Friday, December 19, 2008

Don’t Torture a Duckling

(Italy, 1972, 104 min.)

Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan, Marc Porel, Georges Wilson, Irene Papas, Antonello Campodifiori, Ugo D’Alessio, Virgilio Gazzolo, Vito Passeri, Rosalia Maggio, Andrea Aureli, Linda Sini, Franco Balducci.

Screenplay by Lucio Fulci, Robert Gianviti and Gianfranco Clerici, from a story by Fulci and Gianviti.

Directed by Lucio Fulci.

Firstly, no ducklings were tortured to make this movie. This being Italian horror, it can’t hurt to clarify.

The film opens with some of the leisure activities of the small Italian mountain town of Accendura that probably don’t make it onto the Community Bulletin Board. A young woman, Maciara (Bolkan, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), is doing a little digging. She’s thought by many of the superstitious townsfolk to be a witch and it couldn’t possibly help her case that what she’s digging up are the bones of a child. Meanwhile, a bunch of young boys watch the arrival by car of some prostitutes, who are taken to an out-of-the-way house by a couple of the village men. Giuseppe (Passeri), another local pariah, is also on the scene, but is not only denied any peeping opportunities, he’s also razzed by the boys. A little later in another part of town, one of those same boys, Michele (uncredited, as are all the kid actors), is at work with his mother (Maggio). She plays housekeeper for a young woman named Patrizia (doe-eyed Bouchet, Sex With a Smile) whose father was a native before striking it rich and moving away. Patrizia is holed up in Dad’s house, an uncharacteristically modern design for the area, after fleeing a drug scandal in Milan. Michele is sent to her room to bring her a pitcher of juice and finds her laid out completely starkers. (The first glimpse we get of her is her breasts through one of those perpetually-tilting-water doohickeys.) Her willingness to display her nude body to a barely pubescent boy, along with at least one other similarly inappropriate scene in the course of the movie, makes her claim to having retired her hashpipe somewhat dubious.

Through all of this we also get scenes of someone with filthy hands crafting and stabbing small wax figures, from which the plot’s engine gets going. One of the boys disappears, and when his parents (Aureli and Balducci) get a ransom call, an assortment of policemen both local and from the city (Campodifiori, D’Alessio and Gazzolo) intervene. The money is planted and staked out. When someone comes to grab it, they grab him instead. It turns out to be Giuseppe. He leads them to where the body is buried, but swears that the boy was already dead when he found him and that he was only trying to take advantage of the situation with the ransom call. When another boy is found strangled and drowned while he’s in custody, they believe him.

Assisting the police in their investigation is a man named Andrea Martelli (Milian, Sonny and Jed, Bandits in Milan). Typically for Italian genre cinema, he’s a reporter, and even more typically, he manages to insert himself into the case with only the flimsiest of resistance from the authorities, allowing him to follow his own leads (and agenda). He goes to interview the local priest, young, fresh-faced Don Alberto (Porel, The Sicilian Clan), who lives with his mother (Papas) and deaf-mute sister. He runs a soccer program for the local youth and therefore knew both victims, but spends most of his time with Martelli decrying modern permissiveness, boasting of his accomplishment in barring the local newsstand from carrying any smut. (Although we have already seen small hints of the effect such repression might have on the town’s youth.) He does, however, suggest that things have been odd ever since Patrizia showed up. Additional mysterious happenings cast further suspicion on the party girl, but also on Maciara, and the townsfolk are getting tired of waiting for the police to deliver justice.

This is one of at least three gialli (a certain type of Italian murder mystery) that director Fulci made, the others being the earlier Lizard with a Woman’s Skin, which also featured Bolkan and which I’ve never seen, and the later New York Ripper, which ranks up there as one of the nastier, sleazier entries in the genre. Duckling is tame compared to Ripper, but they do have at least two things in common. One is creative location work. Ripper made good use of 1980s New York, including the Times Square area, which, fittingly enough, was one of the only places in this country you could see a Fulci film at the time, while Duckling is lent an old world air by having been filmed in the actual town of Monte Sant’Angelo. The discovery of the second body is nicely effective owing to the lead up of a traditionally dressed woman making her way through the winding paths of the town. (The other thing the two films have in common is that each has a completely weird plot point involving a Donald Duck doll, but it would be too involved and spoiler-rich to explain them and they don’t make a whole lot of sense even if you’ve seen the movies.)

But one of the more interesting things about Duckling is what it doesn’t have in common with most Fulci movies. They’re all pretty much a bunch of FX set pieces – tours de force of latex and Karo syrup – strung together by threadbare narratives, but one of the set pieces here effectively illustrates the subtext of the entire piece, the clash of modern sensibilities with stubborn traditionalism. The scene, the most brutal in the film, is one of vigilante retribution fueled by entrenched superstition, but modern pop music emanates from a nearby radio throughout, achieving something similar to, if far less whimsical than, the famous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs. It is far easier to imagine Signor Lucio asking, “How deep a wound could a chain to the flesh make?” than “How can we best illustrate the conflict of cultures?” but regardless he manages to accomplish both.

Of additional interest is the way this sequence ends. Despite having gruesomely killed off I-don’t-know-how-many characters over the course of his career, Fulci rarely imbued these deaths with any real tragedy. Al Cliver may cradle Auretta Gay’s body in Zombi 2, but his demeanor being less heartfelt grief than “Well, this sucks” kind of undercuts any deeper pathos. Fulci avoids this trap at the end of the sequence from Duckling by having it take place at the side of a road. With no actual characters there to react and only the oblivious passing motorists to remind us of the outside world at all, Fulci achieves a sense of the forlorn not only unusual in his own work, but not especially common in the bulk of the horror genre.

These two points taken together could mark this sequence as an artistic highpoint for the director. Which is appropriate since the film that houses it is an interesting bit of suspense that, while it may not appeal as much to fans of Fulci’s hardcore gore work, shows that he could tell a decent story when he tried, although the resolution will probably be obvious to those familiar with films of this ilk, even those who don’t catch the occasional telegraphed hint.

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