Each week, Halloween Horror Marathon does some themed posts. We wrap up the work week with the films of Lucio Fulci. We call them Fulci Fridays, and for those, we team up with Liam O’Donnell of Cinepunx. This week, we look at Don’t Torture A Duckling.
The real mark of a zonkers Italian flick is being able to watch it over and over, reveling in its strange visuals and plot twists, and having fun with the absurdity of the violence. The first time through, Don’t Torture A Duckling is an enjoyable watch, but the second? Man, knowing the ending and all the twists just make for a slog. It’s good, solid, filmmaking, but Fulci hadn’t yet learned to be fun at this point. There are moments of ridiculousness, like a naked woman mocking a young boy, or repeated zooms on a Donald Duck toy, but nothing really goes into “nasty because we can” territory.
I appreciate that, at heart, this is proto-Fulci. Notably, it’s the gore effects that you’d see in his later works. When the villagers corner the village witch, Maciara, and attack her, take a look at the way she’s beaten with the chain: seven years later, in The Beyond, it’s pretty much repeated when the villagers attack Schweick. You also have your woman with no agency until a man takes charge — in this instance, Barbara Bouchet as Patrizia (you could also include Irene Papas as Dona Aurelia Avallone, the priest’s mother). That’s a pattern that repeats in each and every Gates of Hell movie, as well as the likes of The New York Ripper.
It does get delightfully fucked-up in the middle, while the witch confesses and speaks, but it’s otherwise a blip in the middle of an otherwise pretty bog-standard thriller. Once her very disturbing, and hallucinogenic death scene is over, it’s back to boring until the end. For the five minutes it lasts, it’s quietly disturbing violent intensity. The ending is great pay-off if you’ve been watching attentively, but if you’ve seen it once, that’s enough.
Is it giallo? There’s a mystery, there’s highly-stylized violence, very pointless nudity of very beautiful women, and strangely-framed shots. And, much like a giallo, the actual plot is pretty negligible — but, in this case, not full enough of absurdly psychedelic imagery to make being able to ignore it a possibility. That’s what separates this from Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy: in the case of those films, you don’t need to know what’s going on to enjoy them. Don’t Torture a Duckling is too much detective story to be able to just sit back and zone out on the oddity unfolding in front of you.
But having watched it a second time, there is something a little more which can be sussed from the film, beyond the action highlights. For instance: is there something we’re supposed to take from the opening scenes of the town witch, holding a child’s skeleton in her hands, standing within view of the modern highway? Absolutely: the film’s as much about the battle of a small town against encroaching modernity as it is a search for the killer of these young boys.
If you really want to read into it, you can reduce the film to being about trying to freeze time in a specific mileau, be it the city trying to cope with modernity (even as they hide their own perversions or stone a witch) or the priest “saving” the boys from their own adolescence, or even when they intersect in the priest’s lecture on the people who watch TV or read the news, and how “certain magazines” don’t make it to town.
There’s a line in this old Video Watchdog review that sums it up perfectly, saying that Don’t Torture A Duckling “transcends glib finger-pointing to speak truth to a culture unbalanced by having one foot planted in an ancient world of saints and martyrs while the other is set in a modern age of lonely people without a vocabulary to express their sadness.”
I am not gonna lie, this is one of those Fulci films which, for whatever reason, I entirely missed. I am not sure if it is the “giallo” nature of it, or perhaps the simple fact that it is an early movie which is more difficult to find. However, while I have seen the Gates of Hell trilogy so many times they feel like home, this film was not even on my radar to watch until you suggested it. Don’t Torture a Duckling is a real head scratcher when you consider the entire breadth of Fulci films, and I am not sure how I feel about it.
I agree with your basic idea that, while this movie is well made, it lacks a lot of the ridiculous aspects of Fulci’s later work, the strange and cruel elements that make those movie so unavoidably entertaining. I think though, when it comes to questions I have about Fulci, this film is now at the top of my list of examples. In fact, if one is concerned about the ways Fulci depicts gender, and issue only further complicated by stories of his behavior on set, this film doesn’t help. I cannot think of another of his films I have seen in which women are so clearly objects of both fear and derision. Not to say that a film like New York Ripper does not have many of its own problems. What gets to me here though is how many varieties of stereotypical female characters are on display here, and how many of them are negative. From the loud and large prostitutes to the young drug addict, and of course the witch who is murdered so brutally, the film seems to have no little anxiety about women.
This of course bleeds into a second aspect of the film, which is its anxieties around sex. Here though, I suspect your idea about the old/new dynamic, or rather the traditional smashing into the modern is really at play. Still, while Fulci wants to use sex in his film in the same entertaining and sultry manner of many giallo, this film drips with a certain awkward attitude about sex. The scene which really stuck with me was the one of the hip young women with the young man. Yes, there is more going on in this scene, but there was also some really strange sexual tensions in it. I was impressed by it in some ways, but taken as a whole I am not sure what to make of it. I was reminded again of New York Ripper in that it is the only other of Fulci’s films I could think of in which sex plays such an important role thematically. Yet, it was entirely different.
Of course, I am reading far too deeply into this one, as is my tendency. Unfortunately, what Don’t Torture a Duckling suffers from, for me, is more plot turns and reveals than interest. Giallo are deliciously lurid, disturbingly violent, and stylistically masterful. For a director who, in many ways, is one of my favorites specifically in his stylistic mastery, I was disappointed at how bland the film is. The small bursts of gore are very satisfying, and the murder of the witch is as you described. A nightmare scenario hinting at some of the beautiful insanity that was to come later in Fulci’s career.
The final reveal (spoiler: the priest!) speaks for me very much to this anxiety around the old Italy and the modern. In this I am not referencing the most recent scandals around the catholic priesthood, though this film may remind any of us of that for sure. No, but they are also not unrelated. In Italy, if not around the world, for many the priesthood represents some sort of hold over from another time. An entire class of people living off of superstitions that for many seem not only irrational, but archaic. The reveal of his murderous rampage is not entirely unsympathetic, but it does hint at this feeling, that old Italy must make way for the new. In this case, the old is literally killing the future, in the form of the very young men it was meant to protect and prepare for the future.
There’s a pretty great Don’t Torture A Duckling DVD you can get from Blue Underground, while there’s a discount version from Anchor Bay with lesser video quality, but it comes as a two-pack with City of the Living Dead.