Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milian, Irene Papas, Marc Porel
In the rural town of Accendura, in southern Italy, young boys are being murdered. A Roman journalist, Andrea, works with the local police to narrow down the pool of suspects, including a mentally handicapped man with peeping tom tendencies, a wealthy young woman lying low in the town to escape drug charges, a suspected witch, and more. It seems that everyone has something to hide, and they struggle to find the culprit before another boy is killed – or before mob justice overcomes the frightened and superstitious villagers.
Non si sevizia un paperino can be counted among Fulci’s early giallo films – along with One on Top of the Other and Lizard in a Woman's Skin -- that set him on the path away from his role as a director of mediocre Italian comedies towards his persona as the Godfather of Gore. Don’t Torture a Duckling is even a departure from his giallo films and thrillers, and is a dark and deeply personal work. He supposedly swore off political films after Beatrice Cenci – a historical fact-based drama that was a scathing attack on the Church and almost cost him his career – but he reexamined some of these themes with Don’t Torture a Duckling, a look at repression, hypocrisy, small town hysteria, and the evils of superstition and mob justice.
The film does not have a strong central character, but loosely focuses on a journalist (Italian crime film regular Tomas Milian) and a comely socialite (Bond girl Barbara Bouchet) who form an unlikely team, sticking to the giallo convention that the detective (or detectives) is almost always an amateur investigator, rather than a police officer or other official figure. Following a similar convention, the two are strangers to the small town and are separated from its day-to-day gossip, drama, and long-held superstitions. And like any giallo, there are numerous suspects, several false confessions, and mysterious alibis. The two do no so much solve the mystery as accidentally stumble across the truth, because they happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is unique from other giallo films in that it has a rural setting and the murder victims are children. While other films tackled these subjects – such as the rural set A Quiet Place in the Country or House with the Laughing Windows, and child murder-themed films like Who Saw Her Die? – Fulci’s film is more critical than the average giallo. Fulci provides some biting social criticism that stretches from small town mentality to an attack on the Church. The villagers of Accendura, no doubt a stand-in for rural Italians – have long ingrained prejudices and superstitions and they are quick to become hysterical and violent. In one of the film’s most stunning scenes, the townsfolk band together to murder one of the suspects, because despite proof that she did not murder the boys, she admits to being a witch.
And while the typical giallo film has copious amount of nudity and gratuitous shots of sexy Italian ladies, as well as sex, violence, and sometimes gore, Don’t Torture a Duckling has almost none of this. Though several children are killed, Fulci shows a surprising amount of restraint, leaving most of the gore for the scene where the witch is beaten to death. Instead, he crafts a series of unsettling imagery that is remarkably effective. The film’s uncomfortable attitude about sex – and sexual repression – is best exemplified by an early scene where the bored socialite, sitting naked in her room, tempts and torments a young boy. He is transfixed by her nudity, but is also made uncomfortable by it – as is the audience, seeing as he’s a pre-teen, still only on the verge of sexual maturity.
It took me several viewings to really warm up to Don’t Torture a Duckling, as it is an icy, hard-edged film with few sympathetic characters. But it’s also undeniably one of Fulci’s masterpieces and is unlike anything else in his career or in the giallo genre. While many of the latter present sexuality as cruel, calculating, and utterly utilitarian, here it is corrosive and corrupting. The murderer – whose identity I will not give away – is not a violent aberration, but rather captures the unconscious mood of a town, a country, a society, determined to view sexuality as an evil force, though Fulci shows that its repression is far more detrimental than its expression. In many ways, it’s something of a precursor to my favorite of Fulci’s films, albeit one that is almost universally hated, New York Ripper (1982) – another tale of morbid sexuality, serial murder, and the violent compulsion to protect and crystallize innocence.
Don’t Torture a Duckling comes recommended, though it’s far from the typical giallo. It’s available on DVD from Blue Underground, and the transfer is a little grainy, it’s the best you’re going to get for now. There is also an older Anchor Bay release from 2000 that you may be able to find somewhere online. This belongs in the special edition Blu-ray box set of Fulci films that will hopefully come out some day.