The following essay is my contribution to Kevin J. Olson's Italian Horror Blog-a-Thon, which features multiple links to all manner of fascinating and fun reading on this rich, Halloween-appropriate topic. Kevin writes the essential, and now eternally-Inglourious Basterds-linked blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Thanks for the invitation to participate in this gathering, Kevin. It has been all kinds of fun!
I come here not to bury Lucio Fulci (he died in 1996), but to praise him. At least this once. It’s time to admit that I’ve never much been one for the all-stops-pulled brand of zombie horror that gained Fulci his greatest degree of notoriety, at least here in the States among hard-core horror fans. I saw Zombie (originally known in Italy as Zombi 2) on its original run through America back in 1980 and have seen it a couple of times since, and I’ve never been able to key in on what his fans found to be so special about his work, beyond his coal-black take of humanity (a brand of nihilism that has always seemed to be too easy to come by and perhaps a little too fashionably adopted by some of his faithful) and his willingness to push the limits of the spectacle of gore. In the years since I’ve managed to see The House by the Cemetery and The New York Ripper, which both seemed pretty repellent to these eyes, and The Beyond, which was as visually spectacular as it was deeply silly. So while not particularly offended by the work of Fulci’s that I’ve seen (okay, there are moments in The New York Ripper I wouldn’t be too quick to try to defend), the word I would use to describe my feeling about his movies would probably be “indifferent,” which is why I thought, given his following, he might be a good candidate to write about for Kevin Olson’s Giallo Blog-a-thon.
But when I went to IMDb to begin my perfunctory research of the director I discovered that, before he became noted for the zombie pictures he had quite a career behind him already. Fulci’s first picture was released in 1959, and among those movies there are the requisite thrillers, of course, a comedy or two, a James Bond knockoff, even a couple of westerns. And more than any of his movies I’d seen so far, I really enjoyed discovering some of the titles for Fulci’s movies, their Italian names and especially the monikers with which they were dubbed in other countries. Some of the juicy nuggets I found include: Come inguaiammo l’esercito (known in the U.K. as How We Got Into Trouble With the Army), Colpo gobo all’italiana, a.k.a. Getting Away With It the Italian Way, which was translated literally in the U.K. as Hunchback Italian Style (!!!), Tempo di massacre (Massacre Time), The House of Clocks, The Ghosts of Sodom, A Cat in the Brain, a little morsel called The Senator Likes Women which, translated from its longer Italian title in the U.K. became The Senator Likes Women… Despite Appearances and Provided the Nation Doesn’t Know, Una sull’altra (a.k.a. One on Top of the Other which became in France Perversion Story), and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. These last two titles come highly recommended by Fulci enthusiasts who note their placement at the roots of the giallo genre, which were initially much more closely entangled with murder mystery than the onslaught of bloody guts which characterized the later zombie films.
The third giallo directed by Fulci, immediately following Una sull’altra (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), was the equally perversely titled Don’t Torture a Duckling (1971) which, in Italy, was known as Don’t Torture Donald Duck. (Undoubtedly fear of reprisals from the Mouse House was behind the adopting of the more generic water fowl featured in the U.S. release title.) And beyond my curiosity about a movie with such a weird name, I was very interested to see what a Fulci movie sans the living dead would look and feel like given that everything I’d seen of his to this point was all grime and nastiness and general ineptitude decorated with buckets full of grue and shock effects. And from the very first striking images, Don’t Torture a Duckling announced itself to this cynic as something very different from what I’d experienced before. In a series of gorgeous Panavision long shots over which the credits play, we see the rolling hills of a beautiful Italian countryside and how they have been interrupted, violated by a long, elevated highway (itself strangely beautiful) which snakes its way through the landscape announcing the impact of modern civilization on the tiny village over which it runs.
