By Scott Dorward
Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italy, 1972)
It is mandatory for my October Horror Movie Challenge to include something by Lucio Fulci. If I’ve scheduled too many serious, weighty films, I can always count on Fulci’s sheer bloody insanity to shake the cobwebs loose. The problem is, as with Val Lewton, I’ve large exhausted his horror catalogue. I’ve watched almost all the classics, as well as a few real turkeys (New York Ripper, I’m looking at you!), and I’m down to the last few. Don’t Torture a Duckling has been on my list forever. Let’s see if it does the job.
Three teenage boys in a small Italian town keep causing trouble, spying on their neighbours’ sexual exploits and bullying a simple-minded local. A local witch places a curse upon them, ramming needles into wax effigies. Shortly afterwards, the boys start dying, all strangled or drowned. A variety of people, including the witch, are blamed for the murders, but each in turn proves innocent.
So who is killing these children? Does it have anything to do with witchcraft? Is it all linked to the attractive young woman with a dark past who recently returned to town? Can the authorities keep the rising panic under control? And what does all of this have to do with ducklings anyway?
1970s Italian horror films had the best titles! Most of Fulci’s films have much plainer names but this one is delightfully baroque. Only his A Cat in the Brain comes anywhere near.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is the closest I’ve seen to Fulci making a classic giallo. It’s a bloody murder mystery with psychosexual underpinnings. At the same time, it doesn’t incorporate many of the classic giallo tropes. While there are weird flourishes, there is nothing dreamlike in this film. We don’t get to see the murders taking place, only their aftermath. And simply making the victims teenage boys sets it apart in the genre.
The sexuality in this film is uncomfortable. This is not just the usual disconnect between contemporary mores and those of the ’70s. The boys at the heart of the film are young, maybe 13 or 14. Scenes of them spying on prostitutes or being teased by a sexually aggressive older woman are clearly meant to make us squirm. And they do.
While this is far from Fulci’s weirdest film, there are some wonderfully eccentric characters. Although he hardly gets any screen time, Francesco, the male witch, is a highlight. I could happily have watched a film just about him.
And although the witchcraft in this film is, arguably, hokum, the witch hunting isn’t. Don’t Torture a Duckling is at its strongest when showing us the damage caused by suspicion and false accusations. The murders themselves pale in comparison to the damage done by the community in response.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is a fine thriller but it doesn’t quite deliver what I love about Fulci. While it definitely has weird and macabre elements, it is not as insanely imaginative and uncomfortable as his later films. During the first act, I almost felt like I was watching a soap opera, just one with more dead children than usual. Only the absurd gore of the final scene feels like it could come from a later Fulci effort.
But this doesn’t mean that Don’t Torture a Duckling is a bad film. It is entertaining, strange and challenging. If you have any interest in ’70s Italian horror (and what right-thinking person hasn’t?), you will find plenty to engage you here. Just don’t expect the manic bloody surrealism of vintage Fulci.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!