Sunday, December 6, 2015

Don't Torture A Duckling (1972)

Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Gianfranco Clerici, and Roberto Gianviti
Starring: Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milan, Florinda Bolkan, Marc Porel, Irene Papas, Georges Wilson
Running Time: 102 minutes

As the old saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I had two other choices in mind for this VENGEFUL WITCH films round table and both had to be put on the back burner. SUSPIRIA was going to be my go to choice for this but that had to be put aside because I've decided to save that for a special project I'm working on for this blog. The next choice was going to be the bizarre Dutch silent "documentary" HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES but then that got hit with that bane of Netflix queues everywhere "Short Wait." Fortunately, I still had some notes left over from another project that ultimately didn't pan out, a series of posts about the films of Lucio Fulci that I planned to post this Halloween, so I had a back up handy. And unlike those other two, this one actually does feature a vengeful witch in a predominant role. "Vengeful" was more of a guideline than an actual rule, you see... From 1972, Lucio Fulci's unique entry into the Italian giallo genre, DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, or as it's known in its native country, NON SI SEVIZIA UN PAPERINO. 

So, what's a giallo? I guess the first time you really start to discuss this genre on your movie review blog, you're sort of required to do a quick recap of the origins of the term. In 1929, an Italian publisher named Mondadori released a series of cheap crime / mystery pulp novels, most of which being Italian reprints of American and British crime authors such as Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler and others. The book series was titled "Il Giallo Mondadori" due to their trademark yellow covers. ("Giallo" being the Italian word for "Yellow.") The series proved to be popular and some other publishers wanted in on some of that fat cash, so they too put out their own series of crime novels, complete with yellow covers. Cultural osmosis being what it is, "giallo" would eventually become synonymous in Italian pop culture with any type of detective / mystery thriller. Movies like Hitchcock's PSYCHO and VERTIGO would be considered "giallo" by Italian audiences, for example. However, what is popular considered a giallo wouldn't really be established until the 1960's, which is when Mario Bava released two films: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. These two films, the latter especially, would be what would codify the basic tropes of a giallo: mysterious killers in black gloves, heavily stylized visuals, baroque titles, elaborate murder set pieces, outsider protagonists, glamorous women as the victims, etc. But while critical hits, neither of these movies apparently made much bank at the box office. The movie that would do for the giallo what A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS did for the spaghetti western wouldn't be along until 1970. That film would be THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE, the directorial debut of Dario Argento, a former film critic and screenwriter. (Prior to this, he had co-written the screenplay for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, one of my favorite movies.) The film, which apparently drew heavily from Bava's BLACK LACE while ramping up the stylized violence, was an international success and kicked off the giallo's stint as a viable money maker. Between 1970 and 1973, Italy alone produced more than sixty five of the damn things and even the Spanish and German film industries would get in on the act. Their influence can even be seen in notable American films, such as Hitchcock's FRENZY, Brian DePalma's controversial DRESSED TO KILL, Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the original HALLOWEEN, which John Carpenter would call "his Argento movie," making them a connective tissue of sorts between Hitchcock-ian thrillers and slasher films.

I must admit, that while I'm a familiar enough with them to recognize a giallo film or the elements in other movies that were influenced by them, the whole giallo genre is one of my big blind spots as far as my movie watching goes. I think I've seen more movies that take their cues from them, like some of the ones mentioned above, than I have the real deal, completely unfiltered pure uncut giallo experience. From memory I can only name DEEP RED and PHENOMENA, both by Argento, and seeing part of Bava's BAY OF BLOOD / TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE a while back. SUSPIRIA is one of my favorite horror films and it definitely has a lot of giallo in it's DNA, for obvious reasons, but ultimately it's more of a supernatural horror film / dark fairy tale. Well, I've been off and on something of an Italian horror kick since the middle of October as of late, so I've decided to correct this. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING was the movie that started me on this, in fact.

