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Don’t Torture A Duckling is an uneven but memorable addition to the giallo canon

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Peter Strickland’s Italian horror homage, Berberian Sound Studio, has us thinking back on our favorite giallo movies.


Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)
Lucio Fulci, an Italian jack-of-all-genres best known for the primo gorefests he made in the late ’70s and early ’80s, never garnered the kind of acclaim lavished upon his contemporaries, Dario Argento and Mario Bava. That’s for good reason: Fulci’s worst films hit an unholy sweet spot between vile and incompetent. But when he was on, as in the living-dead classic Zombie or the Grand Guignol opus The Beyond, Fulci was really on. His outrageous bad taste often eclipsed his inventiveness, but the two were not mutually exclusive.

Don’t Torture A Duckling, one of the director’s favorite of his own films, is comparatively restrained and fulfills the basic requirements of the then-young giallo genre: There’s an intrepid investigator, a rampaging psychopath, extreme close-ups of eyeballs, and murder scenes staged from the POV of the killer. But the film also incorporates less common elements, setting the usual mayhem against a vibrantly realized small-town backdrop, and infusing the proceedings with a sense of moral outrage. Here the detective figure is a reporter (Tomas Milian), part of the media circus that rolls into a sleepy Italian village when a young boy goes missing. The kid eventually turns up dead, kicking off a string of grisly slayings, and prompting Milian to join forces with a sultry big-city transplant (Barbara Bouchet) to catch the culprit. As in any good whodunit, there are scores of suspects—the village “simpleton,” a gypsy outcast with a penchant for voodoo dolls—and as many red herrings as dead bodies.

Duckling provides amateur MST3Kers with plenty of heckle fodder: Beyond Milian’s amusing ’70s porno ’stache, there’s a gory but goofy death plummet—achieved through the employment of a very phony-looking dummy—and an unintentionally hilarious scene in which Fulci keeps smash-zooming onto a photo of Donald Duck, with each close-up accompanied by the same discordant note of ominous music. (The wonky, English-language dubbing doesn’t help.) But take the film seriously, and it reveals itself to be a deeply troubling vision of faith twisted into sadistic obsession; savvy viewers will solve the mystery long before the heroes do, but that doesn’t blunt the cynical power of the big reveal. Fulci lets almost no one off the hook, depicting the adolescent victims as oppressors-in-training, while Bouchet—perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character—is introduced sexually taunting one of the boys.

Mostly, Duckling is just a fine showcase for the director’s energetic style. Quentin Tarantino, who re-released The Beyond in 1998, has often cited Fulci as an influence. That’s not bullshit namedropping: Watch the scene in which angry villagers corner the town witch, brutalizing her while a nearby radio blares some jaunty ’70s rock tune, and try not to think of the ear-slicing setpiece QT would stage two decades later in Reservoir Dogs.

Availability: Several DVD releases—including The Lucio Fulci Collection Volume 3, in which the film is packaged with City Of The Living Dead—and disc delivery from Netflix.