DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING – The Blu Review
Review by Roger Carpenter
While Lucio Fulci made his reputation with a series of graphically violent horror movies like Zombie (AKA Zombi 2), City of the Living Dead (AKA The Gates of Hell), The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, and The New York Ripper, his early career was a hodgepodge of film genres including comedies, spaghetti westerns, and poliziotteschi. However, many critics argue that his greatest films were his early gialli films like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling. Fulci was handicapped by terribly low budgets for most of his career but some of his earlier works were actually well-funded, allowing his cinematic craftsmanship to be on full display. Such was the case with Don’t Torture a Duckling.
As was the case with many gialli of the time period, the film titles were influenced by Argento’s first three gialli, collectively known as the “Animal Trilogy.” But, just as those films claim very tenuous links with the animals identified in their titles, Don’t Torture a Duckling really has nothing to do with actual ducklings. There is a Donald Duck doll in the film, but it plays an extremely brief, if important, role in the film. Perhaps the ducklings mentioned in the film’s title refer to the children in the film, who play a much larger role than the actual doll.
The story takes place in a fictional town in southern Italy. It’s a quiet town populated by hardworking, blue color people eking out a living the best they can. Just like any small town the people have their personal dramas and scandals. For instance, there is a local witch who lives just outside town and skulks through the alleys of the village. Rumors are she killed her own baby as soon as it was born. There is also a kind of magician and healer who people seek out on occasion. Rumors also abound that shortly after the witch was taken in as a young orphan by the magician, she became pregnant. And lately the town has been abuzz at the intrusion of their tranquility by the brash yet beautiful young woman who is staying at the luxurious villa on the outskirts of town. It is said her wealthy father has sent her here to clean up her act and kick her drug habit. But, by and large, the village is a safe, quiet place where people work the countryside and raise their families with the help of a young, charismatic priest who acts as a mentor to all the young boys, watching over them as they play soccer and ensuring they aren’t tempted by impure thoughts.
But evil sometimes can find a foothold even in small, backwater villages. And evil has come to this town in the guise of a mysterious killer who is murdering the young boys. As the police struggle to make sense of the crime, the villagers become more angry and confused. Who is killing their beloved sons? It could be the big-city reporter, Martelli (Tomas Milian) or the beautiful newcomer Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet). But the betting folks in the town are guessing it’s Maciara the witch (Florinda Bolkan) or her mentor the magician (Georges Wilson). But things become even more confused when one of the locals, whom everyone thought harmless, is caught extorting money from the parents of one of the missing boys. Always considered eccentric due to his learning disability, the villagers are both shocked and enraged with this poor soul’s attempt at leveraging a young boy’s death for his own profit. He is promptly shipped off to a big city jail. However, the murders continue to the entire town’s chagrin. As the tension mounts it seems everyone—including several people who could be the killer—is working to solve this series of crimes before another child is killed.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is a truly unique entry into the gialli subgenre. It represents a high point in Fulci’s career in terms of production value and available financing. He was able to surround himself with professional and experienced crew members as well as an extremely strong cast, and it is certainly noticeable as one views the film. Tomas Milian was a hugely popular star of spaghetti westerns before moving into poliziotteschi as the 1970’s progressed. He is also a fine actor though his part is relatively small in this outing. Florinda Bolkan was a relative newcomer to the screen but had made a big splash in Visconti’s arthouse film The Damned as well as co-starring in Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971. Barbara Bouchet had come to prominence playing the character Moneypenny in the Bond spoof Casino Royale before becoming a draw in numerous gialli like Black Belly of the Tarantula, Amuck, The French Sex Murders, and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. And Marc Porel was a genre heartthrob who would go on to star in many other genre films before dying way too early at age 34. Together with many other well-known character actors who played numerous supporting roles in the film, these folks elevate the film to A-list status. Bolkan, in particular, shows her talent in the nuanced role of an abandoned epileptic who is branded a “witch” by the superstitious townsfolk.
Fulci was also able to afford talent behind the camera as well, such as Giovanni Bergamini, who lensed tons of classic Italian genre films such as Inglorious Bastards, Cannibal Ferox, and the original Django. Another major contributor was Riz Ortolani, who composed the music for literally hundreds of films, some genuine classics. Perhaps best known in America for his gut-crunching score for Cannibal Holocaust, the score for Don’t Torture a Duckling is no less effective, if not quite as memorable. Simply listen to his music cues during the brutal beating of Maciara the witch and you will have no doubt you are listening to a master.