I've seen DUCKLING described as Fulci's fun house mirror version of Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and, y'know what? That's actually not as absurd as it might seem at first glance. At their heart, both stories are of the manner in which a town's suspicions and prejudices escalate due to a horrible crime and how the fallout of that leads to the death of an innocent scapegoat. (Movie Morlocks has a good little write-up about how the influence of the 1962 film adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD can be traced through the entire horror genre. Read it here.) Even the title is somewhat evocative of it. The setting is Southern Italy rather than Alabama, here the rural village of Accendura standing in for Maycomb and in many ways, Accendura itself seems to be more of the main character of the story than any of the people in the film. When a twelve year old boy goes missing and is later found dead, Accendura finds itself the center of attention from both law enforcement and the national media. This is just first of several murders that will take place in this seemingly quiet town and as more and more young boys turn up dead, the town turns its suspicion and rage towards its various pariahs, culminating in one, a disturbed woman who practices witchcraft (Florida Bolkan), getting savagely beaten to death. When another of the town's outliers (Barbara Bouchet), a drug addict who was in a habit of making sexually provocative advances towards the victims, finds herself as the new prime suspect, she's forced to work with a reporter (Tomas Milan) to uncover who the real killer is.

DUCKLING is nestled in an interesting spot in Fulci's overall career. Like a lot of Italian directors, Fulci was a jack-of-all-trades, getting his start directing screwball comedies and westerns (one of which featured a pre-DJANGO Franco Nero) before tackling crime thrillers, horror films, and even dipping his toes into CONAN THE BARBARIAN knock-offs with his truly "What the hell?" CONQUEST. It was his horror work that made him an international success, marking him as one of the "big three" of Italian horror with Bava and Argento. The flashpoint, in this case, being ZOMBIE, his notoriously gruesome and grotty gutmuncher that was marketed in Italy as a sequel to George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. It's ZOMBIE or perhaps his unofficial "trilogy of death;" CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD / THE BEYOND / HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY that horror fans know him for best over here and made "A Lucio Fulci movie" practically into a genre unto itself. However, before ZOMBIE, he made a trio of giallo movies that, like I said, are interesting to look at in the context of his entire career because they seem to represent something of a transition for Fulci from his earlier to later movies. 1969's PERVERSION STORY seems almost like an ancestor to 90's erotic thrillers ala BASIC INSTINCT, while LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN seems to be Fulci's first attempt at the hazy, hallucinatory narratives that would define his later work. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING would be the third film of the bunch, and it's probably the most interesting, not only for how much it diverges from what we've come to expect from Fulci's films but from gialli as well.

First off, there's how it differentiates itself from other films by Fulci. When you think of a Lucio Fulci horror film, odds are you'll be thinking in terms of something like the aforementioned ZOMBIE or the GATES OF HELL trilogy. These are movies that run on a sort of feverish dream logic. Stuff just happens in them, basically, as if Fulci and his screenwriters had ideas for scenes and then whipped a vague idea to connect all of them. (Like say "You really shouldn't build your hotel over a Hellmouth.") Thing is, when Fulci's has a handle on things, this ends up working in the film's favor, such as in THE BEYOND, where the incomprehensible narrative actually helps instill the sense that reality is becoming more and more unhinged. His movies are also known for their extreme gore, even by the standards of the Italian horror film, with his trademark being something truly egregious happening to a character's eyes. (Poor Paola Menard.) Hell, ZOMBIE's level of grue was so infamous it had barf bags made and distributed as a promotion. His previous giallo, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN, had a scene which featured eviscerated dog props that were so realistic looking Fulci and special effects artist Carlo Rimbaldi had to prove in court that they were fake! Here, content serves story and the tangents the film ends up going on, like whole subplot with the witch Maciara, actually work as a part of the whole. As for extreme violence, there’s really only two scenes. One is the attack on the witch Maciara by the townspeople, a vicious whipping with chains that presages a similar scene that opens up Fulci’s THE BEYOND. The other is the death of our killer, who smashes their face on rocks repeatedly as they fall from a cliff. It has to be said, this would already be a fairly ridiculous sequence but that it features a dummy that couldn’t be more unconvincing if you tried doesn’t help. Sparks shoot out of the thing’s face at one point! The rest of the time, we only come across the aftermath of the violence, the discovery of the boy’s bodies. The only other killing depicted on screen is a brief strangling. Obviously, there’s a very simple explanation for this. I imagine that even with it’s lighter restrictions on violence and sexuality, the Italian film industry still considered depicting graphic murder of children something of a no-no, so much of DUCKLING’s running time, Fulci had to find other ways to get his shocks across. This would be achieved either through imagery such as the film’s opening scene where we witness Maciara digging bare-handed in the dirt, unearthing the bones of a small child, or in edits like the one where we cut from one of the boys still alive immediately to the discovery of his battered body face down in a stream. Not yelling “influence” here but I’d like to note that depicting the results of the violence, rather than the violence itself, would also be put to good use in David Fincher’s gialli influenced SEVEN.

