This is the first part of a two part review/essay on DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, Lucio Fulci's giallo masterwork from 1972. As I will be discussing the implications of the film's ending, as well as all the naughty bits in between, this entire review/essay should be considered one big SPOILER WARNING.
CONSERVATISM AND FEAR OF THE OTHER
For all their erotic happenings, hip modern dressings, and almost avant garde indulgences, the giallo, like most Italian popular cinema, is deeply conservative in nature. It’s a rather strange pairing. Much like the slasher films it would go on to inspire, the giallo seems at odds with itself, offering up visual orgies of decadence and debauchery only to chide the audience for their audacity in enjoying it all. Unleashed at full potential during the more relaxed censorship standards of the 60s and 70s, the giallo film regularly deployed taboo subject matter for ticket sales while simultaneously presenting the material in a framework that was cynical to the core and rife with moral condemnation. On the surface level, they were sheer carnal bacchanal crammed full of immorality, but below that gaudy yet enticing surface beat the cold heart of 1940s Italian politics.
It’s deliciously ironic that the jet set crowd was lured to Italy by the films of Fellini and Antonioni. Popular films set in gorgeous locations, dripping with machismo and ferocious femininity, practically oozing style and sexy haute couture, films like LA DOLCE VITA were international sensations and major boons to the Italian tourist industry. But the point of those films, especially Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, seemed to be lost on those eager to experience the wonder of it all first hand. Fellini’s “sweet life” was nothing more than a bad joke, a painting over of the moral and intellectual decay running rampant in the streets of Rome. Fellini’s lead, a gossip journalist named Marcello, is a man swallowed up by excess, desperately trying to find meaning in all the noise and clamor of a life not worth living, only to wind up little more than a distant burn out. The “sweet life” can only be attained at the cost of your soul.
The giallo film, by and large, played the same game. They were mostly set in recognizable locations, always careful to pick post card-worthy settings for their set pieces, and constructed like travelogues to appeal to foreign audiences. They were filled with gorgeous women and handsome men, packed with lascivious moments and playful nudity, all wrapped up in a package that promised their audiences moments of wanton destruction and cruelties that would make them cower in fear. And while they were entertaining – I would even go so far as to call some gialli ground breaking – the messages beneath their attractive facades oftentimes reeked of contempt.
There is a sharp undercurrent of xenophobia in Italian popular cinema of the 60s and 70s but nowhere is this xenophobia more evident than in the giallo film. Even though the main characters of these films are usually foreigners on vacation, they are sometimes simply Northern Italians in a Southern Italian setting or vice versa, and although the murders and misdeeds that set the plot in motion occur within the diegetic past (sometimes present) of the narrative, there is a sense that these transgressions are somehow caused by the arrival of new blood in an insular society. The foreigner is looked at with suspicion, usually targeted by the police as a suspect and almost always targeted by the killer as a threat. The pervasive suggestion that modernity, a change in the customs and attitudes that had existed unchallenged in Italy for decades, and/or foreign “interference” in what was, up until the end of the 50s, a very gated country, is somehow to cause for the murders, blackmails and labyrinthine conspiracies at the heart of these turgid tales, is perhaps the most recognizable backdrop for the giallo narrative.
There is a scene in Sergio Martino’s exquisite YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY where Luigi Pistilli’s bitter writer sums up the Italian attitude towards the influx of tourists into their small, idyllic towns and villages. “They’re all poison”, he surmises and this attitude runs through Lucio Fulci’s giallo masterwork DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING. In Martino’s film, Pistilli holds nightly gatherings at his remote villa, flooding its rooms with disenfranchised hippies and vagabonds, watching as they dance and screw and smoke weed and generally live a useless life. He regards them with equal parts fascination (for they represent a life completely alien to his own) and condemnation (for the life they live is poisoning the traditional culture he holds as superior). These carefree youth are treated as curious cultural abnormalities. But much in the same way we look at insects with a curious fascination, they are nevertheless invaders in our homes. A serial abuser to his long suffering, possibly mentally ill wife, what finally brings Pistilli down is not hubris or poetic justice. It’s his niece, fashionable and full of modern sexuality, pumped full of big city ideals and moral corruptions, who finally brings about his destruction.
