Monday, June 25, 2018

"A Knowledge of the Human Anatomy Not Generally Found in the Average Person" - Night Ripper (1986)

As everyone knows, the mid-1980s were a treasure trove full of shot-on-video horror gems. One of the foremost gems is Night Ripper! (1986), written and directed by Jeff Hathcock and featuring one highly recognizable actor who struck it big in the 1990s.

Not all critics appreciate this film's charms. For example, reviewer Toronto85 writes, "The acting is awful, the music is terrible." Reviewer LuisitoJoaquinGonzalez writes, "The horrendous sound led me to believe that there wasn't even a boom mike...and the picture quality is – seriously – that of a camcorder." Similarly, reviewer IPreferEvidence writes, "The movie is really dated and some people like myself like that but I don't think that even the most hardcore 80s slasher fans would like this. Its boring and as mediocre as it gets."

Of course, these critics are incorrect. Read on for a discussion of the eminent qualities of Night Ripper!...

The film begins with titles over photographs of mannequin faces, then follows a model, Darlene, as she comes home at night from a modeling class (a common pastime in my universe, if not in yours). She is startled at her front door by Larry Thomas, better known as Seinfeld's Yev Kassem, and even better known as Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. (Out of respect for Mr. Thomas, I will refer to him as the Soup Nazi hereinafter.)

“Have you seen the paper?” asks the Soup Nazi. “The ripper got another girl. Her insides were ripped out, just like the others.”

Later that night, Darlene is rather gorily stabbed by a man carrying roses who knocks on her door.

The next day, the Soup Nazi is working in a darkroom with a fellow photographer. “It’s frightening. You should warn your fiancée to be careful.”

“It wouldn’t do any good,” says the other photographer (in an admirable touch of minimalism, the film does not give most of its characters, including the main protagonists, names, so I will refer to the photographer by the name of the actor who plays him, James Hansen). “She’s used to keeping late hours.”

“Women are like that nowadays,” replies the Soup Nazi, expressing what we were all thinking.

The darkroom is in the back of a one-hour photo shop. In the front, Mr. Hansen meets a woman who wants to be photographed for her boyfriend. Their witty romantic banter is worthy of the greats (including the classic exchange in Memorial Valley Massacre).

“How about tomorrow night. Seven o’clock?” says the photographer.

“Fine,” says the woman.

She stares directly at him for 10 seconds, then says, “Oh no, I’m busy tomorrow.”

“Oh,” he says.

“How about Friday night?” she asks. “Unless you have a date...”

“No, Friday’s great,” he says.

On Friday, Mr. Hansen photographs the young woman in his studio in the back of the photo shop. “That girl. Who is she?” asks the model.

“Who?” asks Mr. Hansen.

“That girl,” repeats the model. It is important to note that there is no girl other than the model in the room, and there are no photographs or drawings of a girl.

“Uh, my fiancé,” says Mr. Hansen dejectedly. Mr. Hansen is clearly attracted to this new model, which the filmmakers imply is morally fine because we see his fiancé sleeping beside another, snoring man.

Mr. Hansen develops proof sheets for the model, Jill. Despite it being after midnight, he calls Jill on the phone and there is another humorously confusing mixup about when she will be available to pick up the proof sheets. They settle on Saturday night.

The thrilling phone call sequence is followed by an equally thrilling sequence in which another woman is night-ripped while coming home after a date. In an effectively artistic flourish, the murder is shown in a series of tableaux where the knife and the woman are still but the blood flows.

The police begin to suspect Mr. Hansen and/or the Soup Nazi of being the ripper because they both photographed the victims and spoke to them before their deaths. During an extended sequence, Mr. Hansen drives through town while being followed by another car. This sequence takes about 10 minutes to unfold, and includes a few repeated shots of cars passing Waffle House restaurants. In the end, Mr. Hansen confronts the driver, a woman who shows him pictures proving that his fiancé is cheating on him with her boss. Of course, he immediately dumps his fiancé from a pay phone.

The filmmakers expertly juggle the potential suspects. The Soup Nazi, of course, is one suspect, and the delivery girl is another. There are no other possible suspects.

Once the fiancé is out of the picture, Mr. Hansen is free to pursue his new crush, Jill. He enters her apartment while she wears a robe and tells her he broke up with his fiancé. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Jill says.

“Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” Mr. Hansen says for no apparent reason and with no real explanation. “Anyway, it’s over. She’s out of my life.”

“Well, I’m sure one of these days you’ll find the right girl.”

“I already have,” Mr. Hansen says.

Instead of calling the police or her boyfriend, Jill kisses Mr. Hansen. For several minutes.

Elsewhere, in an artistically innovative scene, another couple makes love on a leather couch, which we hear but do not see because we are watching from the back of the couch.

The tryst ends with an argument about the man’s wife, during which he slaps the woman. After he walks out, a black-gloved intruder enters and turns off three light switches, though the room does not get any darker. The woman is then night-ripped with a knife in the throat.

In a mildly confusing sequence, Mr. Hansen’s ex-fiancé makes a prank phone call to Jill attempting to disrupt the nascent relationship, and then the fiancé is night-ripped in her car after seeing the Soup Nazi wearing black gloves in a parking garage.

Because his ex-fiance was murdered, Mr. Hansen is questioned by the police. The detective eloquently adds another twist: “Aside from the initial death wound in each of the victims, the precise, methodical manner in which the victims were mutilated could only be the result of someone with a knowledge of the human anatomy not generally found in the average person.” The killer must have had surgical training!

