DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING [1972]: On Dual Format 25th September

Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,




RUNNING TIME: 105 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic


In the small Southern Italian village of Accendura, young Bruno Lo Casio goes missing, a media circus begins and reporters from all over Italy converge on the town. Local peeping tom and simpleton Giuseppe is arrested when he’s found near the dead body of Bruno, but he protests his innocence and claims to have only discovered the body of the boy and then phoned the parents in a feeble attempt to extract a pitiful ransom. However, soon two more boys are killed. All three victims had taunted Giuseppe. And now it seems that the culprit could be Maciara the local witch….

We all have scenes in films which affect us in a particular fashion, and, first and foremost for me, Don’t Torture A Duckling [yes, the title does eventually make sense….kind of] contains a scene which totally floored me when I first saw the film on a bootleg video, a scene which shocked and upset me so much that I cried, yet which also, in a somewhat perverse way I suppose, thrilled me because I knew that I was watching superb cinema, a master class in how to make a scene as powerful and effective as possible. But of course this often stunning rural giallo has a great deal else to offer. Lucio Fulci became famous for his gore-filled foursome that begun with Zombie Flesh Eaters and ended with House By The Cemetery, but there’s also a train of thought that Fulci, who was a very diverse filmmaker in the first half of his career before he became virtually typecast as a horror director [something I’m not sure he was comfortable with], made his best work somewhat earlier, during the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s, films with focused storylines, good performances and political commentary which show an intelligent filmmaker with his own personal view of the world [though it’s a very nihilistic one] and things to say. The gruelling historical drama Beatrice Cenci and the weird giallo A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin come immediately to mind, but Don’t Torture A Duckling might be the very best film of this period in Fulci’s career. Totally refusing to copy Dario Argento unlike most of his contemporaries, Fulci concocted a highly original giallo that gives us an intriguing mystery but which also savagely attacks the Catholic Church and leaves one feeling very uncomfortable – but full of thought – indeed due to the daring subject matter it deals with and the ambiguous, even complex, it deals with it. It’s quite slow and talky, but the rewards are plentiful for the patient, mature viewer.

Shot mostly on location at Monte Sant’ Angelo in Apulia, Matera in Basilicata and Monte Gelato Falls by the Treja River in Lazio with little location, Don’t Torture A Duckling was Fulci’s favourite of all the films he made. However, its strong anti-Catholic stance and its killing of children led to it getting mostly limited releases though it did well in France where Fulci’s reputation with critics was more favourable than anywhere else. It never even made it to UK and US cinemas. And that, apart from two or three things on the audio commentary which I understandably don’t want to reveal, is all the background I can tell you about this film which, like much of Fulci’s work, there exists little production information about. Fortunately though, there’s so much to say about this movie. The amount of care taken with it [well, except for one particular thing which I just have to mention later] by its director is shown by its very first shot which pans along some autostrada before zooming in on a woman digging desperately in the ground to find a tiny skeleton, while you can just about herea woman singing what seems to be an Italian country song in the background. The modern and the old already existing side by side and not comfortably, the road seeming intrusive the way it cuts into the countryside and divides it. Cut to three young boys praying in church – before they decide to go and spy on the local prostitutes with their clients, one of whom is more interested in the soap opera playing on the radio [well, there’s precious little humour anywhere else and there probably shouldn’t be]. In a really brave scene introduced with shots through some kind of tank so some of the frame is obscured, one of them is then sexually teased by a naked woman in a scene which would probably get some of our moral guardians all worked up even now – especially as this woman is soon revealed to be our heroine!

The boy is then murdered as he walks home, and perhaps thankfully, Fulci holds back on the killings, with only one child murder shown and it’s quite quick, but there is a splendid nocturnal stalking that is genuinely frightening, the victim fleeing from a man wielding a scythe cutting down foliage [in the middle of the night? During heavy rain? O well it’s a Fulci film, people are hardly going to behave normally] and running into the POV killer whom he seems to recognise. So who could it be? Initial suspicion falls on mentally challenged peeping tom Giuseppe who even claims he did it, but then it could also be the seemingly crazy local witch Maciara who is shown sticking needles through voodoo dolls of the victims in cuts often cleverly interspersed with other going-ons – and who also claims that she did the killings. Then there’s also Dona Aurelia Avallone who is the seemingly crazy mother of the local priest and who has a deaf and dumb daughter who likes to rip the heads off dolls, plus the local hermit Francesco who practises black magic and also seems crazy [there really are a great many crazy people in this movie]. Journalist Andrea Martelli and the local police Captain Modesti sure have their work cut out for them, as do we. This really is one giallo that keeps you guessing and which successfully wrong foots the viewer several times, yet which mostly makes sense come the end. All this means that a few draggy passages [there are probably too many shots of the cops searching the countryside] are more than compensated for.

