A big city journalist named Andrea (Tomás Milián) journeys to a sleepy rural village in order to investigate a gruesome series of child murders. When he arrives, he discovers that the superstitious locals – including the police force – have rested blame on a local witch, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), who confesses to the crimes. When it becomes clear that Maciara isn’t the guilty party, Andrea teams up with another community outsider, a spoiled rich debutante named Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), to unravel a mystery that is tied to the very heart of the small town.
While the title of Lucio Fulci’s third giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non si Sevizia un Paperino, which directly translates to Don't Torture Donald Duck; aka: The Long Night of Exorcism, 1972), recalls Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” (made up of Bird with the Crystal Plumage , The Cat O’ Nine Tails , and Four Flies on Grey Velvet ) naming convention – in that it is an abnormally long-winded reference to an animal that eventually turns into an obscure plot point – Don’t Torture a Duckling isn’t a typical psychosexual-obsessed murder mystery. Instead, Fulci chose to paint a melodramatic rural tragedy, colored by painful violence, grim death, and the director’s most depressing statement on the nature of religion and authority. Throughout his career, Fulci had an axe to grind concerning the moralistic and conservative sides of Italian society and expressed discomfort at his own lapsing Catholic faith. This antisocial behavior is most apparent in his spoof comedies (The Eroticist [Italian: All'onorevole piacciono le donne, 1972], in particular), his ultra-violent period melodrama, Beatrice Cenci, and his first western, Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu...tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast, 1966); the latter two of which deal directly with the consequences of corrupt class systems. But his horror films and thrillers were usually too wrapped up in atmosphere to clearly state any social/political opinions. Aside from the same generalized fear of Catholic theology and mythology seen in hundreds of supernatural horror movies, only City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) makes any kind of explicit point. In that film, the literal evils of Hell are unleashed on a small coastal town and the locals see fit to blame a social misfit named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) for every impossibly violent act that occurs. Bob meets his end when a worried father crams his head into a power drill.
Plot spoilers follow.
Bob’s scapegoatism seems absolutely absurd on its own merits (to make matters sillier, Fulci claimed that the drill scene was a "a cry [he] wanted to launch against a certain kind of fascism”), but that’s because it lacks the context of its roots in Don’t Torture a Duckling. In the film, reporter Andrea (portrayed by Tomás Milián, who also worked with Fulci on Beatrice Cenci [aka: The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969] and Four of the Apocalypse [Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse, 1975]) arrives from the city (Rome, in this case) to investigate a series of child murders in an isolated southern Italian village. The only suspects are people that don’t meet the town’s archaic ethical standards – a (probably) mentally impaired man, a celebrity socialite with ‘loose morals’ and a mental disturbed pagan “witch.” The “imbecile” (as the authorities dub him) barely escapes mob justice as he is moved from police custody to jail, but the witch is less lucky. After she’s released due to a complete lack of evidence (she confesses, because she believes that she has killed the boys using magic), outraged townsfolk murder her in cold blood. The reporter and socialite combine their efforts and discover that the actual culprit is a beloved Catholic priest, who is killing the children as a mercy, in order to prevent them from growing into morally corrupt adults. In short, an enduring culture of righteous indignation killed the children and a blind spot for religious malfeasance allowed the killer to continue killing.
Fulci’s portrayal of the countryside as a den of superstition and ignorance is tied to his anti-Catholic, anti-bigotry message, but may have also been fueled by old-fashioned classism. Regardless of his greater point, Don’t Torture a Duckling does stand out as one of the earliest examples of rural human monsters in a horror film, pre-dating Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) by two years. Again, while it isn’t as esoteric as Fulci’s Gothic zombie movies or as mind-bendingly as Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, 1971), Fulci’s stylish tendencies are fed by a stark use of the widescreen frame and images of brutal, painful violence, photographed in loving slow motion. Cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi’s extreme, Sergio Leone-like compositions capture the lush, countryside locations, which then Fulci cleverly contradicts by portraying the savagery of the rural population. Gialli films are built on a foundation of contrasting lurid beauty and grisly violence, but few incorporate the tradition into their thematic context, outside of maybe The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which a work of art is the catalyst for violence.
Speaking of violence, most of Don’t Torture a Duckling’s bloodshed occurs between the frames. The killer bloodlessly strangles his victims and almost all of his crimes are only revealed after they’ve been committed. This serves a thematic function for Fulci, who reserves graphic mayhem for the deaths of the witch and the killer himself – neither of which are fun or attractively shot in the traditional giallo fashion. In the first, the innocent woman is savagely beaten with chains and 2x4s as the camera’s lens crash-zooms into her blistering, oozing skin. In the second, jagged rocks scrape huge chunks of flesh from the depraved priest’s face as he tumbles down a high cliff. Both scenes still rate high on the list of Fulci's most vivid depictions of brutality and both were reproduced in Fulci’s later films. The Psychic (Italian: Sette note in nero; aka: Seven Notes in Black, 1977) reused the cliff death with a bit less juice and The Beyond stretched the chain-beating into an elongated pre-credit sequence, complete with crucifixion and a skin-peeling lye bath. Arguably, each sequence has more impact in the context of Don’t Torture a Duckling, because it is a film that is at once more violent than The Psychic and more realistic than The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), which is ostensibly a movie about decay and death).