When asked about storytelling economy, my go-to example is always the opening three minutes of Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW. The amount of information contained in those three minutes is impressive, all the more so for not including one single line of dialogue.
We begin with a shot of a window, the curtains rising over the main credits. This situates us within the film. This will be our viewpoint throughout almost the entire running time, our eyes gazing at (and scrutinizing) every action going in the large apartment complex just outside that window. Each apartment is designed in a way that easily facilitates our voyeurism. Large open windows reveal the inhabitants to us in plain, unobstructed views. We move then to Jimmy Stewart sleeping, his face wet with perspiration and a brief shot of a thermometer that threatens to reach 95 degrees. We see the morning routines across the way. A man shaves. A buxom blonde stretches in a barely there outfit more suitable for the beach than the big city. A couple wakes up after spending the night sleeping on a mattress placed on their balcony. All of these people will become OUR neighbors as the film plays out. We then move from Stewart’s sleeping face to his leg, wrapped in a cast. He’s sleeping in a wheelchair. A message scrawled upon his cast reads “here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jeffries”. We move to a broken camera, a shot that reveals not only the financial occupation of our main character but ties his voyeuristic tendencies to our own. The next move reveals a picture of a race car hurtling towards the camera, followed by several photographs of wreckage and destruction, telling us not only how Jeffries ended up in that wheelchair but that his personality is reckless, aloof and prone to self destruction. The final move reveals a fashion magazine, the photographic work on its cover bland and lifeless. This is the life and times of L.B. Jeffries. All of that is conveyed through mise-en-scene, set decoration and a few edits.
Fulci’s film has a similar sense of economy with its opening few minutes, only this time the economy is thematic. We begin with a postcard worthy shot of an idyllic, old time Italian village before panning over to reveal a modern highway. Like the cannibal films of the 1970s and the classic cowboys and Indians American westerns of 1950s, the old (or uncivilized) coming into contact with the new (or civilized) will be at the heart of the conflict here. We are then presented with a pair of short scenes. The first is of a village woman named Maciara digging up the skeleton of a small child. Free from proper context within the narrative, we might believe this is just an extension of the theme, a past crime somehow coming back into the diegetic present. This is paired with a scene of a child, no more than twelve, casually shooting a lizard with a slingshot. Both scenes are framed against the encroaching modernity of the highway.
We then move into the village of Accendura. Over the carefully edited shots of the village, church bells ring. We move into the church. Another young boy waits patiently while his friend gives confession, his shifting eyes peering out from between his fingers. The boys sneak out and run off to meet their friend. Together, the three boys make their way to a house near the edge of the village to sneak a peek at a pair of big city prostitutes arriving in town to service a couple of locals. The boys taunt the village idiot, Guiseppe, before running off. Throughout these opening scenes, we witness Maciara crafting a set of three wax dolls. She sticks pins through their bodies.
One of the boys, Michele, returns home and is told to take a beverage tray upstairs to Patrizia, a big city woman on forced holiday in the village, her ancestral home, after becoming embroiled in a drug scandal in Milan. Reclining nude beneath a sunlamp, Patrizia flirts with the young boy, even asking him if he would like to sleep with her. Later that night, one of the three boys, Bruno, goes missing. Bruno’s father receives a phone call asking for money in exchange for Bruno’s safety. Guided by the police, the father delivers the ransom money. When the kidnapper, Guiseppe, shows up to retrieve the money, he is immediately arrested by the police. After Bruno’s body is found buried in the woods, Guiseppe confesses to the plot. Only he claims to have not killed Bruno. The boy was already dead when he came across him and the ransom scheme was just a way of getting some money, presumably so he too can afford a romp with the prostitutes. His story is believed by the local police commissioner and by a reporter from the North side of Italy, our lead character, named Martelli.
