Don't Go in the Lightning Bug's Lair #2: Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

While yesterdays duo of “Don’t”s had the most ubiquitous message when they assured, somewhat misleadingly, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.  Today’s film, coming in at Number 2 on the countdown, comes from Italian horror master Lucio Fulci, and, in the inverse, it has an impenetrable title which only viewing the film will explain. Popularly known as Don’t Torture a Duckling, the original Italian title, Non si sevizia un paperino, actually translates more literally as Don’t Torture Donald Duck, but even in an age where Escape from Tomorrow is a film that gets released, it is hard to imagine the litigious House of Mouse letting that kind of title fly. Coming off three solid thrillers, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, One on Top of Another, and Beatrice Cenci, Don’t Torture a Duckling was the first of his films to really delve deep into a horror, albeit a human one. It also marks Fulci’s first real foray into gore while he was still at the top of his giallo game. Lucio reportedly named it as his favorite among his catalog, and I have to admit in advance that it ranks pretty high up there for me. I was actually surprised I had yet to review it as I've watched it a good half dozen times. So, I suppose do what you want to a calf, a kitten, a puppy, a chick, or a fawn, but whatever you do Don’t Torture a Duckling.

Dead man's float: World Record Holder
The small Italian town of Accendura is rife with secrets. With heiresses Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) laying low after a drug scandal in Milan, a witch Maciara (Florinda Bolkan) working with voodoo dolls, and a pervert (Vito Passeri) peeping in on traveling prostitutes plying their trade, and a priest and his creepy Mom (Marc Porel and Irene Papas), when the town’s young boys start to go missing, there’s plenty of suspicion to go around. Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian), a reporter, arrives on the scene to report on the story, but as suspicions run rampant, the violent deaths continue. I would love to say more about this film concerning the plot, but as I have some neigh spoilery talk to engage in later in this review, I thought it best to halt my synopsis of the plot there. To go further would necessitate taking away from the deft weaving of red herrings and side plots that contribute to Don’t Torture a Duckling being one of Fulci’s most nihilistic, bleak, and intricate films. To combat the seriousness and bleakness of this post, I have included inappropriate captions on the pictures today, something I haven't done in years at the LBL.  

Spoilers for the rest of the next two paragraphs. If you have not seen the film, don’t skip to the TWO paragraphs at your own peril. Sorry, I've seen it a lot and I want to talk about some things. -- The Bugg

Florinda would rather have been in Florida. 
For anyone whose viewing begins and ends with Zombi 2, Don’t Torture a Duckling will seem like the work of an entirely different film maker. For those versed in Fulci’s work, Ducking can be seen as one of Fulci’s best looking features. With a stark reality and a naturalistic tone with location shots in the Italian countryside, Fulci creates a world that is horrific, but not in an inhuman way. Fulci presents the witch as the main suspect for the crimes, but, while she clearly has desire, Marciara is believed to be magically ineffectual and had no actual a knowledge of the means of the children’s deaths. Of course this matters not to the villagers who beat her to death with chains in one of Fulci’s most visceral scenes. Sure, Fulci did plenty of gross out stuff later in his career, but the beating of Maciara has a particular execution that sets it apart. First off, the beating begins to the background of late 60’s pop rock before switching over to an Italian ballad (a moment that reminded me of some musical edits in Kill Bill),  but, also, the timing and look of her wounds make this one of the hardest to watch beatings this side of Passion of the Christ. (And I’m not making fun here. That’s still the goriest film I’ve ever seen in a theater.) 

Kids are dead. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
Yet the killer is eventually found to actually be the Priest, killing out a a desire to help the boys avoid temptation and sexual desire. Yeah, that's what they all say, but I digress. Fulci portrays the old superstitions as ineffectual and the current religion as corrupt due to its own Puritanism. Even in the finding out of the killer, there is no resolution that feels like justice. Marc Porel's character leaps to his death, and while there is some satisfying face bashing on the way down, another early gore moment, it isn't penance for his crimes. It wouldn't be the last time Lucio touched on religious themes (Four of the Apocalypse, The Gates of Hell trilogy) or even corruption of the priesthood (City of the Living Dead, Beatrice Cenci, Demonia), but it is the only time I can recall that the supernatural is shown as superstition. While the police release her from suspicion, the viewer is left to decide if her use of black magic contributed to the priest carrying out his cleansing killings.  

