Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) ***
Director: Lucio Fulci
Runtime: 1h 45m
Giallo’s are nominally mysteries, its one of the only elements they have that fully distinguishes them from their slasher descendants. The killer’s identity is unknown, usually the audience only sees him through his own POV (where he is invariably clad in black leather gloves and wielding some exotic edged weapon) or he is shown wearing a creepy mask that obscures his identity. The heroes of Giallo are generally detectives, policeman, or reporters trying to solve the case; occasionally it will be just regular joes trying to solve the mystery, but crucially there is a mystery to solve. In slashers, there is never any question about who is committing the murders: It’s Michel Myers, or Freddy Kruger, or Jason Voorhees, and anybody that suggests otherwise is downright wrong. Maybe the authorities in the film are baffled, but the audience at least knows better. That said, most Giallos were mysteries in name only. The real focus was on the killing, and they were frequently bereft of such mystery genre staples as clues, red herrings, and suspects. The same cannot be said for today’s movie, which inundates its audience with a host of false suspects of varying degrees of believability. If anything, Don’t Torture a Duckling (in usual Giallo fashion, the name is eye catching but has nothing to do with the plot) overplays its hand here, and once you accept the movie’s love of red herrings it becomes pretty obvious who the killer is, if only because he’s the only character who is not either a cop, a child, or a suspect.
The scene is Accendura, a small town in Southern Italy, with that peculiarly Mediterranean mix of splendor and rot. The buildings are lovely, but slowly crumbling; the people are a backward and superstitious lot, but for the most part their existence is carefree and cheerful. You’d be tempted to think of it as an idealized pastoral setting, at least you would be if it were not for the movie’s bizarre and unnerving opening sequence. We see a woman, later identified as the gypsy witch Magiara, digging up the bones of an infant and cradling the skeleton in her arms. Dead kids and disinterred corpses don’t really have a place in the Eclogues. Even more bizarre, is Fulci’s decision to drop this plotline for the duration leaving the audience with a vague feeling of unease. It’s flourishes like these that would serve Fulci well in the late 70s and 80s where the focus of Italian horror would shift from mundane psychopaths to the more exotic zombies and demonic invasions. Locating your film at or beyond the gates of Hell makes such surrealism an asset, while minimizing the focus on continuity or coherence. In a story without magic, monsters (well literal ones at least), or a breakdown of reality, it seems a bit out of place and even a touch distracting. Still, one thing you can say about Fulci is that no matter what he doesn’t blend in with the crowd!
This gypsy witch is not the only colorful character/potential murderer running around Accendura. There’s also Giuseppe Barra, the village idiot who spends his time peeping on visiting prostitutes and their local clients, a practice that neither the working girls nor the johns seem particularly concerned about. Barra establishes his red herring bonnifides right away, when after being made fun of by a trio of local boys (Bruno, Torino, and Michele), he threatens to kill them. Then there’s Patrizia, an heiress who is laying low in the village after a very public drug scandal back in Rome forced her into exile/rehab. We can tell that everything is not right with her because the first time we meet her she’s trying, with some success, to seduce Michele, a 12 year old. The kid walks in on her sunbathing (note the complete lack of natural light and any artificial sunlamps) in the nude in her apartment. Patrizia asks about the boy’s love life before candidly asking if he wants to be her lover. Michele isn’t too put off by the whole experience, but the audience has the emotional maturity and personal experience to know any grown woman putting the moves on a middle schooler probably is host to a veritable legion of psychological dysfunctions.
With the Red Herring Brigade thus established, it’s time to let the bodies start piling up. Oddly enough, Fulci has enough restraint not to show us a barely pubescent youth being killed in spectacular fashion (one suspects that his peers Umberto Lenzi, Dario Argento, and Ruggero Deodato made fun of him for this apparent squeamishness), and instead of a carefully choreographed murder sequence we are simply told that Bruno has gone missing. Local law enforcement is mobilized to track down the missing boy, commanded jointly by the regional administrator and the local chief of police, Captain Modesti. The cops don’t find the boy, but a man claiming to have kidnapped Bruno approaches his parents and demands a ransom. The cops set up a drop and ambush the alleged kidnapper when he goes to pick up the money. For once, the police dragnet is efficient and competent and they nab the kidnapper before he gets far, discovering that it is the feeble-minded Barra.
Barra claims that he found Bruno’s dead body in the woods, and buried the boy. Then he decided to use this as a chance to extort a little walking-around money. It’s just the kind of half-baked scheme that a mentally handicapped man would come up with too. Even so, the police treat Barra as their prime suspect until Torino is killed in the same manner as his friend. This death is followed closely by Michele, who dies after sneaking out night at Patrizia’s behest. Just like before, these killings happen off scene, though now the viewer is confronted with grisly mortal remains of each boy. Since Barra was in police custody this whole time, there’s no way he could have killed the other boys. It becomes obvious to the investigators that they are dealing some sort of maniac.
Reasoning that the murderer must be another member in good standing among the Red Herring Brigade, the police turn their attention towards Patrizia and Magiara. Patrizia’s alibi for the night of Michele’s murder is almost absurdly weak; she claims to have been driving up and down the highway endlessly for the entire night in question. Not exactly the most stimulating way to sent a Friday night, least of all for a debutante/heiress/drug addict. Sill, there’s no hard evidence against the girl so the police focus on tracking down Magiara. When they find her, Magiara confesses to killing the three boys right away, but says she did not strangle or beat them to death. Instead she killed them with a potent curse. The investigators are inclined to believe this is all a bunch of rubbish, but a confession is a confession and no cop is that eager to make more work for himself. Only problem is, a patrolman spotted Magiara twelve miles away on the night of one of the murders without access to a car or public transportation, effectively ruling her out. The regional administrator and the other bosses are inclined to cut her loose after this, despite the protestations of Captain Modesti. Modesti, unlike his bosses knows the people of Accendura, and knows that as soon as Magiara is loose, the townspeople will kill her for being a witch. Time and events prove the red-faced captain knows what he’s talking about. Naturally killing a delusional woman who believes she has magical powers does nothing to stop the murder, and the bodies of dead kids continue to pop up in the picturesque Italian hills. Having run through two red herrings, the audience and the investigators are left wondering just who is the killer.
For the most part Giallos are an urban genre, all grimy streets illuminated with garish neon lights. Don’t Torture a Duckling’s major innovation is taking the murder mystery out of the city and moving it into the pastoral countryside. The change of setting allows for some great panoramic shots of the lovely Italian countryside, giving the whole thing a distinct look and feel from the rest of the genre. The change of setting also facilitates Fulci’s own surreal style and interest in the occult. Having a town full of superstitious local allows the witch Magiara to serve as a credible red herring; I mean what cosmopolitan Roman is going to believe that three boys were murdered by a gypsy curse? Still, these are all superficial changes and other than these there is not much that sets Don’t Torture a Duckling apart from its peers. That’s not to say its bad, in fact, Don’t Torture a Duckling is a well made and well put together Giallo. It just isn’t as flashy as the better-known work of Bava, and Argento; or even its own director’s later works for that matter.