A short while later, Michele receives a phone call at home. Sneaking out of the house to meet whoever it was on the other end of that telephone, Michele is strangled to death in a forest clearing, right beneath a statue of Christ. We immediately suspect the almost predatory Patrizia, shown here just outside a phone booth in the middle of nowhere. Patrizia has spent many nights driving up and down the highway for hours. When she is interrogated by the police after Michele’s body has been discovered, she claims to have driven all night, never stopping. We know that is a lie.
We meet Don Alberto, the village priest, a young, good looking man taken to playing soccer with the young boys. We also meet his mother, the quiet, reserved Aurelia, and his sister, a deaf mute child perpetually carrying a headless doll around with her. At Michele’s funeral, Maciara makes an appearance, sneaking in the entrance and beating a quick retreat when Michele’s mother has an emotional breakdown. Noticed by the police, Maciara is the subject of a manhunt. Although her mentor, a black magician (and father to the child we saw Maciara digging up at the beginning of the film) can’t offer up her whereabouts, the police eventually track her and arrest her.
Maciara claims to have murdered the children but not through strangulation. Angered by their prying around her child’s burial site and sick of their near constant harassment, she fashioned herself three voodoo dolls, bringing death upon them by sticking them with pins. When a police officer claims to have spotted Maciara miles from the scene of the last murder, Maciara is cleared of all charges and released. The next day, while wandering through an old churchyard, she is viciously beaten by four local men as retribution for her “crimes”. Mortally wounded, Maciara crawls to the edge of the village and, in plain view of passing motorists, dies.
Believing the murderer to be dead, the last of the three boys, Mario, heads off to eyeball the prostitutes at the now familiar whoring house. After one of his friends squeals on him, Don Alberto heads off to bring Mario back. During his travels, Mario meets Patrizia, her car sitting still with a flat tire on the side of the road. She offers him “money or a kiss” in exchange for changing her tire. That’s the last time we see Mario alive. His body is discovered by Don Alberto, bludgeoned with a rock and drowned in a puddle of water. Martelli discovers a gold lighter near the murder site. Knowing she is the only person in town who could afford such a thing, Martelli confronts Patrizia. Again interrogated by the police, Patrizia comes clean. She is bored with the town and spends her nights driving, sometimes stopping to make a phone call to an old supplier who may or may not be able to sell her some weed.
Cleared of suspicion but told not to leave the village, Patrizia joins Martelli in trying to crack the case. Their first clue is the head of a Donald Duck doll found near Mario’s body. Patrizia had recently purchased the doll for Malvina, Don Alberto’s sister. They correctly deduce that Malvina must have seen the killer strangle one of the young boys and acted out the same behavior on her dolls, removing the heads by accident. They try to track Malvina down, fearing that her life might be in danger but are told by Don Alberto that his sister and Aurelia have gone missing. They find them hiding out on a hillside just before the young girl can be tossed to her death off the side of a jagged cliff.
Only Aurelia is not the threat. The killer is revealed to be Don Alberto. Fearing the loss of innocence the young boys will experience due to the ever encroaching modern lifestyle of loose morals and looser women, Don Alberto murdered the boys, sending them to Heaven pure. During a struggle with Martelli, Don Alberto falls to his death.
Fulci’s film, which the director co-wrote with Gianfranco Clerici (the screenwriter of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) and longtime collaborator Roberto Gianviti, is almost obsessively concerned with doubles. These pairings of old and new sensibilities and representations is what makes DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING such a fascinating film to watch. It has a relatively simple construction by giallo standards, relying more on the audience’s intuitions and inward morality to provide the twists, turns and surprises than just piling on red herrings and distractions. But of the most interesting doublings offered, it’s the pairings of religion in the film, the long forgotten magicks and witchcrafts of decades past versus the more modern, though not necessarily more “advanced”, Catholicism, that fascinate me the most. Together with the films views on sexuality and modern morality, these are the conversations within the film that raise DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING up to a unique level of greatness within the catalog of the giallo.