And then you come to that unforgettable, protracted death scene [which Fulci partly reprised at the beginning of The Beyond though it’s far more harrowing here because we’ve got to know this character] where three people corner another [I’m trying not to reveal too much to viewers who haven’t seen the film, which is also why I can’t discuss its themes in much depth] and set about this person with chains replete with shocking graphic detail, the wounds not just bleeding but also showing some of that clear fluid that you never seem to see in films. Even the introduction to the scene, clever editing making the victim’s attackers appear suddenly like ghosts even when they are near to the victim, is expert. But what truly makes the sequence so horrible, yet brilliant, is, after we’ve heard two rock songs with a hard edge on the radio, the ironic use of a romantic song, called Quei Giorni Insieme A Te [Those Days Without You] sung by Ornella Vanoni and written by Riz Ortolani, which has possibly one of the most beautiful tunes in existence, and the unbearably moving finale where the victim crawls up a hill and on to the side of a road and tries to flag down a car but goes unnoticed. The last car the dying person sees before death is full of young children, and the last sound heard is their talking and playing, entirely appropriate considering the film’s subject matter.

By contrast, one’s only response is to laugh when a shoddy looking dummy is thrown off a cliff, though the repeated head bashing against the rocks [something also reprised by Fulci, in The Psychic] remains shockingly nasty in concept. It does’t quite manage to ruin the exciting cliff top climax [despite those usual exaggurated sound effects], nor the disturbing subversion of the usual giallo finish where, instead of the killer revealing why he or she is doing what he or she is doing to the hero and/or the heroine, we actually go inside the killer’s head and are therefore given a greater understanding of the maniac’s reasons, and are even just so slightly touched. The killer’s motive is truly a unique one. I read once that there are suggestions of paedophilia regarding the killer who may seem to kill in an effort to fight off certain urges, though I must admit it’s never crossed my mind. On the other hand, there’s Patrizia, the supposed heroine. The daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur living in the village after a drug scandal, she grants sexual favours to young boys that may not be intercourse but are still highly questionable. Does she do this because she’s bored or because she’s actually attracted to young boys? Actress Barbara Boucher doesn’t hint at an answer [but then all she has to do in this film is to flirt, tease and generally look very sexy throughout], nor does the script. And, in a really clever touch which can easily go unnoticed, her proclivities actually indirectly seem to aid two of the murders. It’s possible that if the victims hadn’t been messing around with Patrizia then the killer may not have been wondering around at that time.

Don’t Torture A Duckling appears to paint an especially unflattering portrait of rural Southern Italy, its towns seemingly a hot bed of insanity, ignorance and stupidity which can lead to terrible things. One especially pointed moment has, when another child is killed, a policeman point out that there is no remorse, only fear on the faces of the villagers. However, Fulci generally didn’t have nice things to say about people in general, and in The New York Ripper the world of the city is portrayed in an equally negative fashion. He just seems to be saying how horrid folk can be, and by the way nobody comes off that well in this movie, even Martelli our hero who likes to doctor photographs for effect. One interesting feature is the clash between Christianity and stregheria [old Italian witchcraft], which actually did seem to have some similar aspects to voodoo. Of course neither comes off very well, though Fulci seems to have  definite views on which is more harmful.

Fulci was rarely as interested in visual stylistics [well, aside from sometimes extremely graphic gore!] as Mario Bava or Dario Argento, but he certainly had his own distinct style, quite “rough and ready” in feel with much handheld [there’s even some unwelcome ‘shakycam’ in this movie though it’s brief] camerawork, rapid zooms [usually out], Dutch angles, and scenes which sometimes seem to be cut off before they’re finished. In this one, he seems to use a favourite device of having one character in profile in the foreground and one in deep focus in the background more often than anywhere else. Sergio D’Offizi’s cinematography is often very striking with its white buildings and streets that glare in the sunlight, evocatively shots of mountainous countryside, and its expertly composed nighttime footage of Patrizia’s car drives. The acting in this film is well above what one probably expects from a Fulci film, though I’ve tended to find his stuff not too bad on the performance front anyway, at least during the first half of his career where his casts were often quite strong. Thomas Milian does fine as the lead and Florinda Bolkan, so strong in Fulci’s A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, gives an equally good if more over the top one here. Ortolani’s score is extremely sinister but sometimes darkly beautiful. That lovely Vanoni-sung piece turns up in a few places, usually ironically. Don’t Torture A Duckling is an impressively put together, thought provoking piece of work that should be shown to anyone who dismisses Fulci as a hack only interested in blood and guts and not interested in telling a story. And out of all the messages it sends out, its strongest is probably a simple plea for tolerance which is something I’m sure everyone will [or ought to] agree with. And yes….a bottle of J and B whisky shows up, twice in Patrizia’s living room!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆


