Under the ravishing blue skies of southern Italy in the village of Accendura boys will be boys, and even in church Bruno, Michele and Tonino cannot help but plan their escape back to the great outside, the golden fields and green forests and the mountains cut through by the motorway, bringing with it temptation and sin, the boys spying on a brace of prostitutes from the city plying their trade.
But the three boys are not themselves unnoticed as from her vantage point in the hills above the woman known as La Magiara (four time David di Donatello award winner for best actress Florinda Bolkan) digs her hands in the damp brown earth and uncovers the decayed skeleton of a child. A Gypsy regarded as a witch by the locals, she retreats to her hovel where she forms three dolls, one for each of the boys, and plunges pins into them.
When Bruno vanishes and his family receive a call demanding a ransom the small town turns into a circus and the fingers first point to the simple minded Giuseppe Barra (Vito Passeri) who admits he made the call but claims the child was already dead when he found the body, but unable to defend himself against the court of public opinion, the baying crowds in the town square, when Tonino is also killed the police realise they have arrested the wrong suspect.
Released in the late summer of 1972 as Non si sevizia un paperino and internationally under the literal translation Don’t Torture a Duckling and now released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, it was the twenty fifth film directed by Lucio Fulci in less than fifteen years, and while it displays many of the hallmarks of the giallo genre it is also atypical in many respects.
While there are the requisite rain soaked nights and false leads and suspects aplenty as the bodies pile up, the prowling camera voyeuristically capturing every misdeed, the police ineffective as they search the woods with dogs yet fail to impose any form of curfew, it is distinctly rural affair in unspoiled countryside under glorious sunshine, yet Accendura is no stranger to jealousy and grudges.
In Italy there will always be Catholicism, the deeply held religion which permeates the blood, the entire village turning out for the funeral mass of the boys, but out of the city there is also superstition, La Magiara an automatic target because she is an outsider of pagan beliefs; chief of police Captain Modesti (Ugo D’Alessio) dismisses the rumours but is still able to recite them unprompted.
While the resentment of La Magiara has had years to grow, the beautiful heiress Patrizia (Black Belly of the Tarantula‘s Barbara Bouchet) is new to town but equally hated. Polar opposites, she the frosty blonde controlled by her father whose public reserve hides her lack of private inhibitions, La Magiara the raven haired wild woman who no man can track let alone tame, both are shunned by the townspeople.
In her accompanying video essay Hell is Already in Us, critic Kat Ellinger discusses the film and the reputation of misogyny associated with Fulci and his work, discussing the archetypes of the three key women in the film, the witch, the temptress and the mother, specifically Aurelia (The Guns of Navarone‘s Irene Papas), mother of the village priest Don Alberto Avallone (Marc Poreli).
A strong and informed argument which draws on the circumstances of Fulci’s personal life, the tragic loss of his wife and daughter and his own lapsed faith which led him to a cynical worldview, that does not excuse the graphic scene in which one of the characters is lured to a cemetery and beaten to death, the camera enjoying the violence too much, focusing on the pleasure and satisfaction of the attackers rather than the suffering of the victim.
In the documentary Giallo a la Campagna Doctor Mikel J Koven of the University of Worcester discusses the huge economic and social changes in Italy in the post-war decades which informed the work of Fulci and others, providing context both for the rural setting of the film and the conventions of Italian cinema as it was designed to appeal to the audiences of these provincial cinemas where only half the entertainment was on the screen.
Most interesting is the complete recording of a 1988 audio interview with Lucio Fulci himself discussing his life and work, conversational, engaging and honest and expressing his perhaps anticipated love of H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe alongside a somewhat more surprising affection for House II: The Second Story and Romancing the Stone.
Talking specifically of Don’t Torture a Duckling, a title which does make sense in the context of the film, Lulci explains that his intention was to make a giallo in a rural working class setting to examine the prejudices and hypocrisies of such, and while that country setting imbues a meandering quality to the narrative rather than strong pacing, the reveal of the killer as much serendipity as investigation, further viewings reveal the many clues Fulci gleefully scattered throughout the film.