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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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Why Haven’t You Seen…? Don’t Torture a Duckling

WHYS’ globetrotting continues this week, with a look at a lesser-known work from the most represented director (three films) on the DPP’s list of titles that became known as the video nasties. This is our first Italian horror film; it’s unlikely to be our last.

Director: Lucio Fulci

What’s It All About?
Don’t Torture a Duckling (whose memorable, barmy, title isn’t especially relevant to its content) is set in a moutainside village in Italy, which is being terrorised by a serial murderer of children. Fulci follows the attempts of the police and of a reporter from Milan (Tomas Milian) to uncover the identity of the killer.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
While this is not one of the films that made Fulci the most prolific director on the DPP list, that status is probably at least partly responsible for why Don’t Torture a Duckling has never, to my knowledge, received a UK release. Perhaps distributors were wary of cuts, or even a ban. The main reason you’re unlikely to have seen this film is simply that almost all of Fulci’s filmography has been overshadowed by his Zombie quartet (Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery) and those other films that have been released here have been from later in his career, when the gore scenes became not just more extreme, but the driving force of his work.

Why Should You See It?
Fulci’s films have seen something of a resurgence in popularity since the 2000’s brought liberalisation in UK censorship that allowed them to be seen again, but sadly this has not seemed to go hand in hand with a general recognition of him as the supremely skilled filmmaker he was. Don’t Torture a Duckling is probably the best crafted film I’ve seen from him. Fulci’s later work would dwell in gore, but this earlier Giallo is much more reliant on story, character, performance and tension for its thrills than it is the limited gore effects.

The performances are tough to gauge, because like most Italian films of the time this one was made without sync sound, meaning that not a single sound in the film was captured on set, the English dubbing is atrocious (though not quite so mindbendingly annoying as that of young Bob in House by the Cemetery) and certainly diminishes every performance, but there are still vestiges of what seem to have been strong performances from Tomas Milian, Marc Porel, Irene Papas, Florinda Blokan and especially the incandescently beautiful Barbara Bouchet, whose ambiguous character with her suspect sexuality (there is more than a suggestion that she’s fond of the pubescent boys who are being killed) is one of the most interesting and layered characters in the film.

What’s not difficult to admire is the structure; Fulci and his co-writers construct a tight story in which almost every major character becomes a credible suspect, and keep you guessing right up until the end as to just who is the killer (though on a second viewing there are cleverly planted, but not overplayed, clues throughout the film. The set pieces are infrequent, but all are gripping and the choice (unusual in Gialli, and especially in Fulci’s films) to keep the killings off screen serves to heighten the implied horror. This isn’t a gore movie, it’s a more a film about what overwhelming undirected suspicion does in a community, and it’s a subject that Fulci explores with surprising seriousness and restraint (the often wailing dubbing notwithstanding).

Fulci’s direction is as taut and interesting as his screenplay. He uses shadow particularly well in the film’s darker scenes, but what’s really notable is how much tension and menace he manages to find in scenes that take place in broad daylight. This is never more acutely felt than in the exceptional sequence – perhaps one of the best Fulci ever directed – in which Florinda Bolkan’s character, suspected of being the killer, is cornered in a graveyard by local men, who then chain whip her. Even here the gore is remarkably restrained, and rather than dwelling excessively on the violence Fulci lets Bolkan’s performance and the fantastic, incongruous, musical choices in the scene (which is scored first to soul music, and then to an Italian torch song) do much of the work. It’s perhaps even more effective in the quiet moments before and after the attack when Fulci gets maximum effect out of the men approaching Bolkan, and out of her attempts to reach help.

Of course we do get the gore, when the killer is unmasked their demise is as graphic and bloody as you might expect, and that chain whipping, while not as graphic as it might have been, is still pretty full on. Leaving that aside though, there is a remarkable lack of Fulci trademarks here, especially notable is the absence of his favoured close ups on – especially female – eyes, and indeed on eye trauma. By stepping back and not indulging himself quite so heavily, Fulci makes a much more mature and ultimately more effective film than most of those for which he is famous. Don’t Torture a Duckling is a taut and entertaining film, which deserves to be mentioned alongside the classic Gialli.

How Can You See It?
There is a Region 1 DVD available, which is uncut but unfortunately only offers the film dubbed into English, you should also be able to find it online if you look hard enough, but this really is one movie worth buying

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