We then see the delivery girl with her girlfriend, but the delivery girl—Janet—is  obsessed with a woman named Angela. “She keeps burning in my brain until my head feels like it’s on fire. She won’t go away. Go away, Angela! Go away! Leave me alone.”

“Maybe...maybe it would help if you saw her again,” says her girlfriend.

“I can’t,” admits Janet. “She’s dead.”

Mr. Hansen, meanwhile, is trying to figure out the mystery while sitting on the floor in front of a fireplace with Jill.

“One,” Mr. Hansen says, “all the victims except Karen were models, for which the killer for whatever twisted reason has an extreme hatred. And two, the murderer must have a surgical knowledge of the human body, or at least know how and where to cut.” He adds, “And three, and possibly the most important fact, the killer knows who his victims are.”

The filmmakers next present an exciting sequence in which, though irrelevant to the main plot, two elderly detectives chase a black-gloved burglar, who nearly escapes by karate-chopping the older and frailer of the policemen. The burglar is harmless, but he tells the police that he heard a story about a similar night-ripping occurring in Queens, New York a year and a half ago.

In a tour de force sequence, the filmmakers show the killer’s point of view driving through the city as a haunting theme song called “Hearts” plays, a theme song whose lyrics I have no choice but to transcribe here:

“Someone’s coming after me
Hear the rustle in the leaves
Didn’t know what fear was until now.

Walking down an alleyway
Got them on the feet, they say
Let’s the vagrants know just who I am.

Something’s got a hold of me
And I’ve got to get myself free
Thought it feels like a dream
I’m caught, and I’m somewhere between the lies.

Hearts, they may never feel what they hide
Or the love that they lock inside.
It’s a sham if you want to view
Any feelings I have for you.

Bargain if you must with me
But simply I don’t have to see
Anything you tell me from now on

Seal my fate or go your way
Liars don’t have much to say
Weighing every word they speak so well.

Something’s got a hold of me
And I’ve got to get myself free
Thought it feels like a dream
I’m caught, and I’m somewhere between the lies.

Hearts, they may never feel what they hide
Or the love that they lock inside.
It’s a sham if you want to view
Any feelings I have for you.”

As the car continues to move through the city, the music of the song fades into an interesting 8-bit video game tune. Then another woman is night-ripped.

The film moves into its final act with a clever scene in which Mr. Hansen sets up a photo shoot at a mannequin factory with his girlfriend over the phone, while both suspects—the Soup Nazi and delivery girl Janet—are listening in.

When the two suspects arrive at the mannequin factory (i.e., the corner of a room with a half-dozen mannequins), Janet says, “What a peculiar place. It’s just like a morgue.”

“It’s perfect for what I have to do tonight,” replies the Soup Nazi. (Kudos to the screenwriter for this exchange. It’s almost as if the characters know they are the final suspects!)

Meanwhile, the police are drawing closer thanks to details from a New York murder. One detective says the victim was “Disemboweled, Bernie. Just as neatly as if she’d been on an operating table.” (In your universe, apparently, surgeons disembowel patients on operating tables; a fact of which I was unaware.)

Back at the mannequin warehouse, Janet says several incriminating things about hating models. She also compares dead bodies to mannequins and can’t help herself from fondling one of the female mannequins, revealing she is a lesbian (in your universe, apparently, the film implies lesbians are murderers).

The Soup Nazi reveals he knows she is the ripper, but he also reveals he has not yet called the police. She night-rips him in the back.

The climax involves a confrontation between Janet the ripper and Jill in the warehouse. Jill says she is unable to see Janet because of the photographic lights, though the scene is almost completely dark. Jill explains that she is indeed the ripper. She attacks from the darkness but Jill runs away. An exciting chase among the half-dozen mannequins ensues.

In possibly the film’s most effective image, Jill quietly walks through a path defined by outstretched, swaying mannequin hands.

Jill screams once when a hand sways in the breeze, and again more loudly when she sees the Soup Nazi’s bloody body, but fortunately Janet does not hear the screams.

In the end, though the editing makes it somewhat difficult to piece together, it appears that Janet the ripper is the victim of a mannequin gripping a knife; when Janet trips, the mannequin falls knife-first, ironically night-ripping Janet in the throat.

Among the many, many films obsessed with the fact that women stay out late at night--and are punished for it--Night Ripper! is one of the finest. It expertly sets up its protagonists and its suspects, though for unknown reasons it reveals the actual night ripper's identity before the climactic chase. It also has an ideal balance of police procedural elements, cutting to its detectives only occasionally in order to move the plot forward. Finally, shots of people driving around at night make up approximately 15% of the film's running time, the perfect amount.

Of course, the film would not be what it is without the finely tuned performance of Larry Thomas as the red herring photographer. Mr. Thomas eyes every woman in the film very creepily and delivers his lines robotically, inspiring in the audience a dread that not only might the character be the night ripper, but that Mr. Thomas might be a night ripper in real life. His towering performances as the red herring in Night Ripper! and the Soup Nazi in two Seinfeld episodes truly establish him as one of his generation's most flexible actors.

Finally, the film establishes itself exceptionally well as a true slasher film. Nearly every woman in the film is night-ripped shortly after being introduced. Such efficiency is to be commended, and even celebrated.