If Mario Bava is the grandfather of Italian horror and Dario Argento artsy-fartsy daddy figure who brought giallo to the mainstream, then Lucio Fulci is the creepy uncle doing strange things in the basement and making all the ladies feel uncomfortable at the dinner table. I’ve only seen a couple of his films but they, and his reputation, declare that as a director he was more interested in bloodletting than story, he loved gore more than any pretense of depth.
That might have changed in 1972 with his film Don’t Torture a Duckling. In it, he smooths the edges off of his violent tendencies and focuses on telling an interesting story. It seems, however so briefly, Lucio Fulci, the Godfather of Gore, the deliverer of debauchery, the venus of violence, grew a social conscience. It mostly works.
In a small village in the south of Italy, young boys are being brutally murdered. The village goes crazy, a media circus comes to town all while the cops are clueless as to who is perpetrating the crimes. A sharp-witted journalist from Rome (Tomas Millan) begins snooping around, helping the police.
Town hysteria eventually leads them to Francesco (George Wilson), a strange old man who is known to practice black magic, and his disciple, Magiara (Florida Bolkan), whom the village has dubbed “The Witch”. The police take her in for custody and she at first admits to killing the boys, but upon further questioning (and great skepticism from the journalist), they realize she only used voodoo dolls to place a curse upon them.
The witch and many of the villagers are superstitious enough to believe a curse is the same as actual murder. Throughout the film, the police show that they need more than mere superstition to convict someone, but at the same time allow these rumors and myths to guide their investigation. It is only the journalist who demands more thorough methods be used at all times.
Another potential suspect is Patricia (Barbara Bouchet), a beautiful, wealthy woman who has recently come to town and is living in her father’s mansion. She’s an anomaly in town with her wealth, progressive views, and modern dress. We are introduced to her through the eyes of a young boy, the son of the house keeper. He brings her up some orange juice and finds her sprawled out on the divan, completely nude. He is both excited, nervous, and perhaps a little scared. She is provocative. She doesn’t cover up but rather tells him to look.
When she asks him if he’d like to kiss her, I couldn’t help but wonder how the same scene would play out were the genders reversed. Fulci shoots it from the boy's perspective giving it an anxious, erotic feel. Yet what she is doing is decidedly creepy. If she were a man doing the same to a little girl, this is a film that would remain banned in many countries. Later, when she is seen giving toys to a different little girl, it's hard not to wonder what her motives are.
I don’t want to spoil anymore than I have to but let's just say the Catholic Church does not come away from this film looking clean. So much so that the film was banned for many years in predominately Catholic countries.
Fulci is clearly commenting on social class and education. The poor, foolish town folk cling to their outdated superstitions, while the more educated, urban journalist uses calm logic to solve the case. The wealthy, chic, bourgeois woman lacks both superstition and any sense or morality. It never quite comes together though. This is a film about children being systematically butchered but I never felt the emotional punch something like that should have created. Fulci has a good eye and the film is full of interesting, even beautiful visual moments, but he can’t quite pull of the depth he seems to desire.
I mentioned in my opening that the film lacks Fulci’s normal copious amounts of gore, but don’t misunderstand that to mean there isn’t plenty of blood-soaked violence. Children are strangled and heads are bashed. There is a brutal scene in which several men beat a woman with chains and Fulci lets the camera linger on her torn flesh. In its climax, we are treated to close-ups of someone’s head bashed on rocks as he falls down a mountain. There is plenty of gruesomeness for horror hounds to enjoy, it's just that there is more story attached to it than Luci normally gives.
The end result is a film that doesn’t quite titilate like one expects from a typical Italian horror film, yet it never quite reaches the sophisticated heights it's aiming for either. What's left is a film that’s pretty good, but that leaves one wanting.
There is a lengthy discussion of the transfer process in the booklet accompanying this Arrow Video release. The original negatives were so fragile they had to be scanned in Rome as they could not be allowed to leave the country. They had to use at least two different negatives to get the best transfer but they wouldn’t match perfectly with one of them containing additional frames. It's a fascinating story to read with the result being it was a painstaking task to get the best -ooking transfer they could. It does look really good. There are variances in quality, sharpness, and clarity, but mostly it looks really beautiful. Audio is good as well. As was the case with all Italian films at the time, the dialogue was post-looped (in both Italian and English) as the studios had no way of keeping extra noises off the mic. This means there are a few synch problems but nothing too distracting.
Extras include an informative commentary track from Fulci biographer Stephen Thrower plus a nice video conversation by giallo enthusiast Mikel J. Koven who puts the film into a larger perspective. Another video essay by Kat Ellinger discusses Fulci’s perceived misogyny (spoiler alert: she doesn’t think he is one). There are also several interviews with the cast and crew plus the usual booklet with an essay on the film and the aforementioned one on the transfer.
I’m not well versed enough in Fulci to place this in his filmography. It certainly isn’t the gore-filled, blood-soaked horror show I expected, nor even a typical giallo. It is an introspective, socially conscious film that occasionally rips apart some flesh. As per usual, Arrow Video has created a really nice package for the film and I must admit my Italian horror collection is really becoming robust thanks to them.