Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
A string of young boys are murdered in an isolated Italian village. The police have many suspects but are those the town blame really at fault?
This giallo from the Italian splatter-king himself is a poetic horror mystery with none of the trappings of the ‘plotless insanity’ brand of horror he would release on the world in the 1980s.
Whilst Duckling is nothing compared to Fulci’s more gregarious gore flicks that form his Gates of Hell trilogy, the film’s final sequence is gleefully brutal as we the see the killer’s face literally smash apart whilst tumbling down a cliff face. There also some pretty risqué parts. It wasn’t then – and still isn’t now – usual to show scenes of explicit child murder on the silver screen (you couldn’t have made this movie in Hollywood) nor to treat the subject of sexuality amongst children so brazenly as Fulci does here.
Fulci’s strength here lies in 3 key aspects of the film. The first is the characters on display who are a ramshackle group of village oddities and red herrings. These include an old magician living in the mountains, a recovering drug addict, a witch who takes to stabbing clay models of children, a mentally retarded pervert and a mute little girl with an attachment to her doll.
The second is the camerawork because this film is actually shot like a spaghetti western. Indeed, a couple of the best scenes in Duckling could have dropped straight out of a Leone horse-opera with quaking hands, sweat-ridden foreheads and glaring eyes. This ‘western’ look is best illustrated by my favourite scene in the film. The village ‘witch’ (read emotionally broken woman) is released by police but believing her guilty of the murders, the fathers of the dead children confront her and beat her to death in an abandoned graveyard. The way these grief-stricken men circle and corner the ‘witch’ is just mesmerizing, as the camera swings between their blood-soiled hands and hateful eyes. To shoot a murder this way – and with the hard rock soundtrack blaring from the nearby car radio – is fascinating to watch and reminiscent of many a gun-fight in the films of Leone or Corbucci.
The third is the location. Fulci’s isolated village, only linked to the rest of a world by a motorway, is a sight of some beauty, particularly the white-washed streets set against the dawn light. This backdrop is part of one of the film’s best moments – the camera slowly follows an aged woman as she pitifully and slowly makes her way through these streets to collect some water from the village well, only to find the drowned body of a young boy staring at her from beneath the water.
No review would be complete with considering the the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Morricone’s score is a great balance between the minimalist and the sensationalist, moving seamlessly between the two when required. It’s clearly another highlight of the film, certainly at both the opening- and end- credits. The former is chilling, as some relaxing Mediterranean flutes accompany the frantic unearthing of a baby’s broken skeleton on a rather desolate hillside.
For all Fulci’s achievements as a filmmaker with Duckling, it’s important to bear in mind that a director is also a storyteller. Fulci’s neglect of this role limited the appeal of many of his greatest splatter movies but with Duckling, the plot is solid and Fulci tells the story brilliantly. A giallo is a mystery movie and it’s key that this element of mystery is maintained for as long as possible. In Duckling, the audience has to work out who the killer may be by process of elimination and it’s done perfectly. This is an area in which Argento – the finest giallo maker of the period – even struggled but Fulci pulls it off with gravitas.
In summary, this is a none-too-subtle attack on Italian institutions and modern lifestyles which makes for a riveting, if dark, thriller. The gorgeous scenery and flashy work behind the camera mean that is not only Fulci’s finest ‘mainstream’ movie but also one of the very best Italian movies of the period.
NB: watch with Italian audio and English subtitles.
Hotdog rating: 9/10