1982's The New York Ripper is a very, very, very special motion picture: it represents the exact moment at which the great Italian horror master Lucio Fulci transformed into the hacky Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci. The transition was achieved very cleanly: outside of two scenes which could stand along any giallo of the '70s for visual flair and psychologically bent terror, the film bears not a trace of the poetically gory hands of the man who just one year before had wrapped up his celebrated Gates of Hell trilogy with The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery.

We'll get back to that; in the meantime, let's ease into the thing. The New York Ripper opens with an elderly man (Sal Carollo) and his dog, the man shot in such disorientingly tight, pinched close-ups that I thought for certain that he was being set up as some demented figure who'd play a considerable role in the sick drama to follow, and not just a dude who would literally never appear again after the opening credits. All he's there for is to be part of a game of fetch gone wrong, when his dog brings back a rotting hand. This hand becomes the problem of NYPD officer Lt. Fred Williams (Jack Hedley), who you can tell just from looking at him is one of those world-weary sorts who has seen it all, and found all of it depraved and wanting. The kind who can reel off the statistic that eleven people are murdered in his jurisdiction every day, half of them women, and do so with the sort of bored, slumped posture that suggests he has no more emotional stake in that fact than he does in the Mets' current woes.

What Williams doesn't know is that he's just been given a serial killer case, or should I say he's been handed the case, because y'know, the fact that there was a hand, it's like a pun. In fact, New York is about to be plagued by a series of killings committed by a person whose only persistent identifiable characteristic is a tendency to speak in a voice like a psychopathic Donald Duck. A more psychopathic Donald Duck, anyway. After the next violently mutilated body shows up, of a woman (Cinzia de Ponti) slashed through the genitals, Williams calls in an expert on maniacs, Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco) of Columbia University. The two of them begin to develop a plan to find and stop the killer, though Williams is so hard-boiled and resigned to a world of shit, and Davis so generally callous, that neither of them are trying very hard. Eventually, the case starts to break when one victim, Fay Majors (Almanta Keller) manages to survive wounds, and with her boyfriend Peter (Andrew Occhipinti, under the American market friendly name of Andrew Painter) begins to endure an entire series of failed attempts by the Quacking Ripper on her life. Though even this proves to be less use than it immediately seems; the man she's able to identify as her attacker, Mikis Kalenda (Howard Ross) is revealed rather soon after to us as merely the procurer for the actual Ripper, finding the kind of "dirty" or otherwise morally compromised women that the killer prefers.

In its bones, then, this is basically just a routine giallo, a nice urban murder mystery. It came out in the Slasher Era, which means that the focus is less on psychological discombobulation (the spine of all the very best gialli), and more on evocative, high-impact violence, but it's not like the gialli were exactly squeamish about such matters. Still, the quantity and degree of the violence in The New York Ripper is quite impressive: enough to get the film banned in Britain during the Video Nasties days, despite it not being on the Nasties list itself. In fact, the violence in the film is so prominent and so pronounced in its impact that it's kind of hard to talk about anything else. That is, in fact, the nugget of the argument of the faction that decries the film as lesser, if not indeed outright terrible Fulci (having developed a good-sized cult in the years after its toxic early reception, this remains the most divisive of the director's movies): that it is nothing but an exercise in watching brutal acts of highly creative and wicked acts of violence against women, a torture porn film years and years before anybody even thought of suggesting that was a genre. It's no fun to side with the prudes, but I absolutely have to, in this case: The New York Ripper is a squalid, joyless exercise in extreme gore, with a ridiculous fig leaf at the end when it reveals the killer and explains his motives in a way that could potentially serve as a sign that the movie is indicting acts of male violence against women, if only it didn't come after the specific 85 minutes of cinema preceding that reveal.

I am irresistibly drawn to compare the film to William Lustig's Maniac from two years earlier, for the two films resemble each other closely. Both are set in a version of New York that focuses on the shabbiest, filthiest corners of that city during one of the nastier periods in its history, and both depict acts of horrifying cruelty against women. Neither is a film that's much fun to watch in anyway, and anybody suggesting that it might be is probably worth avoiding in small group settings, but for all that it is a sick, slimy affair, Maniac at least feels like it has some depth and purpose. It's rubbing our faces in the worst of humanity with the exact point of making us feel degraded and awful about it; it comes from a place of thematic and sociological nihilism, but it has themes and sociology. The New York Ripper doesn't manage quite the same feat: it depicts more disgusting acts but with less visceral implication of the viewer. It presents torture for us to watch, it doesn't assault us with torture. And because of this, it's basically an empty exercise. Not that, God knows, I think that every good horror film needs to make us feel awful about death and violence, or anything like that. I am a huge, even starry-eyed fan of The Beyond, which has plenty of extreme and foul-minded scenes of violence, and it makes absolutely no claims to thematic depth at all. But it has artistry behind it: it imparts mood using its visuals about as well as any horror film I can name, and even if it's basically just spectacle, it's spectacle that's emotionally transporting. The New York Ripper is just a wallow in bad behavior, too wearying to even make one angry. It's not in the least scary, it's gross. Emphatically and unapologetically gross, and there's no art to that.