It’s effective and the fact that DUCKLING doesn’t rely on over-the-top murder sequences to knock you on your ass gives it a feel that’s fairly distinctive from other movies of its kind. The violence itself isn’t the only way in which DUCKLING goes out of its way to differentiate itself from other giallo. Many popular giallo elements rear their head here; the “outsider” protagonists, the mystery that’s “solved” more by not letting yourself get tripped up by red herrings than any actual piecing together of clues, and yes, the one murder we do see is carried out by an unseen figure wearing black gloves. But in many other ways, DUCKLING likes to screw with your expectations. Getting back to what I was talking about earlier, whereas most giallos would rack up a body count primarily of attractive women, much like slasher films, DUCKLING goes the more taboo route of makings its victims male children. In fact, the women are among the film’s more sympathetic characters, the movie even allowing Patrizia, a promiscuous drug addict, to become one of the heroes. Then there’s common technique of keeping your killer hidden, by only showing their hands as they prepare or stalk their victims. This is used here but that’s to help set up Maciara as a red herring!

How about how this movie looks? There is certainly some memorable imagery, such as the skeletal grim reaper figure that looms over the boys while at prayer, and some disorienting camera angles are used, but you won’t see much in the way of garishly colored, baroque visuals and sets. This wouldn’t fit with the story Fulci’s trying to tell. Instead, DUCKLING opts for a more naturalistic, earthy look and many of the locations used in the film wouldn’t look too out of place in a spaghetti western, in fact. That film’s other eventual hero is played Tomas Milan, star of THE BIG GUNDOWN, Sergio Corbucci’s COMPANEROS, and one of the myriad DJANGO sequels, adds to this. (Also, good lord, that’s mustache he’s sporting.) Patrizia’s modern home is the only set piece in the movie that resembles anything you’d expect to see in an Argento movie and that’s supposed to stick out like a sore thumb, the home’s inconsistency with the surroundings, not to mention her modern brightly colored outfits serving as marks of her outsider status.

It’s actually a bit frustrating that information about Fulci’s childhood and early life is so hard to come by. All I was able to dig up was that the man had a Catholic upbringing, which isn’t surprising – a Catholic Italian? Come on! – because Catholicism and more importantly, Catholic guilt hangs over everything in the movie. Fulci got into a bit of hot water, in fact, with the Church with this movie because it felt that it presented a negative image of the organization. The reason I became interested in learning about Fulci’s early life because Fulci cited DUCKLING as his favorite out of all of his films and called it his most personal movie. There’s something incredibly autobiographical about this film and the way it depicts life in small town Italy. Unlike his much of his later work, you get the sense that Fulci is trying to really say something here about this. And well, whatever he’s trying to say, it’s not too good. In DUCKLING, small town life isn’t presented as some sort of wholesome counterpart to the decadence of the city, but rather a place that has its own form of corruption simmering under the surface. The modern world is encroaching on Accendura, represented by a newly built highway on the town’s outskirts, and the people there aren’t happy with it. Repression is the name of the game here, with the town showing suspicion and prejudice against anything that doesn’t fit their ideals. At one point, a Catholic priest tells a reporter that the church has final word on what magazines and other publications can be distributed in Accendura. This repressive attitude is taken to its most cynical extreme when we finally uncover the identity of the killer, who was murdering the children because they had began to show interest in things like smoking and sex and didn’t wish for them to fall into sin. Of course, no one in the movie (or in real life, either) grasps that it’s this repressive attitude that’s driving them to behave like this. When you emphatically tell a kid to not do something, well, that’s going to make them what to do it even more but without any real understanding of what they’re dealing with. Take the movie’s most infamous scene, where Patrizia teases one of the boys after he stumbles across her sunbathing in the nude. That kid, who was all bravado earlier, becomes scared, timid and is in completely over his head. Man, way to make “nude Barbara Bouchet” disturbing, Fulci.