End Spoilers

Not the skeleton of a creature from Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
From the very opening minutes of Don’t Torture a Duckling, where we are shown a duo of cackling , overweight prostitutes, someone digging up the skeleton of a baby, and a fully grown nude woman attempting to seduce a little boy, Fulci sets a tone that brings the setting for his film into an unsettling focus, like a David Lynch film. Yet much of the film rests on the performances of the cast and how well the script keeps up with the misdirection of the mystery. What isn't a mystery is that Duckling stars two of my favorite leading ladies of Italian film, Florinda Bolkan and Barbara Bouchet. While it is Bouchet that strips to her birthday suit in an attempt to bed a ten year old, I've always been partial to Bolkan’s witchy woman in a Stevie Nicks kind of way. Both turn in solid performances and Bolkan really sells her part to the hilt while Bouchet brings the sleazy and the totality of the film’s nudity. Tomas Milian does what he can with his character (Fulci gave him lots more to work with during Four of the Apocalypse.), but the role is pretty thankless and seems only placed into the script to provide a detective character who is never the suspect. Perhaps with a little rewriting Bouchet’s character, already a fish out of water, may have been the better character to hoist the role upon, but her casual perversion would have to be toned down quite a bit.

For a Don't, this sure looks like a Do.
Don’t Torture a Duckling also marks the first pairing of Riz Ortolani and Lucio Fulci. Ortolani would go on to pair with the director many times including the evocative music of Zombi 2. Every way I look at it, Don’t Torture a Duckling is one of Fulci’s best films and deserves to be mentioned among the greater giallo films. From its strange title to its twisty plot, Duckling takes the viewer on a journey though a place most outsiders would see as quaint and simple. Fulci took the giallo out of the city, stripped it of it’s beautiful people and evocative lighting in favor of location shots and child actors, and he delivered a film that is chilling, down to the bone, because of the cruelty of man against man. There are plenty of films on this list that I have covered which I would consider more fun, great for parties, or one to share with a loved one while you carve pumpkins. Don’t Torture a Duckling is not that. It’s a bleak film that offers no hope and dead children on top of that. It won’t be for everyone, but fans of Italian horror and Fulci will find a lot to like here. That brings me to the end of the penultimate post in the Don’t Go in The Lightning Bug’s Lair Halloween countdown. I can’t believe the big day is nearly here, and I have only one more “Don’t” to share with you folks. (Actually two because I will also mention the “Don’t” film so bad it didn’t make it on this list.) So join me back here tomorrow when I fill your treat bags with one more bit of Halloween advice. You don’t want to miss it!

Bugg Rating

While I do not approve of the EDM used in this trailer over Riz's original soundtrack, it was the best I could do to get you a look at the film. 


  1. Great write-up TL. How can this be number 2 though!!!!!! I am glad you stopped short of implying an anti-Catholicism or criticism of the church that some see in this film. Because, personally, I'm not now especially drawn to that view. If there is a criticism of priests in his work such as this, or The Eroticist and Operation St Peter it is in terms of those who fail to uphold a standard. So he may identify corruption, flawed priests and so on but I don't think Fulci is taking an especially anti Catholic position per se.

    A theme I do believe that is central to this film is that of hegemony as understood by gramsci. In particular what happens when one culture comes up against a more dominant one. Thus the relationship between the urban modernity and simplicity of rural peasantry. This is illustrated in a number of ways: the Milian and Bouchet characters, for example, or even the number of references to the road that passes the locals by. Modernity is illustrated as both corrupting (the hookers, or bouchet's character, for example) or also as essential: the police and scientific procedural elements as contrasted by the vigilante simpletons from the village. Interesting to note is a reference to fellini in there (the scene of Bolkan crawling up the hill has a near identical mirror in Il Bidone) . One of my favourite films, and, like you, I revisit this frequently. There so many philosophical levels to ponder in the film and each time I watch it I feel like it is peeling away a layer only to reveal another.

  2. YES! You actually assigned this to me in a swap way back when, and I'm so happy you did. I'm generally not a giallo fan because I feel like a story is just twisting itself around for the sake of twisting, leaving me unsatisfied and like so much of the movie's running time was just wasted. But this one TOTALLY doesn't do that because the killer (HINTY SPOILERY ALERT) is doing it for such a specific reason completely justified and foreshadowed in the film. Fulci actually ends up SAYING SOMETHING about his theme, which is so rare for him.


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