As previously mentioned, review copies receive priority attention (reasonably enough) here at The House Of Freudstein. I’ve been enjoying Arrow’s BD edition of Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972) for a few months now, but the fact that I had to shell out for it put it to the back of the review queue. Having panned a few misfiring 11th hour Lucio Fulci duds on this Blog in 2017, it’s a relief to finally be able to devote some time to one of my favourite director’s unalloyed masterpieces. Fulci’s third giallo is undoubtedly his finest hour-and-a-halfish in that genre (bearing favourable comparison with anything Dario Argento chalked up in the thriller stakes) and arguably Fulci’s finest achievement, period (he often argued that it was, though he alternated between DTAD and the similarly under-distributed Beatrice Cenci, 1969).
DTAD’s plot concerns a series of murders in a rural back water of southern Italy, in which all of the victims are pubertal boys. Suspicions fluctuate between (and varying degrees of retribution are meted out to) those whom the locals regard as “outsiders”… derelict peeping Tom / inept shake-down artist Giuseppe (Vito Passeri)… Florinda Bolkan’s disturbed, delusional would-be witch Martiara… and such city slicker intruders as the sexually provocative (as ever) Barbara Bouchet (whose character Patrizia has been banished to the boondocks by her rich dad in an attempt to get her off drugs) and Tomas Milian (a Milanese newspaper reporter covering the sensational murder spree).
The true identity of the killer is ultimately revealed (to the total non-surprise of anyone who’s seen Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Fulci’s tour de force giallo from the previous year) not as some social pariah but a pillar of the local establishment, whose grisly misdeeds proceed from impeccable Catholic casuistry…
The gob smacking impact of Don’t Torture A Duckling is based upon firm foundations. Fulci’s obviously impressive cast (which also includes Mark Porel as the village priest Don Alberto, Irene Papas as his mother and Georges Wilson as a reclusive folk mystic) had a strong script (courtesy of Fulci, Roberto Gianviti and Gianfranco Clerici) to work from and enjoyed, it would seem, cordial relations with the director… which wasn’t always exactly a given on a Fulci picture. Bouchet’s delineation of her character’s development, in particular, is another undoubted career peak and speaking of peaks, her nude indoor sunbathing turn herein reminds me why my heart was in my mouth when I found myself knocking on her hotel room door in Manchester in September 2013… I mean, was I going to find her topping up her tan?
DP Sergio D’Offizi (whom, we gather, didn’t enjoy such cordial relations with Fulci and didn’t work with him again) renders the endless Italian countryside in suitably epic fashion and OST composer Riz Ortolani contributes an exceptional score, even by the standards of a career as exceptional as his was (not forgetting the angel-voiced input of Ornella Vavoni).
Ornella Micheli (and brother Bruno) had been editing Fulci flicks for some time and would continue to do so until the relationship subsequently soured. Make up FX men Maurizio Trani (debuting for Fulci here) and Franco Di Girolamo (on board since Lizard In A Woman’s Skin) would stick with the director into his gory glory years of the late ’70s / early ’80s (sometimes working in tandem with the De Rossi clan), by which time Fulci had assembled a second dream team for his zombie-fuelled career Indian summer.
With all these talents aligned under his assured direction, Fulci was able to produce such marvels as the six and a half minutes between Bolkan’s arrival at the town cemetery and her death by the side of the autostrada, minutes which plumb the depths of human brutality (obviously) but also scale the cinematic heights of suspense, pathos and yes, tenderness.
DTAD also stands as a peak Fulci moment by dint of how closely it aligns the director with the central concerns of his mirror image Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both were troubled renegade Catholics. Both had tortured private lives. Pasolini was an Art house intellectual who yearned for the “authenticity” of the working classes. Fulci was a working class terza visione artisan with auteurist pretensions. As well as its obvious pessimism and anti-clericism, Don’t Torture A Duckling reiterates Pasolini’s uneasiness… and anger… about the degrading effects of globalisation and consumerism (specifically the Italian “economic miracle”) on “authentic” regional identity, the collapse of “popular culture” into “mass culture” and the widening gulf between those who benefit from alleged progress and those whom it leaves behind… issues whose relevance hardly abated in the four-and-a-half decades since Fulci shot Duckling and which have been thrust to the top of the news agenda during the current reaction against the neo-liberal experiment which had kicked off around the time he was shooting it.
Pasolini eventually connected with his ideal authentic working youth on the beach at Ostia in November 1975, which is to say that (at least according to the official account of his death) this youth, one Pino Pelosi, connected the director’s head with a spiked plank. Fulci, in contrast, lived on through the depredations of personal decline and the precipitous collapse of the Italian film industry. As late as 1988’s The Ghosts Of Sodom, he was striving to maintain some affinity with Pasolini, though the mediocre resources at his disposal condemned that one to risible failure, economic circumstances determining all others (… now who was it that promulgated this formula?)