Filmed in southern Italy, Fulci makes wonderful use of the sun-drenched scenery. His wide, sweeping shots of entire mountainsides are equally gorgeous and unsettling in their isolation. The ancient village is of white stucco and fairly glows as the sun beats down on it. One can imagine the afternoon heat as the light bounces off the parched-white structures. But even this isolated hamlet is feeling the effect of modernity encroaching from all sides, as elevated superhighways crisscross and cut through the otherwise tranquil vistas of southern Italy. And it is this progress that perhaps spurs the killer to murder the young boys. As the police note early on, there is—thankfully—no trace of sexual trauma to the victims, as one might expect. Unlike in many gialli, this killer doesn’t kill out of some kind of sexual illness. His—or her—reasons are far more complicated than sexual perversion. Thanks to the new superhighways prostitutes and cigarettes have become more easily obtainable and, with the increase ease of access even the pre-adolescent boys are being exposed to these vices. Clearly someone is watching, disapproving, and taking matters into their own hands.
Likewise, Patrizia also may represent progress—or at least the idea of youth, of new ideas and new ways of thinking, and, most importantly, a threat to the old ways of life. And the old ways of thinking certainly are engrained in these simple villagers. Each time a suspect is brought to police headquarters for questioning the entire town turns out, screaming, pressing towards the police station, hoping for their own brand of justice. And when it doesn’t come quickly enough for them, they take matters into their own hands by mercilessly beating the witch. Sure, they assume she must be behind the murders, but they have no proof and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t trouble themselves with these kinds of details. They’ve been waiting a long while to rid themselves of this outlier and this represents a perfect chance, guilty or not.
Speaking of Maciara’s bloody and violent end, this violence—and other aspects of the film—created some not unwelcome controversy for Fulci, and probably helped profits along the way. No stranger to cinematic controversy—Fulci had to appear in court to assure the country his vivisected dogs in his previous film were simply very realistic special effects—Duckling also drew the ire of the public. The graphic killing of Maciara isn’t just bloody and violent, but is particularly well-done and only enhances the viewer’s sympathy for this unfortunate and misunderstood character. Too, the multiple depictions of child murder were just as shocking if not nearly as graphic. Even today the killing of a child in a film is still a bit taboo. There is also a scene showing a nude Patrizia teasing a pre-teen boy who has entered her room to serve her a drink. Again, Fulci had to explain how the shot was created to assure the Italian press that no children were actually subjected to Barbara Bouchet’s absolutely gorgeous nude body.
In the end, Fulci’s giallo is a unique, high-quality, and entertaining thriller. Perhaps not as controversial now as it was in 1972, it nevertheless still packs a punch while delivering a solid murder mystery that was atypical for the time. If you like gialli but are tired of the sleazy sex and violence typical of these films, try this “thinking man’s” giallo for a different take on the genre.
Arrow Films has again done an excellent job with this release, including both a Blu-Ray and standard DVD in the package. The special features are significant and include a 28-minute discussion of the film by Michael J. Koven. Koven is very knowledgeable and is able to shed a great deal of light on the film and its place in the pantheon of giallo films. The discussion is very interesting and enjoyable. Genre critic and analyst Kat Ellinger provides a 20-minute video essay that is also extremely well done. There is a fabulous audio interview with Fulci himself that lasts 33 minutes, as well as several other interviews, including a 30-minutecareer-spanning interview with Florinda Bolkan as well as with crew members who discuss their memories of making the film and of Fulci as well. Finally, there is an audio commentary with giallo expert Troy Howarth. Howarth is entertaining and I always enjoy his commentaries, though he tends to discuss statistics and minutiae that even I don’t care about, like the career of each person who dubbed the voice of every character in the film. Sometimes he goes too deep into the careers of these folks but otherwise it’s a pleasant commentary track. And, like each Arrow release, the first printing comes with a booklet with new writing on the film.
Even those viewers who aren’t fans of the director and consider him a talentless hack should try this film. It just may give you a new appreciation for the filmmaker that was Lucio Fulci. You can purchase the film at Amazon or directly from Arrow Video at http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa/.