“I gave them death.”
Against the backdrop of a rolling Italian countryside, with a highway overpass cutting through its natural serenity, a woman manically digs at the ground, unearthing the skeleton of an infant child. It’s a strong image, and a strong contrast: this horrid, ominous action as casual passersby move unaware of the severe drama unfolding in their vicinity. Disquieting as it may be, this primer sequence sets the stage well, for Lucio Fulci’s 1972 giallo Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino) anxiously hinges on the notion of obscured or overlooked savagery in the most inconspicuous of settings, from the most inconspicuous of characters.
Also on the outskirts of a remote village, the southern Italian town of Accendura, a young boy named Tonino shoots a lizard with his slingshot. A trifling act of cruelty, perhaps, especially in view of what follows, but it’s a further indication of the ubiquitous violence that taints this otherwise idyllic community. As Don’t Torture a Duckling begins, the malice of its primary location, apparently dormant for some time, is again roused when Tonino and two of his pre-teen friends are brutally murdered. At first, blame falls to the bumbling Giuseppe Barra (Vito Passeri), a mindless peeping Tom, but his involvement only goes so far as a botched extortion attempt. Another suspicious character is Patrizia, played by the stunning and iconic Barbara Bouchet. She’s a wealthy, ostracized urbanite dislocated to the country after some sort of dubious drug deal in the city. As far as the early portions of the film, her main misconduct is simply lounging around in the nude, teasing one of the pubescent boys. Finally, there is La Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), the gypsy-witch scavenger seen at the start of the picture. She confesses to the killings, but contends she enacted the murders by means of clay voodoo dolls, a devilish revelation the police swiftly disregard.
As the mystery intensifies without convincing results, a weary public grows restless, wanting a culprit any way they can get it. Patrizia seems like an obvious choice; she’s clearly out of place in this rustic environment, with her shady backstory and the “strange things” that have occurred since her arrival (a declaration left unspecified by one concerned citizen). But the increasingly angry mob ultimately settles on La Magiara; her crazed, mangy otherness is disturbing in itself, so they may as well tack on the murders. Upon her release, a small band of wrathful residents descend on the young woman, taking the law into their own vengeful hands. It’s the most brutal scene in Don’t Torture a Duckling, one that testifies to the regional capacity for bloodshed, underscoring, again, the potential for any one of these people to be the true guilty party. And it’s the scene where Fulci demonstrates the visceral gore for which he will be most famous in the years to come (the final death of the film is also a doozy). In what some have seen as a likely influence on Quentin Tarantino, chunks of La Magiara’s flesh are ripped into gory, gaping holes, as chains tear into her body and, all the while, pop music plays on the radio in a genuinely striking audio-visual juxtaposition.
Written with Italian cinema mainstays Roberto Gianviti and Gianfranco Clerici, Don’t Torture a Duckling was Fulci’s third full-fledged giallo, and it plays on many standard notes of the genre, with an emphasis on secluded props and tell-tale details (pinned dolls, skulls, a lighter) as well as a confluence of investigations, the police on one side and a journalist, Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian), on the other. Complimented by Riz Ortolani’s score and Sergio D’Offizi’s cinematography (both would also contribute to the notorious 1980 nasty Cannibal Holocaust), Fulci absorbs tremendous seething intensity, from that ill-omened opening to the scornful-skeptical faces and the film’s insidious tone (one thunderstorm scene is a particularly noteworthy arrangement of stylistic accents). The camera mimics the watchful citizenry, voyeuristically observing others and possibly assuming the vantage point of some unseen participant, while a wide roster of personalities and isolated digressions serve the prospect that anybody could play a prime part in the drama.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is a curious consolidation of familiar giallo features with elements less commonly employed. The most immediate difference is the setting. This is all happening not in an urban locale where vice and corruption are routinely abundant, but in a rural area, where aspects of modernity (embodied by Patrizia) are met with contempt. The village’s amiable priest, Don Alberto Avallone (Marc Poreli), a popular figure amongst the children, feels the rash of murders derive from warped social tolerance. His predictable foundation is religion, and Don’t Torture a Duckling is abounding in religious overtones, often given a perverse twist: the supposed sins of teenage maturity, the hysteria turned guilt when the townsfolk realize they did indeed kill the wrong person, the concept of Christian morality as grounds for killing. For this and other reasons, the Catholic church was not impressed (nor was, for that matter, the Disney company; Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino more accurately translates to Don’t Torture Donald Duck, a title Walt’s crew would surely not have approved). And all of this, then, stands in constant contrast to someone like La Magiara, the black magic woman whose unconventional faith is derided by even the local law enforcement: “We can build motorways but we can’t overcome ignorance and superstition,” says the police chief, drawing a somewhat hypocritical distinction between modernism and select outmoded conviction.
On the newly released Blu-ray from Arrow Films, which includes interviews with Fulci and Bolkan and a commentary by Troy Howarth, Mikel J. Koven situates Don’t Torture a Duckling amidst additional animal-titled gialli (ex. Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet), while also discussing the film’s historical context, most interestingly suggesting that movies like these were never intended to garner the degree of prestige they now claim (a debatable assertion to say the least). In another supplement, Kat Ellinger draws comparisons between this and other Fulci features, specifically challenging the accusations of misogyny leveled in his direction and arguing in favor of his artistic requisite to tackle taboo subject matter, which he certainly does here, provoking with allusions to pedophilia, prostitution, and rape, to say nothing of the rampant violence. But the film also contains an entertaining integration of giallo tropes, along with ample genre innovation and a distinct formal flair. This, of course, in addition to its sinful concoction of subversion. Fulci has stated multiple times that Don’t Torture a Duckling was a favorite of his own films. All things considered, it’s easy to see why.