It’s a memorable way to introduce the movie’s overriding theme of a clash of cultural assumptions which reveal that the forces of modernity may be no more enlightened than the village’s superstitious, intolerant and relatively atavistic citizenry. The movie’s thematic strands are expanded when we witness an anguished woman unearth the skeleton of a tiny baby, perhaps stillborn, perhaps murdered, her hands bloodied by tearing at the earth as she carries it away. Later, a child is abducted from this rural Southern Italian village, and the carabinieri, a team of local police augmented by city officers, arrest Guiseppe, a local simpleton, when he is caught collecting the ransom money. But as it will become apparent in Fulci’s narrative, what appears to be true may not be, or may have hidden angles, truths within truths. Giuseppe admits the extortion but claims that the boy was already dead when he found him, and while he is in custody another child’s body is found.
The focus immediately shifts to two other suspects: Patrizia (the luscious Barbara Bouchet), a well-off, spoiled and decadent woman who has returned to the village where her father was born to wait out the heat from a drug scandal of some sort, and Maciara (Florinda Bolkan, superb and fearless), the woman we saw earlier digging up the bones of her baby. Already looked at with suspicion by the locals, Maciara has been driven to the brink of madness over grief at the loss of her own child, and on top of that she may be a witch. After a third body is discovered, she attempts to hide but is soon captured. It is here that Fulci drops his first narrative bomb: Maciara, already seen covering the corpse of one of the victims with earth, her hands bloodied in the same way we saw them earlier, confesses to killing all three boys with her black magic. But when it soon becomes apparent that she couldn’t have killed the third child she is released, an act of legal justice which nonetheless condemns her to a horrific death at the hands of outraged locals who have perhaps always hated or been frightened by her and who now have moral grounds (however specious) on which to unleash their rage.
One of the rural officers advises against releasing Maciara out of fear of just such a result, and it is from this reluctance of the urban-based officers to understand or fully comprehend the differences which operate within these two worlds that Fulci wrings the richest thematic juice out of his narrative. The observation of stereotypes streak straight through Don’t Torture a Duckling, whether they be the guttural behavior of a mob screaming for revenge, or the salacious tendencies of a slinky, somewhat perverse seductress as she torments a horny 10-year-old boy (who has been hypnotized by the sight of her nude body) with suggestions of a sexual initiation, or the superiority (or even simple functionality) of civilized morality in a setting where other mores and codes may more strongly apply. But Fulci gives more than a suggestion to their flip sides as well. Are the stereotypes justified, or do they reveal degrees of opposite truth? We’re asking the questions right up to the point where the movie forces us to face our own presumptions as audience members, and those of the characters, about the capacity of a mentally challenged girl to understand her situation, as well as our faith in figures of religious authority. (Rest assured, Fulci has none, and though his point of view got him and this movie into trouble in Italy in 1971, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that a large portion of the population—though perhaps still not in Italy—has caught up to his cynicism regarding men of the cloth.)
Don’t Torture a Duckling (the title refers to a doll purchased for the aforementioned mentally challenged girl by Patrizia) is a tight, fascinating, visually acute thriller which, for all of its relative sophistication in the Fulci oeuvre, reveals a filmmaker who was, in 1971, considerably more than the uninspired hack whose career devolved into ever more lurid and inept gross-outs. (Fulci’s zombie fests were apparently heavily tampered with, so it’s possible that I’ve never been exposed to a true representation of his genius in this field, but honestly, what’s left on screen that is clearly of his origin doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.) My most immediate frame of comparison, given my limited exposure to Fulci’s work, is to look at Duckling up next to The New York Ripper which, incredibly, features a psycho who disguises his voice by quacking and imitating Donald Duck. Ripper is grindhouse grimy and lumpy, and prone to extended episodes involving the lovingly observed evisceration and nipple-slicing of naked and bound female victims which make it hard to refute charges of misogyny against the director. Duckling, on the other hand, is brutal and visually elegant, sometimes even funny, and in it Fulci clearly harbors more sympathy for the women than the movie's often barbaric or self-righteous men. Duckling also highlights far more narrative sophistication than I would have ever thought possible of Fulci. The last half of this movie had me reevaluating characters and situations and processing visual clues and red herrings at a highly pleasurable rate.