The gulf between The New York Ripper and Maniac, or The Beyond, or a hundred other, better violent horror movies, is typified by its sex show scene. By the mere fact that it has a sex show scene, in which a woman named Eva (Zora Kerova) and a man with no name at all (Urs Althaus) are onstage in one of the seediest adult theaters in the blighted hellhole of early-'80s Times Square, having sex for an audience that includes Kalenda, and a smartly-dressed woman we'll later learn is called Jane Lodge (Alexandra Delli Colli), the latter of whom masturbates while watching, the camera cutting from the sex act she's watching to extreme close-ups of her mouth twisting in pleasure. Which is, to be fair, the most classy, artful way to film a scene of a woman masturbating at a Times Square live sex show that you could possibly hope for.

But then, the question arises, is this actually a scene that a film like The New York Ripper requires? If so, is it a scene that needs to go on for as long as it does (notably, most of the censorship the film has undergone pertains to its sex, not its violence - which opens up a whole other conversation, but still)? Probably not and no, respectively. And even then, the scene is a masterpiece of narrative concision compared to the later scene in which Jane is foot-raped in a bar. These are lingering, sordid moments, ones where sex is glared at with a blank, disinterested focus by the filmmakers, and it feels more like something out of a Joe D'Amato picture than anything I'd associate with Fulci in his prime. Not a complimentary comparison, in case the name "Joe D'Amato" doesn't mean anything to you right off.

Having thus telegraphed its willingness to stomp around in the most gratuitous kind of sex and linger on sexual humiliation in what I think might be a scene played for comedy, the film thus gets that much ickier when the time comes to kill Jane off - this came as an unpleasant development to me, for her first handful of scenes, I was actually expecting her to turn out to be the real Ripper, since there was no obvious reason otherwise for her to take up so much screentime (and sure enough, she's absolutely not an important enough character for the energy the film takes in building her up) - and does so with a level of unblinking violence that outdoes anything else I have seen in Fulci. Including what might be the single most upsetting moment of eye violence in the filmography of a director who treated eye violence the way Spielberg treats shooting stars. It's immaculately staged, and brilliantly executed - on the level of craft, I'll cop to being in absolute awe of it - but it's so leering, so filthy, and so distasteful in the context of how the film views women and Jane in particular, it's not valuable or entertaining, it's just pitiless and rancid.

That the killer speaks like Donald Duck immediately connects The New York Ripper with 1972's Don't Torture a Duckling, whose Italian title contains a more explicit reference to the Disney character. That film is one Fulci's greatest works, though not because it kindly; where The New York Ripper is cruel, Don't Torture a Duckling is outright nihilistic. But that nihilism develops cleanly from the film's unrelenting social commentary, and I kept hoping, right up to the pretty much indefensible close-up of Jane's nipple being cut in half by a razor blade, that the link between the two films on the Donald level mean that The New York Ripper would eventually turn into something similar. It doesn't; there's the outline of a something about men wanting women to be impossibly perfect, but if I were inclined to defend the movie, it would be out of admiration that it pulls no punches and knows exactly what it is, not because it has any meaningful level of thematic depth or sophistication.

And there's another line of defense, I guess: unlike all of the later Fulci films I've seen, The New York Ripper is actually well-made. Even extremely well-made: it was the second and last film Fulci made (after a gap of eleven years!) with cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, a great talent in the Italian film industry of the '70s, and his depiction of the squalor of New York and the nightmarish corners of it is fantastic; there's a brief scene in a subway with screaming red lights that is the most inspired part of the entire movie, almost solely through its lighting, and a weird sequence in a movie theater where the mood lighting is almost as important as Fulci's staging of the unseen film as a surrealist collage of sounds (I mentioned two great scenes in my opening paragraph: there you have them). So no matter what's going on, the film looks fantastic. And as a police procedural and mystery, Fulci and crew keep the film tight and tense, with Hedley doing excellent work as the bleak, weathered Williams (Malco's Davis - eventually revealed to be gay in a very bizarre and pointless scene that I think is meant to explain his amoral glossing over the dead women - is much less consistent or interesting). That the film eventually follows slasher rules rather than giallo rules in outing and disposing of its killer means that this angle on the film is a bit of a dead end, but it's pretty great while it lasts. Nothing else is, though; I could possibly attempt to overlook everything vile in the film if it was genuinely horrifying, but The New York Ripper is ultimately more rote and banal in its storytelling than it is repellent, and that's the worst kind of combination.

Body Count: 6, which is almost exactly the right number for a Ripper-based thriller. I am not counting the dead body at the very beginning of the movie, of which we see only a hand.