Young boys are being murdered in a beautiful Italian town and it's up the local carabinieri and a reporter to discover the rotten truth that lurks beneath its idyllic surface.
Don't Torture a Duckling stars the beautiful Florinda Balkan, previously seen in Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin, the equally stunning Barbara Bouchet (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times), and Tomas Milian from Umberto Lenzi's violent poliziotteschi, Almost Human.
The film starts as it means to go on with a spooky opening scene of Bolkan's character, Maciara (an alleged local witch) digging up the skeleton of a young child in the hills outside a medieval Italian town. It's here that Fulci starts several juxtapositions running throughout the film, with the old stone buildings of the town and the new motorway overpasses that lead to it.
Fulci doesn't hang around and the suspects are introduced almost immediately; as well as Maciara there is Barra, a local peeping tom and Bouchet's character Patrizia, a rich young thing who loves to flirt with young boys.
The police are not totally ineffectual for once, although they are very quick to jump to conclusions and seem intent on solving the murders as quickly as possible no matter who gets hurt on the way. Running parallel to their investigations are the enquiries made by Martelli, a newspaper reporter played by Milian. Both methods run counter-productive to each other with the police leaping from suspect to suspect using overwhelming force, supposition and aggression, thus causing tension and breeding suspicion in the town. Whilst the quiet detective work of Martelli at first seems more effective it also has its problems; the most obvious being his rearranging of a crime scene to create a better photo for his newspaper.
The tone of the film is not unlike the rural horror films of the sixties. Duckling is shot through with the old: the crumbling town, witchcraft, the medieval trappings of Catholicism, dark churches, skeletal statues, ritual and litany intersecting with the new: the motorway overpasses, radio soap operas, the modernity of Patrizia's house and lifestyle. Juxtaposition and duality abound: rich/poor, old/new, tradition/modernity, outward appearances/inward morality, Christianity/Paganism, logic/superstition, innocence/sexuality, tolerance/persecution, light Patrizia/dark Maciara.
Very nicely shot and filled with close-ups and medium shots which, as well as giving the film an air of claustrophobia also does a great job of internalising the collective grief of the town. Some of the fast edits are excellent, with the same character moving from one location and time to another without any jarring at all.
There are several shocking moments, unusually involving the discovery of dead children and there are some very good, infrequent gore scenes of the type that Fulci is justly famous for. The scene where Maciara is attacked is extremely well done and very similar to the violent chain whipping from his later film, The Beyond. Also, the duck motif (obviously in the name but also as a child's toy in the third act) pops up again in Fulci's later exploitation classic The New York Ripper. Overall, for once Fulci is extremely restrained and forgoes his usual exploitative touches.
The film features an atmospheric soundtrack by the prolific Riz Ortolani (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, Cannibal Holocaust) although I wasn't too sure about the rock and pop tracks used during the persecution of Balkan's character. It does fit with the theme of duality but it is more than a little jarring.
The children are great and full of devil-may-care attitude, daring do, cigarettes, catapults, grazed knees and add a real air of realism to the film. Balkan is all wild hair and wide staring eyes - she really does look like she stepped out of Witchfinder General. Milian is very good as the dogged reporter but is a little underused in the first two acts. Really though the film belongs to the women and children.
The picture is okay but a little blurry or dark in places but really deserves a proper Blu-Ray release. Watch it as a double bill with The House with Laughing Windows or Who Saw Her Die.
Don't Torture a Duckling deserves its reputation as a gialli classic.