Don’t Torture a Duckling was not released on North American VHS until Anchor Bay premiered it on DVD during that brief period where VHS and DVD were still overlapping (2000, to be exact). It seems that it wasn’t released theatrically in the United States at all, which made it quite the legendary film among Fulci fans for most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like many, I was originally forced to suffer through grainy, fourth-generation dupe tapes, so AB’s anamorphic widescreen DVD was a revelation at the time. That same transfer was recycled when Bill Lustig took the rights with him to Blue Underground and I believe it was the source for Medusa’s Italian DVD and Shameless’ UK DVD. The first Blu-ray versions were released by Happinet in Japan and 84 Entertainment in Germany. I know nothing specific about the Happinet disc, but the German transfer was definitely based on a new and exclusive remaster. From what I can gather, Arrow Video’s new US/UK BD/DVD combo pack release uses the same remaster as the 84 Entertainment disc.
Here’s where things get a little complicated and I will attempt to sum up the issues as quickly as possible (for a full rundown of the process and its problems, see the included Blu-ray booklet and various discussion threads linked from DVDBeaver’s Blu-ray comparison). Fulci shot Don’t Torture a Duckling using Techniscope, which itself creates 35mm formatting issues, onto Eastman Kodak stock and was then printed onto Technicolor stock. This posed problems for digital color timing process (more on that in a moment). In addition, the 2K Italian scans were deemed insufficient and TELFilms in Germany was forced to perform extensive manual restoration. New problems arose when the company mistakenly included extra frames from the ends of each reel, which caused sync problems and explains why the 84 Entertainment BD runs longer than any other version on the market. There’s more to this story, but it all boils down to this: Arrow has reused the TELFilms’ restoration, but corrected the runtime and made changes to the grading/color timing.
The German BD is quite expensive, so I don’t have access to it for a direct comparison. The best I could manage was the AB DVD. The differences are obvious. The DVD is covered in a sheet of noise, details are obscured by compression artifacts, and dynamic range is flat and hazy. The Blu-ray replaces those chunky sheets with finer artifacts, relatively consistent, nominally discolored film grain, and minor print damage (squiggly scratches are the most prevalent), and presents a rich dynamic range that emphasizes the eerie beauty of D'Offizi’s photography. It seems unfair to tout the remaster’s superior detail, since even a good DVD couldn’t meet such standards, but the 2K rescan really squeezes texture out of the wide-angle shots. The color quality, on the other hand, is more debatable. Like many recently remastered Italian films (circa 2017), the palette sometimes appears too yellow/orange and/or teal. The good news is that this modern palette fits the sunbaked look of this particular film and rarely detracts from the vibrancy of other hues (especially greens). However, while we’re already nit-picking, I do imagine some fans will object to the overall darkness of this transfer. Crush can be a problem, but the restoration process seems to have corrected some of the DVD’s overly brightened day-for-night shots.
This Blu-ray is the first North American home video collection to include both the English Italian dubs and the only to feature lossless LPCM 1.0 sound. As per usual, I will now remind readers that Italian films from this era were shot without sound, so all language tracks were dubbed in post. The sound quality between the tracks is incredibly consistent with matching effects and similarly tuned music. To complicate the choice, Barbara Bouchet seems to be dubbing herself on the English track, while the other leads appear to be dubbing themselves on the Italian track. The music was written by the late Riz Ortolani, who was sort of stuck playing catch-up after Ennio Morricone set the unofficial tone for gialli when he scored Bird with the Crystal Plumage – even though Ortolani actually composed music for Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet... So Perverse (Italian: Così dolce... così perversa, 1969) a year before Argento’s film was released. His strong-heavy motifs are supported by traditional songs (supposedly sung by characters just off screen), Wess & The Airedales’ funk/soul-infused “Crazy,” and a mournful pop song called “Quei giorni insieme a te” (“Those Days Together with You”), co-written by Ortolani and sung by Ornella Vanoni. The joyful, toe-tapping hooks and Vanoni’s woeful vocals are both used to eerily contrast the brutality of the chain-beating sequence.
Commentary with Troy Howarth – The author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press. 2015) jumps right in and delves deeply into Don’t Torture a Duckling during this info-packed and personable Arrow exclusive commentary.
Giallo á la Campagna (27:44, HD) – Mikel J. Koven, the author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (Scarecrow, 2006), discusses the history of post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage gialli, the social habits of Italian cinema-going audiences in the ‘60s/’70s, the development of ‘vernacular cinema’ (his more precise term for cult genre films), and how these things relate to Don’t Torture a Duckling.
Hell is Already in Us (20:30, HD) – Critic and editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine Kat Ellinger addresses the prevalent misogyny seen in many of Fulci’s horror films and thrillers. She believes that the director was making statements about the violent nature of men and bases some of her assumptions on his personal plights and experiences, as well as the movies themselves.
Lucio Fulci Remembers (Part 1: 20:13; Part 2: 13:13, HD) – A two part archival audio interview with the director from 1988, in which he answers questions written to him by journalist and co-writer of Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through The Eyes Of Their Protagonists (Fantasma Books,1996), Gaetano Mistretta. It covers a wide swath of his film career and offers him a chance to talk a little shit about Dario Argento.
New cast & crew interviews:
Those Days with Lucio (28:20, HD) – Actress Florinda Bolkan talks about her work on Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling)
The DP’s Eye (46:21, HD) – Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi runs down his many collaborations with Fulci (as cinematographer and camera operator), which began with his spoof movies back in the ‘60s.
From the Cutting Table (25:38, HD) – Assistant editor Bruno Micheli rambles on about his early career at Technicolor in Italy and his contributions to a number of Fulci’s movies (their relationship also extends back to the spoof days).
Endless Torture (16:03, HD) – Assistant makeup artist Maurizio Trani finishes off the new interviews by discussing the challenges of competing with Hollywood on tiny Italian B-movie budgets and outlining some of Don’t Torture a Duckling’s special effects work.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.