Monday, July 23, 2012

Movie Monday: Don't Torture A Duckling

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1972 giallo thriller Don't Torture A Ducking. Yes, that's the real title!

DTAD is directed by horror maestro Lucio Fulci, more famous for gorefests Zombie (1979) and The Beyond (1981), two films I've seen and enjoyed, if that word can be applied in this context. I had never even heard of this one, and how could I--how could anyone--pass up a film with that title?
Don't Torture A Duckling takes place entirely in the small Italian village known as Accendura. It opens with a grisly image of a woman desperately clawing at the dirt, digging something up. She retrieves what is clearly the skeleton of a small child, buried there without a casket or headstone.

We then follow three young boys, galavanting around the town. They catch the proverbial Village Idiot named Giuseppe playing peeping tom with two men and some prostitutes. The three boys taunt the man so much he runs away in shame. Meanwhile, we catch up with the woman, who is clearly some sort of gypsy dealing in the black arts, as she crafts three small voodoo dolls. Hmm.

To this point, DTAD feels like a fairly conventional (by giallo standards) thriller, with the horror no doubt to come. Then things take a hard left turn for the weird, as we follow one of the boys home, and he is directed to bring some orange juice to his housekeeper mother's employer, a beautiful woman named Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet). Patrizia is waiting for the young boy, in a manner most inappropriate:
Patrizia just doesn't just try and make the boy uncomfortable--which she succeeds at--but she asks him about his sex life, and then even offers to take him to bed. The boy, being all of thirteen or so, holds his own as best he can then departs.

Soon after, one of the three boys goes missing, sending the town into a panic. Local reporters show up, and one of them seems so dogged to solve the case he seems to be brought on board by the local police, who seem ineffectual at best, probably even clownish. All evidence points toward Giuseppe, and he is arrested, despite his pleas of innocence. A second boy goes missing, then turns up dead, proving that Giuseppe is innocent. Following that, the third boy is also murdered.

The local reporter befriends Patrizia (who wouldn't?), who is--naturally--considered a bit of an outcast in the village. More suspects pile up, like the local priest (Marc Poreli) who runs a boys group that all three victims were a part of, and the priest's strange, dour mother Aurelia (legendary actress Irene Papas).

The townsfolk becomes a mob, and starts directing blame at everyone. The local gypsy--who everyone knows is a witch--is arrested and then cleared, but that hardly matters: some of the men from the town follow her, and beat her to death with a chain, in a slow, grueling scene. The witch manages to crawl away, and spends several uncut minutes crawling to a nearby superhighway--which cuts through the countryside like a knife--where she dies as cars zoom by, indifferent:

There's more, a lot more, but I don't want to give too much more away about the plot. Having seen a number of Fulci films (thanks to the fine folks at Exhumed Films), I was expecting a real gory time, since Fulci seemed to revel in reducing bodies to pulp, and showing his audience every grisly detail, but Don't Torture A Duckling is, by most measures, pretty restrained. Sure, the chain whip scene is tough to watch, but mostly because Fulci, for once, takes the violence fairly seriously, as opposed to trying to just make his audiences scream and/or laugh in revulsion. In fact, the most uncomfortable scene in the movie is right at the top, with Patrizia and the boy.

After the three young boys are killed--itself a topic most filmmakers wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole--the film changes main characters and begins to focus on the reporter and Patrizia, as well as the priest and his mother. The final scene is a pitched battle on a cliff, which is about as straight an "action" scene as I think Fulci ever filmed:
In fact, the only thing that mars DTAD is the final series of shots, where the in-your-face gore that was Fulci's trademark returns, but in such a head-scratching, goofy way that it almost breaks the movie's spell.

I had never really seen much Italian horror until I started going to the Exhumed Film shows back in the late 90s, and I admit the first few films I saw (one of which was Fulci's Zombie) were bewildering to me--nothing was ever explained! Zombies just started coming to life and killing people, just because. Having been reared on American horror and American movies in general, watching films that explained nothing took a little getting used to. Eventually, I grew to appreciate and then enjoy the "WTF" nature of Italian horror, because of course the hows and the whys weren't important. Fulci wasn't interested in explaining why a building full of people suddenly became zombies and started eating each other, he just wanted to show what it might be like if it happened.

So it was interesting to see the man take a different route with DTAD, which still has some really bizarro moments (see: Patrizia au natural), but for the most part sticks to the story and themes inherent. It may be modern day (hence the superhighway), but this town is still locked in a time warp of religious superstition, and how that kind of thinking can lead to horrible violence. No authority of any kind can be trusted, whether it be the church, the police, or the media; and one of the film's heroes turns out to be, essentially, a potential pedophile.

The film was not received warmly at the time; Fulci was openly attacking the Roman Catholic Church which I understand has just a wee bit of influence over there. The film remained mostly unseen and unavailable for years, until hitting DVD a few years ago. He also supposedly got into some legal trouble concerning the scene with the young boy and Patrizia, until he proved--in court--that the young actor and the naked Bouchet were never actually in the same room at the same time (much to the young boy's regret, I bet).

Fun Fact: The original title of this movie was something to the effect of "Don't Kill Donald Duck", a name that the spoilsports over at Disney (who make the Catholic Church look like a bunch of pikers when it comes to getting their way) found offensive for some reason. After leaning on Fulci, he changed it to the equally ungainly--but thematically more precise--Don't Torture A Duckling. But he still got his shot in at the Mouse, or more accurately the Duck; one of the young victims carries around a headless Donald Duck doll through a number of scenes.

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