It’s this whole repression angle that ties into my observation that real main character of DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING is Accendura. The idea that the environment they’ve created made the murders possible and that a moral authority may be the one responsible for it never crosses the villagers’ minds. Instead they turn against the freaks, the weirdos, the Others, because in their minds they’re a convenient, guilt free target. They don’t fit with whatever moral standard we’ve imposed on ourselves so obviously only they could be capable of doing this horrible thing. Whenever a scapegoat is offered up, the townspeople immediately form a faceless mob and start baying for blood. (A theme Fulci would briefly touch on again with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) Which leads to the entire subplot with Maciara, who, to get back to the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD parallels, is our Tom Robinson figure. Maciara confesses to the murders but when her confession entails putting a “curse” on the initial victims in revenge for their defiling the grave of her stillborn child, the police realize that these are simply the ravings of a disturbed woman and let her go. What follows is without a doubt the stand out stretch of the film and one of the best scenes Fulci ever staged. Walking through Accendura’s sun-baked streets, Maciara is spat upon by old women and then later followed and corralled into a local cemetery by some of the men, where she’s beaten bloody all while pleasant music from a local radio plays over the scene. Shades of Tuco’s torture scene from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, perhaps? Maciara doesn’t die there, managing to drag herself to the local highway before expiring, passersby ignoring her or deciding that they don’t want to get involved. When the police arrive on the scene, the officer in charge pieces together fairly fast what happened and just by glancing at the gathered crowd, knows that the entire town had a part to play in the murder of an innocent women. You can’t arrest an entire town, though, and police can’t do anything but leave the one’s responsible to live with what they’ve done.

This, I think, represents another transition in Fulci’s horror films. While I haven’t seen them, discussions of PERVERSION STORY and LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN made them out to be very moralistic films, stories about how these people have done wrong and they’re getting their just desserts. This isn’t quite the case with DUCKLING. Yes, the killer is eventually unmasked and dies but look at the damage left in their wake: families destroyed, an innocent woman dead, and people with her blood on their hands. ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, etc. all seem to be set in an uncaring universe, where, to quote UNFORGIVEN “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” We see the beginnings of that here, where it doesn’t matter if what age you are, what walk of life you’re from, how moral you are, if circumstances deem that you are screwed, then buddy there’s nothing you can about it.

Or to put it another way, “Forget it, Jake…it’s Accendura.”

This review was a part of DIRTY HEX APPEAL: A Vengeful Witch Round Table, presented by the CELLULOID ZEROES blogger group. First up is WEB OF THE BIG DAMN SPIDER and their take on ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE, then hop over to MICRO-BREWED REVIEWS for MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS. Still not enough? Then swing by CINEMASOCHIST APOCALYPSE, who's cooking up some BLACK MAGIC or stop off at THE TERRIBLE CLAW REVIEWS for THE HAUNTED PALACE!

A Little Something Extra:
"Burn The Witch" by Queens of the Stone Age. Getting into the music of Brody Dalle also lead me to check out Josh Homme, her husband's music, which includes Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal and this band right here. A mix of classic and stoner rock, Queens have joined Monster Magnet and White Zombie on that list of bands where the volume just can't go high enough...