Whisper this quietly so the gorehounds won’t hear. The late, Lucio Fulci’s zombie movies are overrated exercises in gothic tedium. His gialli are another matter entirely: the stylish Perversion Story (1969), the fantastic A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), and Fulci’s masterpiece, Don’t Torture a Duckling. This haunting giallo works on so many levels, and lingers longer in the memory than the hokey metaphysics of The Beyond (1981).
A small town in southern Italy is shocked by the gruesome murders of several adolescent boys. The local priest, young Don Alberto (Marc Porel) and his mother, Aurelia (Irene Papas) try to keep the outraged populace under control, while the police struggle to catch the killer. Suspicion falls upon two outsiders, both women: restless city girl Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a recovering drug addict who flaunts her naked beauty before little boys, and Martiara (Florinda Bolkan), a tortured soul whom townsfolk believe is a witch. Sharp-eyed reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) arrives in town and with Patrizia’s aid discovers the disturbing truth behind these horrific events.
Fulci never had a more multi-layered story than this one. Adolescent angst, sexual desire, Catholic guilt, psychological trauma, small town bigotry, superstition, religious dogma versus genuine morality, bourgeois indifference to provincial problems – it’s all here, woven inside a giallo that is gory, provocative and powerfully unsettling. The film benefits from the director’s impeccable staging and painterly eye, but also a strong narrative drive (something he’d lost by the time of his early ’80s horrors). Fulci paints on a broad canvas at first, expanding the giallo murders into a police procedural, and a rural drama with tinges of the supernatural, then slowly narrows his focus upon key characters. “People aren’t worried about their immortal souls”, frets Don Alberto. Fulci had already incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church with his scandalous historical drama Beatrice Cenci (1969), and key elements here seem like a calculated attempt at revenge. What redeems this from simplistic, anti-Catholic rhetoric is a genuine condemnation of ignorance in all its forms. Nothing escapes Fulci’s jaundiced eye: the hysterical villagers are as scary as the psychopathic killer; the police are often insensitive; misconceived ideals of morality leave little time for tolerance.
And yet there is goodness here too, if one overcomes prejudice and looks beneath the surface. A throwaway moment has Aurelia glance disdainfully at Patrizia’s short skirt, only to revise her snap judgement when the city girl buys a thoughtful gift for her mentally handicapped daughter. The use of words like ‘sub-normal’ and ‘retarded’ in describing the child do date the film somewhat. An absence of an Italian track in favour of dubbed English is regrettable, given the subject matter. But – though we don’t hear their real voices – Bolkan and Bouchet perform in English anyway, and aside from one little boy with a strangely deep voice, the effect isn’t too jarring.
It might be Tomas Milian who battles the killer during the memorable finale, but the film belongs to its two fascinating heroines; the strongest, most complex female characters the notoriously misogynistic Fulci ever delivered. Bolkan’s enigmatic madwoman is bitter, delusional, and like many characters here, full of self-loathing. Her tragic fate, set to an acid rock soundtrack, is a horrific tour de force, but for once Fulci’s sadism is emotionally involving, and actually conveys a point about bigotry and vigilante justice. The final touch – tourists speeding past a stricken woman – provides a chilling climax.
Bouchet receives a dreamily erotic intro. A goddess lounging naked in front of an understandably flustered little boy. Bouchet looks gorgeous in every scene, parading some sexy, Seventies fashions, but Patrizia remains an agreeably complex heroine. Sexually provocative, a drug addict, restless and intelligent. She turns to vice only because the mundane everyday fails to stimulate her brain cells. Patrizia flirts with the supernatural then latches onto Andrea as the mystery engages her mind. She’s flighty and flirtatious, but with a kindly streak and is a proactive heroine, selflessly risking her life to save a child.
Don’t Torture a Duckling offers many rewards throughout its compelling narrative. Plus a gut-punch ending that is tense, touching, and poetically twisted. Oh, and being a Fulci film, concludes with someone falling off a cliff and getting their skull smashed to gory bits in glorious slow-motion. Nice.
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.