Friday, April 16, 2010

Giallo di Fulci

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He's the gift that keeps on giving. I've covered a couple of his films previously, House By the Cemetery and his epic Zombie, but today I'd like to focus on two of his 1980s giallos, the vehemently Italianate murder mystery genre that features a mysterious killer with gloved hands, cops on the case, lots of red herrings and extreme deaths.

Ripping One

The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore di New York) is hands down Fulci's filthiest, foulest film. You don't just want to take a shower after viewing it—you want to be steam-cleaned. Chock full of nasty sex, extreme violence and some of the splatteriest gore he'd ever committed to celluloid, Ripper is completely repellent, one of the most polarizing titles among his hardcore fans.

Never before had he attempted anything as extreme as this film, so I can only guess that he was attempting to cash in on William Lustig's X-rated Maniac (1980), a sublimely sleazy grease spot of a film that stunned even the most hard-bitten Times Square audiences. Doing the earlier film one better, Fulci amped up the gore and pushed the sexual content to near-pornographic levels. It's truly a piece only the most hardened sleazehounds can enjoy.

The plot is fairly rudimentary: the brutally butchered bodies of women are turning up all over town, and the lead cop on the case keeps receiving taunting calls from the killer, who speaks in a cartoonish voice and quacks like a duck. The typical giallo "who's the killer?" story follows.

Taking a page from Argento's playbook, Fulci lets the anticipation of the violent scenes build slowly, throwing in false leads and tightening the noose until the killer strikes. The first murder takes place on the Staten Island ferry, where a female bicyclist who's had an argument with a man whose Volkswagen she accidentally ran into and scratched, sneaks into the hold to scrawl an obscenity on the windshield of his unoccupied car. Caught in the act, she tries to make nice with her surprise visitor (whose face we never see, of course). He begins to quack, the switchblade comes out, and the slicing commences.

In another scene straight out of DePalma's Dressed To Kill (Angie Dickinson's surprise elevator murder), a woman who's been indulging in a little S&M in a sleazy hotel room begins to suspect her sexual partner is the killer the police have been looking for. She frantically releases herself from her bonds and runs into the hall, only to be confronted by the Quacker, who slices her stem-to-stern in savage fashion.

The murders are excruciatingly drawn out. You see every cut in graphic detail. The climactic killing—the most notorious in the film—features Fulci's trademark eye-gouging and slashing of particular body parts in loving close-up. Still, fans of pre-Disneyfied Times Square will love the exterior shots of the long-gone grindhouses, sleazy bars and sex clubs, and the subway back when the cars were still filthy and covered with graffiti. Interiors are equally sleazy, with a real feel for down-at-its-heels Manhattan.

The film is well-made, with some of the most realistic effects seen in a Fulci work, as well as truly sleazy and embarrassing-to-watch sex scenes. There's not a lot of unintentional humor to leaven the tension, which certainly enhances its repulsive atmosphere. I can only imagine what an experience it would have been to watch Ripper in a theater with strangers back in the day...and wonder if they were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, Ripper initiated the final phase in Fulci's career in which he would produce some of his weakest films, seemingly turning his back on his fans by refusing to deliver the extreme gore they demanded.

Slash Dance

The above title is a pun, but it's also one of the alternates for Fulci's Murder Rock (1984), a cross between the giallo, Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). Get ready for leotards and leggings, folks. It's a Lucio Fulci musical!

Well, not really, but it's the closest he ever came. Like Ripper, it's also ostensibly set in Manhattan (Lucio just loves those harbor shots), but it's pure Eurotrash all the way. A killer is stalking students at New York's Arts for Living Center, headed by Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos, Zombie's original eye-gouging victim), and cops arrive on the scene to investigate.

Candice is a former dancer whose own career was cut short by a motorcycle accident. Apparently she's getting her revenge by forcing her students to perform some of the most spastic, super-aerobic dance moves I've ever seen. Sadly, the mystery portion of the movie isn't really that mysterious and it's pretty slow going, but these numbers, along with some of the casting, give Murder Rock some watchability.

It's almost a who's-who of Italian horror actors of the '70s and '80s. Along with Karlatos, there's Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Christian Borromeo (Argento's Tenebre) and, in uncredited roles, Al Cliver (Zombie) and Silvia Collatina (House By the Cemetery). Fulci, of course, provides his usual cameo.

The killings are committed with a hatpin to the breast, so there's no gore. The story attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but it's mostly just blurry, since so much of it is set in darkness—with strobe lights. And it's too damn slick, missing the beloved Fulci trademarks. Gone are the smash zooms and extreme close-ups of characters' eyes and noses. The English dubbing isn't as hilariously dodgy as the director's earlier supernatural horrors, which is a shame, because the characters talk a lot. Sample exchange (on the telephone):

Candice: Bob—what happened?

Bob: Something terrible...Susan.

Candice: What?

Bob: At the school. The police are here.

Candice: What are you saying?

Bob: She was...

Candice: What do you mean she was...she's dead?

Much of the dialogue goes on in the same fashion, but unfortunately it never reaches the dizzying heights of—say—Karlatos in Zombie: "You won't be happy until I meet one of your zombies!"

Here's one of Candice's nightmare sequences, where she's stalked by a mystery man (Lovelock) with the aforementioned hatpin who will soon enter her real life. I guess she's supposed to be wearing a diaphanous Grecian-type outfit, but with her butt hanging out, it reminds me of an open hospital gown!

I suppose the dance numbers are well-shot and edited, but they're so goofy they defy measurement. With music by Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Keith Emerson, they provide whatever fun the film has to offer. What the hell kind of school is the Arts for Living Center anyhow? The Institute of the Pelvic Thrust?

I want a performance space or nightclub in New York to do a show featuring detailed re-stagings of all the dance numbers from Murder Rock—without a trace of irony. It'd be a huge hit.

After New York Ripper, Fulci's career seemed to go into decline. He made The New Gladiators (1983), a post-apocalyptic action film in the style that was popular at the time, but Murder Rock really signaled the beginning of the end. An attempted sequel to Zombi 2 was taken over by Bruno Mattei due to his illness. He made a couple of TV movies considered too violent to air even on Italian television. I've seen one of them on DVD, but it was pretty nondescript.

One of the last films Fulci made was Cat in the Brain, in which he plays himself, a director so tormented by nightmares of his own creations that he consults a psychiatrist. It's really no more than a clip show, with newly-shot wraparounds "introducing" scenes from earlier horrors.

Still, for a filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years and included almost every genre (westerns, a couple of White Fang movies, even a comedy with Barbara Steele!), to be remembered for a notable handful of thrillers isn't a bad record at all. Here's my list:

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
Zombie (1980)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
House By the Cemetery (1981)
The New York Ripper (1982)

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