A small Italian town is thrown into disarray after a series of child murders.
If you’ve been following our 31 Nights of Thrills series then you’ve probably guessed by now that I am a huge Giallo fan. What is a giallo, you ask? A giallo is a kind of horror film that gets its roots in the bizarre, ridiculous, or supernatural- often times the rules of the world aren’t grounded in reality, and there are common themes and images that will often help to classify a giallo as such (gloved killers, multiple twists, psychic or supernaturally attuned protagonists). I first found my love of giallo films through the work of Dario Argento (“Suspiria”, “Phenomena”), a director that I consider to be one of the finest horror directors to ever grace this planet. This film, “Don’t Torture A Duckling”, doesn’t come from Argento, but from a man whom was working at the same time as him, a man, whom many consider Argento’s rival: Lucio Fulci. I’ll be up front and honest in saying that I am not entirely familiar with Lucio Fulci’s work, but he’s a director that I’d eventually like to explore further. As I write this review, this is the only film I’ve seen by Fulci, so I find it hard to compare it to anything else I’ve seen other than a few Brava and Argento films (and, surprisingly, I found myself making comparisons to a Fritz Lang film). Funnily enough, this film was banned in the US because of it’s themes- more on that later in the section marked spoilers, but I can guarantee this film would have no problem passing the censors today.
“Come on, we’re going to buy you a nice new doll!”
A small Italian village explodes into a media frenzy after a young boy goes missing, and soon after a body is found. Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian, “Traffic”) a reporter from Rome, comes to the town to report on the murder, and quickly gets a lay of the land. The Police Commissioner (Virgilio Gazzolo, “The Age of Medici”) recognizes that Andrea can give great insights into the case and lets him in on details that other reporters aren’t given. As the story progresses, Andrea teams up with Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet, “Gangs of New York”), a woman he recognizes from a scandalous report he’d read in Rome, to try to solve the murders. The police commissioner and captain, meanwhile, interview a number of suspects and village regulars in hope of finding some sort of clue. Among the interviewed are Maciara (Florinda Bolkan, “A Brief Vacation”) a rumored witch, Don Alberto Avallone (Marc Poreli, “The Psychic”) the village priest, Francesco (George Wilson, “The Longest Day”) a hermit who practices black magic, and Guiseppe Barra (Vito Passeri, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) a simpleton.
So, first and foremost, I loved the way that this story was approached. Many giallo films show things from the perspective of those that are about to be murdered, but I’ve never seen a giallo that shows things from the perspective of an entire town. Because of the way that this story approached the child killings, it reminded me (quite heavily) of Fritz Lang’s “M”. In both films, the story is told from the perspective of a town as a whole- they examine the idea of mob rule in a small town. This film flits between a number of different characters, never really slowing down to let you get to know one more than the other, and in a way, it makes this film really stick out. There are very few films that have the gumption to try to examine the effects of serial murders on the psyche of everyone in a town, but this film really hits the nail on the head, for the most part. My biggest problem with this film is that, while it is unique in it’s storytelling, it also makes it slightly difficult to follow the first time through. As we jump back and forth between characters throughout the film, the mystery is a bit difficult to unravel until after the credits have rolled. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to follow it, but it does require a bit more effort than say, Argento’s “Tenebre”. I found that the way this film approached the story was genuinely intriguing and showed a lot of ingenuity, but I don’t think it was executed nearly as well as Lang did in “M”. The scene which demonstrates mob rule in this film is one of the most brutal, haunting things I’ve seen in a giallo film- it’s approached far more seriously than any of Argento’s killings, and the result is beautifully and brutally poetic, but also far more disturbing than many of Argento’s schlockier entries.
The cinematography in this film was pretty stellar too. There were plenty of scenes that were framed in interesting ways, and lots of wide sweeping landscape shots, but what really caught my eye with the cinematography was the use of whip-zooms. The amount of whip-zooms in this film is a little ridiculous, and at first I found myself almost laughing at the sheer number of them, but as the film went on, I started to see them for what they were- a kind of director trademark. The way he uses the zooms, particularly as the film’s plot congeals towards the end, become increasingly stylized and interesting. It makes for a very dynamic viewing experience.
While I do appreciate the way the story was told, the real thing that impressed me about the writing was the way that Fulci balanced his unique brand of characters, some of which were incredibly vile. While many of the giallos I’ve seen feature witches, witchcraft, or some kind of psychic phenomena, I’ve seen few that have employed the voodoo magic style showcased here; that kind of magic added a layer of grimness throughout the story. It was also interesting to see things from the perspectives of the parents’ whose children had been murdered and the various members of the town. The strangest character (though apparently not the most controversial) was Patrizia. It’s strange, if this film had been released today, I’m sure Patrizia would be the most controversial part. Patrizia’s character, a beautiful ‘drug addict’ (she mentions marijuana once- if you think that constitutes a drug addict then more power to you), spends her time seducing the young boys of the town… Seriously; the first time we meet Patrizia she’s completely naked and tries to seduce a ten-year-old boy. It’s even stranger that Fulci doesn’t play this off as a bad thing- in fact Patrizia is essentially one of the main characters by the end of the film. Today, I guarantee that would be the most controversial part of this film, but back in ’72 this film was stopped from coming to American theaters not because of the sexual content, but because of something else entirely…
(SPOILERS ABOUT THE ENDING IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Towards the end of the film, it’s revealed that a witch has been using voodoo magic to kill the children, but she doesn’t do the killings herself, she only casts the spells (the witch says she has no interest in the physical killings). From there it’s discovered that the priest, Don Alberto Avallone is responsible for the actual murders, and his reasoning for doing so is to save the children’s souls. Alberto believes that, if he murders the children before they can become corrupted by the sins of the world, then their eternal souls will be saved. The ending is meant to be a commentary on the Catholic Church (remember, the Church still holds a lot of power in Italy, and more secular minded people might want to protest that). But while Alberto may have been Fulci’s metaphorical stand in for the Church in the 70s, today we can look at that attack in a new light. Since the Boston Globe broke the spotlight story on Priest abuse and cover up in 2002, it’s become easier to look at the Catholic Church and divide the bad apples from the rest of the bushel. While Fulci might’ve meant Alberto’s murders to imply the rest of the church was culpable, the blame cannot be applied to the entire organization. No matter where you go, no matter what organization you belong to, no matter what you believe, there will always be sinful individuals. Man is fallible; God is not. While Alberto might be the bad guy at the end of this film, you can’t extend the guilt to the rest of the Church. So, while this might have tried to be a commentary on the oppressive nature of the church in Italy, it doesn’t come off that way today (or at least for me it didn’t). Either way, it’s easy to enjoy this film even with the commentary there.
Overall, this is a really good movie (pretty close to great). I actually think that when I revisit this film (as is bound to happen) I’ll enjoy it more the next time through. As far as a giallo film, this movie wasn’t nearly as much fun as any of Argento’s entries, but it did try to do some things that I found innovative and compelling. For my first Fulci film, I was rather impressed, though I can almost say for certain he won’t be replacing Argento as one of my favorite horror directors. This movie is a twisty entry into a genre I love, and it’s one that I’ve already recommended to a few people. Check it out and let me know what you think!
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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