Don’t Torture A Duckling was previously released on Blu-ray in Germany by 84 Entertainment, in France by Le chat qui fume, and in Japan by Happinet. From what I gather, these versions used a botched restoration job that accidentally added several frames to each scene, extending the running time from 102 minutes to 109. They even had to re-synch the soundtrack to match the new version. Arrow’s Blu-ray runs only 105 minutes and three minutes consist of Quei Giorni Insieme A Te playing over a black screen after the end credits. This means that Arrow’s print must be the correct version. It’s a very good but not quite excellent restoration, with some shots that seem overly soft, though it’s only some. Most of the time there’s all the detail and depth [check out those wide mountain shots] one has come to expect from such releases. One odd thing is that half way through writing appears designating the end of the first half and then the start of the second half. This is actually accurate to the original cinema release which, like most Italian films of the time, was split in two parts, but it’s a little distracting.

This release doesn’t port over any of the special features from the 84 Entertainment release despite the special features seemingly including some interviews with cast and crew members, interviews which weren’t actually on the disc I was sent.  A quick look around indicates that those interviews are indeed on the release, so I reckon I was just sent an early version which hadn’t had all the special features put on it yet. Anyway, first up is a replacement commentary, and it’s from genre writer Troy Howarth who I’ve only just discovered has written a book on Fulci I need to own. I’ve heard him on two other commentaries and his lighter, less disciplined style makes a nice contrast to that of Tim Lucas. He says that Don’t Torture A Duckling is one of his top ten films of all time. However, I found this track to be a little less satisfying than I expected, with Howarth too often resorting to filling the time up with exhaustive biographies of cast and crew members, though in his defence he may not have been able to dig up much information about the actual film, as I know that I couldn’t and he would have had far more access to stuff than me. There are a couple of good stories though, plus an explanation of how the boy seduction scene didn’t actually have the child actor in the same as Patrizia [I doubt that, for example, Giuseppe Tornatore could say the same for similar moments in Malena, which come to think of it is similar to this film in several other respects too]. He has different readings of certain things to me, such as saying that the film is ambiguous rather than hateful of the Catholic Church. Well, he’s certainly more of an expert in this kind of movie than I am, though surely one of the things that makes this film so great is that it offers differing interpretations?

Now we have two supplements produced by Arrow, both around 20 minutes long. The first is Giallo a al Campagna, where writer Mikel J. Koven talks about giallo films and their cultural background, focusing of course on Don’t Torture A Duckling. He says how they were largaly made for a distracted audience who attended the cinema more to socialise, and that the bourgeouis knew nothing about these films. He makes some interesting points though ignores the fact that many giallos were also aimed at international audiences. Hell Is Already In Us is a very valuable defence of Fulci by Kat Ellinger [again] against the accusations of misogyny which plagued him, focusing on of course the film at hand and saying that it’s actually showing the cruelty of man and the limiting of roles for women. She also makes the important point that the director’s often sad life informed his work. And then we have recordings, set against posters of his films, of the man himself. In 1988 journalist Gaetano Mistretta sent some questions to Fulci in a letter and he sent back his answers on tape. Portions of this interview turned up in magazines, but this is the full thing and it’s just wonderful. Fulci answers questions candidly, from criticising The Shining and stating that Stanley Kubrick’s too good for horror films, to saying how Dario Argento will just keep doing the same thing forever and calling him a genius in the most sarcastic way possible. Of course most of his films are covered, if generally briefly.

A fine disc and a very fine movie which is one of the very best from its much underrated [outside culty circles] director. Highly recommended.


*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc)
*English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
*New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films
*Giallo a la Campagna, a new video discussion with Mikel J. Koven, author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film
*Every (Wo)man Their Own Hell, a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
*Interviews with co-writer/director Lucio Fulci, actor Florinda Bolkan, cinematographer Sergio D Offizi, assistant editor Bruno Micheli and assistant makeup artist Maurizio Trani
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides
*FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes

About Dr Lenera 3141 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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