And the evidence of Fulci’s visual mastery is everywhere—from the beautiful, corrupted landscapes (that elevated highway is inexplicably haunting), to the director’s frequently witty graphic continuity in the film’s visual connective tissue (imagery of fetuses and small babies abound), and the fluidity of his use of split-frame deep focus in which two impossible close-ups are married in wide-screen Panavision and given equal emotional and graphic weight. This last trope in particular recalls the heights to which Brian De Palma would eventually take the same technique, and as I prepared for this blog-a-thon by watching Duckling and also Giuilano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris, the influences on De Palma became fascinating to note. Carnimeo stages a couple of murderous set pieces, one in an elevator, that present evidence of his film’s influence on Dressed to Kill, and in Duckling Maciara’s horrific beating at the hands of a group of men led by the father of one victim, and her struggle to find help as she drags herself up a hillside and beside a road, has some of the same agonizing visceral power and emotional laceration one experiences witnessing the ordeal and eventual death of Oanh in Casualties of War. I can think of no higher praise for a director who has been accused of enjoying the tortures he has inflicted upon his female characters. Would that the evidence to refute such claims n Fulci’s work extended beyond Don’t Torture a Duckling. (That’s an invitation, Fulci fan, to write in and lead me to more evidence to the contrary, by the way!)
On the strength of Don’t Torture a Duckling I am confidently off to discover what else about Fulci I might be ignoring as others rush to celebrate the excesses of his tedious (to my eyes) late period. In particular, I cannot wait to see the two gialli that preceded Duckling-- A Lizard in a Woman Skin also stars the magnificent Florinda Bolkan—and I absolutely must know what a western by Lucio Fulci looks and feels like. But I also have to admit being kind of tickled thinking of what rabid fans of Fulci’s hard-core decayed flesh opuses might make of this movie. It definitely has its blood-splattered highlights (including what must be the funniest fall from a great height ever committed to film, Fulci’s official calling card re the gory standards to which the rest of his career would aspire), but it is so much more subdued, so much more concerned with what have to be considered classical cinematic values (as least in comparison to Zombi 2) that, Kevin J. Olson excepted, I wonder if the Fulci faithful would be as patient with this one. Don’t Torture a Duckling also features the best cast of any Fulci movie I’ve seen—in addition to the pulchritudinous delights afforded by Barbara Bouchet and the freaky, heart-wrenching performance of Florinda Bolkan, there’s Tomas Milian as a sympathetic reporter who initially suspects Patrizia of the crimes and then teams with her to seek out the real killer, Marc Porel as Don Alberto, the priest of the local parish who anguishes over several things, perhaps the least of which is the disappearance of the three boys, and revered Greek actress Irene Papas as the mother of the aforementioned duckling-bearing retarded child (as well as another of the cast of characters), whose own mental stability is shrouded in secrets and doubt. Best do as I did: put aside your distaste for the Lucio Fulci of Zombie and The New York Ripper and give this one a spin. The title may seem perverse and silly, but Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling turns out to be one of the crown jewels of the Italian giallo genre.
For further reading, I recommend essays by Tor at BloodyGoodHorror.com, Nik Allen at 70sFastRewind.com, Christian Sellers at RetroSlashers, and a rather brilliant visual exegesis of the movie’s visual motifs, including the rural vs. urban, pagan vs. Christian dichotomies, as well as a look at that fall from a great height I mentioned previously, from Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr at the wonderful (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) blog Destructible Man, devoted to "The Theory And Practice of Cinematic Prosthetic Demise (a.k.a. The Dummy-Death In Film)." DM is where I appropriated some of the great screen grabs featured in this post. Thank you very much, gentlemen.