Back in 1972 though, Fulci’s righteous ire was a force to be reckoned with. It’s with almost palpable joy that he paints the killer’s washing powder commercial fantasy of clean-limbed, asexual soccer innocence, a vision so ludicrous that it ultimately has to be bashed out of the culprit’s head in slow-motion. What’s the last thing that goes through a fly’s mind before it’s squashed on a windshield? Or that of a killer cleric tumbling off a cliff? Or, for that matter, Pasolini’s during his final moments at the beach in Ostia?
Don’t Torture A Duckling was shot, incidentally, in pretty much the same neck of the woods where Pasolini had filmed The Gospel According To Mathew, misidentified in Troy Howarth’s commentary track as “The Gospel According To Saint Michael”. Although I’ve picked the prolific Troy up on a few things recently, I bear him no grudge. We all drop clangers and the busier you are, the more likely you are to drop a few (not that anybody ever seems inclined to cut me any slack for mine…)
Fulci was often in variance – and in error – with producers regarding the ingredients that made some of his films so great. I’m a lot fonder of Manhattan Baby (1982) than many pundits, but it would have been seriously compromised by the omission of its Egyptian prologue, which producer Fabrizio De Angelis had to strong arm the reluctant director into undertaking. Nor did Fulci want to include any zombies in The Beyond (1981) and his original intention for Don’t Torture A Duckling (scuppered by producer Edmondo Amati) was to set it in Turin, among the Southern emigres whose labour fuelled that “economic miracle”.
Arrow seem to have made considerably more fuss about their recent Argento boxes than about this crucial release but any doubts that they possibly didn’t “get” Don’t Torture A Duckling are soon dispelled when you see the restoration job that’s been undertaken here (fascinatingly detailed by Torsten Kaiser – who also helmed TLE’s epic conservation job on Suspiria – in the accompanying booklet). From the opening scene you’re struck as never before by the Earth tones with which D’Offizi renders both the Basilicata soil and the complexions of the wretches who scratch a living from it (ashes to ashes, dust to dust)… the inhospitably rough terrain which ultimately rips the killer’s hypocritical false face from his skull.
The bonus materials with which Arrow have adorned this edition are equally impressive. Elsewhere in its accompanying booklet Barry Forshaw writes about the film, Howard Hughes about its soundtrack composer, Riz Ortolani. On the disc itself, Dr Mikel Koven expands engagingly on one of the main themes from his indispensable 2006 book La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, concerning how genre films would typically be consumed in Italian “terza visione” cinemas, whose socially interactive and often just plain rowdy patrons might completely lose interest in a film if it didn’t serve up some violent set-piece spectacle every 15 minutes or so. It would be difficult to conceive of a director more equal to this task than Lucio Fulci and I’m reminded of a hysterical anecdote, related from the grooves of Graveside Records’ House By The Cemetery / Manhattan Baby soundtrack CD by the late Sage Stallone, concerning his and Fulci’s visit to precisely such a venue and the near riot that subsequently broke out. The authentic Italian cinema flavour of Arrow’s print is enhanced by the presence of the “fine primo tempo” caption, a device of which I’ve always been very fond although its appearance in the middle of e.g. Lamberto Bava’s Demons clearly winds up some viewers. In Hell Is Already In Us, Kat Ellinger argues cogently that to address misogyny (an issue without which no discussion of Fulci seems complete) is not to endorse it, deftly employing quotes from various interviews with the director to help make her point. Apparently some people have taken this impressive video essay as “an indictment of Fulci’s misogyny”… ah well Kat, we do what we can. Nice to see that Ms Ellinger’s obsession with The Monk shows no sign of abating, either.
We’re also treated to a 1988 audio interview with Fulci and filmed ones with a batch of his collaborators on this film. Bruno Micheli talks about editing Fulci flicks with his sister and how they were both arbitrarily dismissed, a memory that’s clearly so emotional for him that he asks for the shooting to stop. Maurizio Trani (who assisted Franco Di Girolamo on the special effects of DTAD) chips in with a few of his own “barmy Lucio” anecdotes and confirms that the director was very active in conceptualising and realising FX shots, contrary to the depiction of him in the Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia (anybody remember that?) as a passive figure faithfully capturing whatever his talented collaborators placed in front of the camera. Trani also gets to comment on Florinda Bolkan’s, er, mortifying death scene in a split screen presentation (“It’s not all bad, though we did make a lot of mistakes”).
The star herself, during a compelling interview, gets to watch this celebrated sequence (apparently for the first time) as we experience her reactions in the same split screen format. Her memories of it seem very hazy, considering it allegedly took three weeks to shoot and the fact that she now lives just down the road from its location. Bolkan’s recollections of her director recall the ambivalence I’ve previously heard from Catriona MacColl. He was a sadist on set but she loved him anyway. On balance, “Fulci was something else”… wasn’t he just?