Arrow Heads Vol. 51: DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972)

Lucio Fulci’s rural exploration of the nature of evil

Arrow Heads — Arrow Video, a subsidiary of Arrow Films, humbly describe themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras, often of their own creation. This column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.

Before he was famously the Italian “Godfather of Gore” and creator of many zombie and horror movies for which he is best remembered, Lucio Fulci honed his craft writing or directing dozens of films in various genres including comedies, westerns, and gialli.

Don’t Torture a Duckling, considered by many to be one of his master works, is an unusual giallo which downplays the genre’s typical tropes, adopting the murder mystery angle but placing it into a rural setting rife with superstition. A village in the Italian countryside is abuzz as a series of disappearances and murders targets preteen boys, and two urbanite outsiders take interest in solving the mystery: Martelli, an investigative reporter (Tomas Milian) from Rome, and Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a wealthy, glamorous newcomer who has settled in the area to escape troubles in Milan — and quickly becomes a prime suspect.

Beyond the murder mystery aspect, the film is highly disturbing due to the nature of its content. Fulci may be known for his gory horror films, but Don’t Torture a Duckling is far more interested in depravity. The film’s themes readily engage in some of my least favorite trends of Italian cinema — young adolescent sexuality, and violence against women (albeit with meaningful purpose on both accounts).

The film’s mystery is centered around certain moral questions. As the boys are killed, there emerges a possible trend that victims are delinquent adolescents known for vices like peeping, smoking, and cursing. Are they being lured by some pedophile or siren, or perhaps being punished for their sinfulness? Suspects and motives abound. This superstitious, rural Italian community is full of dark secrets, lascivious miscreants, moral crusaders, and several witchcraft practitioners of all social stripes.

The presentation of this material is much more in the line of arthouse than exploitation, but explored point blank, to the point of being uncomfortable. Men and boys are shown hanging around a whorehouse, trying to catch a peep inside. In another scene, a woman exposes herself to a nervous boy and questions him about his sexual experiences (in analyzing this sequence, it’s shot and edited in a way that the actors were apparently not in the same room together, which I find relieving).

There’s an honesty to these ideas — preteen boys are universally sex-curious, fascinated by their emergent hormones, seeking out pornography and the like — but it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, even if it’s central to the film’s ultimate statements. These aren’t horny high schoolers in a raunchy comedy or coming of age tale, but classifiably “children”.

It’s perhaps unfair to home in on this particular aspect of the film, which is a very competent and engaging thriller, and often staggeringly beautiful — but I need to be honest in my reaction, which is one I’m sure many would share.

One of several striking split diopter shots in the film

Moving on, the film is exquisitely shot and the few straight-up “horror” moments are incredibly effective. An undercurrent of depravity permeates the atmosphere of this seemingly quiet village, and there’s a true sense of clashing ancient diabolism and modern sensibilities in this setting. This is brilliantly captured in the film’s opening vignette, which portrays an elevated highway cutting through the Italian countryside — the towering embodiment of encroaching modernity, and an unlikely backdrop to a disturbing revelation of primeval horror. We are immediately transported to this time and place from the very start.

Moreover, Fulci uses the mystery construct and small-town atmosphere to drive home certain points. The film is deeply interested in immorality, but in a way that makes clear moral statements about a number of social ills: prejudice, mob justice, piousness, lust, and violence — all of which are often weaponized by men against women (but not exclusively so).

This is a heavy film and not one I’m likely to want to watch again soon, but as for claims that this is Fulci’s masterpiece?


The Package

Don’t Torture a Duckling was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video in October 2017 and is readily available for purchase.

Arrow’s edition features a reversible cover with both classic artwork and a new design by Timothy Pittides. The first pressing also includes a booklet with essays by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes. (This review was conducted using disc-only media so packaging details are not observed firsthand).

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and DVD presentations
  • Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on Blu-ray Disc)
  • English subtitles for both the Italian soundtrack and English dub

Special Features and Extras

  • New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films
  • “Giallo a la Campagna” (27:43), a new video discussion with Mikel J. Koven, author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film
  • “Hell is Already in Us: Violence and Gender in Don’t Torture a Duckling” (20:29), a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
  • Audio Interview with co-writer/director Lucio Fulci (20:12, 13:11) — presented in 2 parts and illustrated with video clips and still images
  • “Those Days with Lucio” with actress Florinda Bolkan (28:19)
  • “The DP’s Eye” with cinematographer Sergio D Offizi (46:20)
  • “From the Cutting Table” with editor Bruno Micheli (25:37)
  • “Endless Torture” with makeup artist Maurizio Trani (16:02)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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