Color, 1986, 88 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Jeff Hathcock
Starring James Hansen, April Audia, Larry Thomas, Danielle Louis, Simon De Soto
Culture Shock Releasing (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
A unique name in the world of direct-to-video horror, Jeff Hathcock jumped into the fray of VHS-ready shockers fairly early in the game with his 1985 film Victims! and, still in love with exclamation points, followed it up quickly with the slasher whodunit Night Ripper! Unlike his prior film, this one was actually shot on video for budgetary reasons and uses that format to its advantage, creating a weird soap opera aesthetic that feels even more jarring when you see butcher knives suddenly puncturing the cast members. However, today it's likely most shocking for starring Larry Thomas, better known to pop culture at large as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, here almost unrecognizable as a suspect in a string of brutal murders all committed late at night.
A modern-day Jack the Ripper is at work in an L.A. neighborhood showing up at aspiring models' apartments to hand over a rose before attacking with a big butcher knife. Bespectacled and very shifty Mitch (Thomas) keeps turning up to talk about the crimes with the glamour shot photographer who rents his studio, Dave (Hansen), who's engaged but not exactly the faithful type. Dave also regularly works with snarky lesbian Janet (Audia) for his deliveries and starts an affair with new model Jill (Louis), which gets awkward when his fiancee ends up being one of the ripper's next victims. With the cops now sniffing around close to home, could the killer be Dave or someone else in his orbit?
Complete with an odd-key theme song, lots of casual cheating characters, and insane dialogue, Night Ripper! is total SOV catnip if you've developed a taste of this stuff by now. The makeup effects are gory but hilariously unconvincing, often using an arty technique with in-camera "freeze frame" knife effects that feels like Dario Argento on a Polonia Brothers budget. The story structure is very odd with its focus on the personal proclivities of its characters, leading to an atmospheric showdown at a mannequin factory (with one hell of a nutty punchline at the end) where you ultimately question who the protagonist of this story really is. California native Hathcock evidently did well enough on the video store circuit with this one to keep plugging away, moving on to the insane Streets of Death and the lower tier Troma oddity Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell. Whether any more of his oeuvre will see the light on Blu-ray remains to be seen, but at this rate the odds seem good.
Briefly distributed on VHS by International Video (who also put out Castle of the Creeping Flesh), Night Ripper! hasn't exactly been easy to see in recent years but seems like a very logical choice for the resurgence of shot-on-video horror rediscoveries getting bumped up to Blu-ray. The 2022 release from Culture Shock Releasing (including a limited 3,000-unit slipcover edition) is obviously confined by the technical limitations of how it was shot (SD video, albeit with extremely vibrant colors during the night scenes); for what it is though it's more than watchable and features a crisp DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track with English SDH subtitles. Also included here is a new audio commentary by Matt, David and Shea from the Movie Melt podcast that tries to give this the Rifftrax treatment with lots of giggling, random audio clips, comical sound effects... If that's your thing then knock yourself out, but it's really unbearable. Way more substantial and worthy of your time are three new video featurettes starting with Audia (21m36s) chatting about the intimidating audition process, the quick and easy removal of her scripted nude scene, the filming of her biggest scene, and the memorable moment when she saw the film for the first time in a video store. (The titles of the featurettes won't be listed here since one of them is a huge spoiler.) Then they managed to snag Thomas for a new interview (19m56s) about the differences between this and his prior role in Terror on Tour, the adjustments he had to make to underact here that ended up being "creepy," his understanding of how to shoot for video versus film, the contrast between this film and working with most of the same people later on Streets of Death, and his day job as a court investigator that helped with the DIY wardrobe process. Finally you hear from Hathcock (19m22s) about starting this just after Victims!, the weirder cast submissions he received, the discovery of the mannequin warehouse he could use for free (under one condition), and lots of other tales about low-budget showbiz. After that comes a reel of extended gore sequences (2m29s) basically featuring lingering takes of the sloooooow knife rippings used more sparingly in the finished film, with lots of oozing latex. Finally the disc wraps up with a behind-the-scenes still gallery (5m10s) from Audia's collection and bonus Culture Shock Releasing Trailers for Slashdance, The American Scream, Girlfriend from Hell, Video Murders, and Death Collector.
Reviewed on July 9, 2022