The New York Ripper Review
Nisbet, Rachael (2016) The New York Ripper 1982
No Name (2013) The Giallo Files: Murder Rock
Serena, Katie (2017) When Crack Was King: 1980s New York in Photos
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