Sunday, 25 January 2009

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

"Which way to the Sonny Bono lookalike contest?"

So, now that I've reviewed New York Ripper, it's time to review the other Lucio Fulci giallo in which a toy duck is a vital clue to the identity of the killer. Aside from that detail, however, the two films couldn't be more different. They were made almost ten years apart, and as such they represent rather different periods in his career. Those expecting the gory excess of his post-Zombie films may be bitterly disappointed, but everyone else will find this a solid, suspenseful giallo.

Like any good film, it begins with two fat, old hookers heading to a remote abandoned house to meet their customers. Three boys are loitering nearby and they couldn't be more excited, one of them enthusiastically describing their "tits like watermelons and huge rears". They like 'em big up that way I guess. Unfortunately, our budding chubby chasers are beaten to the prime peepin' spot by Giuseppe, the village idiot. After Giuseppe is discovered by an irate john, the boys tease him until he chases them off and threatens to kill them.

His death-threats proved to be rather ill-timed, because the next day one of the boys turns up dead and now Giuseppe is the prime suspect. Adding to suspicion is Giuseppe's claim that when he found the boy he was already dead, he just buried the body and tried to extort some kidnapping money from the boys parents. As you do. Through some bizarre logic, the psychologist suspects that Giuseppe is innocent and he is proven right when another body shows up. The police have their work cut out for them, since the village's major export appears to be red herrings.

There's Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a rich girl who has come to the village to wait until some drug charges in Milan blow over. Her hobbies include driving around in her car for hours and hours, for no other reason than to make her look suspicious. She's got a thing for young boys, and I mean young. She teases one with her nude indoor sunbathing, and calls him up for an underage booty call. Suspect behaviour at the best of times, but made moreso when the boys she teases turn up dead.

Could it be Maciara (Florina Balkan) the crazy-eyed woman who is always playing with voodoo dolls and carting around a baby skeleton (long story)? When the police finally track her down she confesses to the murders, but it's thrown out when she claims to have killed them with black magic. After she goes into a bout of over-acting so severe that she has an epileptic seizure, they decide it's best to let her go. She doesn't enjoy her freedom for long though. The next morning a foursome of superstitious local yokels subject her to a brutal chain-whipping that manages to top the chain-whipping scene in The Beyond, especially since it's set to funk music.

There's the local witch doctor who hands out lotions and potions to superstitious locals (choice quote: "Only St. Benedict or St. Mark know that. Excuse me, I gotta take a crap.") There's the kindly young priest (maybe too kindly) who looks after the young boys and enforces a village-wide ban on dirty magazines, forcing young boys to spy on fat hookers. Plus the priest's mother looks pretty suspicious. Every character in this film has a few skeletons in their closet (in Mariaca's case, a baby skeleton), no wonder they have such a hard time discovering the identity of the killer.

In the end the rather abstract title makes slightly more sense, as the final clue comes in the form of a decapitated Donald Duck doll. The doll belongs to a small mute girl who is, according to the priest, "not a moron, if that's what you're thinking. She's retarded." They conclude that the little girl witnessed the killings and is therefore imitating them with her dolls. A pretty dubious logical leap if you ask me (one of many in this film), but it turns out they are right.

The hero of the piece is a nosy reporter (there's always got to be one in a giallo) named Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) who has come to the village to investigate the killings. He disappears from the film for long stretches, so it can be easy to forget he's even around, but we know he's the hero because he teams up with Patrizia in the end and engages in a climatic, cliff-side fistfight with the killer. When the killer makes his fatal plunge down the side of cliff, his (paper mache) face scrapes down the side of the cliff in slow motion. It's pretty cool.

Don't Torture a Duckling is far more coherent and thickly plotted Fulci's later films. It's also genuinely creepy, he paints the small village as a place of suspicion and superstition and it seems like every character in the film could be capable of the crimes. Like most Italian films from that era, a lot of acting is ruined by dodgy dubbing, but special mention must be made of Florinda Balkan, who puts in a pretty amazing performance as the bugnuts crazy Maciara (she also played the titular character in the classic nunsploitation flick Flavia the Heretic).

This film wasn't well received when it first opened. It's negative portrayal of small village mentality and the church didn't sit well with some Italian film-goers. Consequently, the film has been a little hard to find outside of Italy until recently. That's a shame. Although the incomprehensible, blood-soaked excess of his later films is fun to watch, it's given Fulci a reputation as a B (or even C) movie hack. Watching this film reminded me that when he shows a little restraint, Fulci knows how to direct the shit out of a film.

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