After a child is found murdered in a small rural town in Italy, journalist Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) is sent from the city to report on the case. The town simpleton is quickly accused of the murder, but though the passions of the population are roused, the police are soon convinced he is innocent. When more children start getting killed by the maniac, some of the unpleasant elements of small-town life are laid bare, in particular: superstition and intolerance. As is usually the case in Italian thrillers, all sorts of dodgy characters are introduced as possible suspects - among them a strange woman called Martiara (Florinda Bolkan) who practices witchcraft; Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a bored, rich city girl who enjoys sexually taunting preteen boys for kicks; and Don Alberto Mallone (Marc Porel), the parish priest who likes to censor any 'immoral' magazines that the local newsagent might want to sell!
Lucio Fulci's fans have had to work very hard over the years to convince even the small section of the film community who can appreciate the merits of the horror genre that his work consists of anything more than low-budget buckets of grue and gore served up with an unseemly sadistic relish. Of course, there is A LOT of that, particularly in his eighties output; but even the films made at the height of this 'Godfather of Gore' period seem to contain at least a hint that something else is also going on. "The House by the Cemetery" may look like an extra-bloody, badly dubbed rip-off of "The Shinning" at first blush, but its climax — where a young boy's parents are brutally murdered in front of him, and he himself escapes into a twilight past that (possibly), represents his own death — achieves a kind of poignancy that Kubrick's cold classic doesn't even come close to. "City of The Living Dead", amid it's nasty head-drillings and brutal zombie brain-gougings, presents us with a stark portrait of intolerance in the way Giovanni Lombardo Radice's character is treated by the inhabitants of his hick town. Even the notorious "New York Ripper" — surely one of the most misunderstood movies ever made — contains some sophisticated character snapshots and is actually one of the more distilled renderings of Fulci's world-weary misanthropy (not misogyny!). That film gave critics the excuse they needed though, and Fulci has often been denounced since as: "a misogynist hack with little financial resources selling salacious images of sexual violence under the veneer of a thriller plot" to quote the respected British film-critic Mark Kermode. Here, Kermode seems to be making the basic mistake of confusing the creator with his creations. Just because a filmmaker makes a film that contains a misogynist character or portrays misogynist acts, it doesn't automatically follow that he himself is a misogynist. One has to look beyond one's natural distaste for some of the imagery to see how it fits in to the wider thematics of the piece. Of course, all this is usually taken for granted in any other area but the low budget horror-thriller genre. "Salo" contains imagery that is, quite literally, sickening but no one seriously questions it's artistic intent. To appreciate that there is also an artistic vision in much of Fulci's work as well, one would do well to look back at some of his seventies films, in particular his phenomenal 1972 giallo "Don't Torture a Duckling".
The infamous "New York Ripper" was actually a kind of sister film to Duckling: both were co-written by Fulci and Gianfranco Clerici (no stranger to controversy being the man who penned "Cannibal Holocaust" and "House On The Edge of The Park") and exactly the same Donald Duck doll plays a pivotal role in both stories. The child's doll is a symbol of innocence in a "corrupt" world and both films feature deranged killers who, for one reason or another, cannot cope with what they see as the unfairness and absurdity of life. While "New York Ripper" featured lots of graphic images of women being slashed to bits by the film's "duck-voiced" killer, "Don't Torture A Duckling" contains only one graphically violent scene (an act of vigilantism) and the killer in the film is exclusively targeting children rather than adults. While it is a typical giallo in one sense, it actually manages to use the genre to comment intelligently on religion, superstition and intolerance. Here, these themes are all pushed to the forefront of the story while in Fulci's later films, although you can still detect them if you look hard enough, he had to slip them in wherever he could amid all the flesh-eating spiders and eye-violence!
As in "New York Ripper", all the characters in the film are flawed - particularly Barbara Bouchet's character, who is bordering on being a paedophile! But there is more tenderness and warmth on display in "Duckling" though and, dare I say it, a tiny ray of hope by the end. By the time Fulci came to make "Ripper", this seems to have been snuffed out since that film is profoundly nihilistic. For it's first half, "Duckling" is an excellent but fairly standard giallo. But once the sub-plot concerning Florinda Bolkan's character of Martiara kicks in, it really takes off and becomes incredibly moving and poetic at some points. Martiara is actually convinced that she has killed all of the children herself with witchcraft -- a claim that leads to tragedy when a gang of superstitious vigilantes corner her in a graveyard and take their revenge by clubbing and whipping her to death with chains. This scene of course, is easily recognisable as pure Fulci in the way the act of violence is uncompromisingly depicted in all it's repulsiveness. But, rather than being an excuse for dwelling on nastiness in a purulent way, the scene actually manages to becomes an expression of great humanity and sympathy. Fulci's direction here is amazing, and I believe this may be the single best sequence he ever directed! The way the incredibly evil act of violence is counterpointed by a sentimental song playing on one of the vigilantes' car-radio just adds to it's emotional impact. Fulci's pessimistic world view is expressed more eloquently in this scene than in any other he ever shot - and the film as a whole is definitely not the work of a hack.
"Don't Torture A Duckling" was one of Anchor Bay's early DVD releases and it still holds up pretty well. For the most part we have a fairly good image with lots of grain visible at certain points but nothing hugely distracting. The mono sound is also perfectly adequate but we get absolutely no extras here apart from the standard Fulci biography which appears on all of AB's Fulci DVDs. You can get this film as part of a great double-pack in Anchor Bay's Lucio Fulci Collection, where it is paired up with "City Of The Living Dead", another of Fulci's finest movies from the eighties. If you haven't seen this film yet you're missing out big time! Get hold of a copy immediately and recognise the tortured genius of Lucio Fulci today!