Among many Fulci's exceptional flicks, there are maybe three or four, considered his masterpieces. Although nobody will settle on the ultimate shortlist, almost everybody will point to "Don't Torture a Duckling" as his most important film! Whatever you'll put below is all right, providing this gem will make a top of the podium. I usually pair it with "One On The Top Of The Other" (1969), which is another overlooked nugget from maestro's ouevre, except the latter one loses in favour of "Don't Torture a Duckling" due to deus ex machina ending and extra narrative filling, overlaying the final scenes. Other than that, it's almost as yummy as the winner!
Italians often like to juxtapose "Don't Torture a Duckling" to Fellini's "Amarcord" (1973) on a level of playing with a picture of local community, strongly embedded in traditional culture. Certainly, these movies have come from different reigns and schools, but they've been fruits of the same period and offered akin takes on microcosm of social relations in Italy. Then, Fulci's work definitely retains occult thriller's quality, while Fellini's piece chooses to be more of a comedy-drama, not saying their aspirations and markets are totally different. Still, Fulci blew up a giallo drawer into space with his ideas, crossing the lines drawn by Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento and himself. What he landed with, was a movie undeniably guided by artistic sense of beauty and cinematic debauchery, underpinned by quaint scenes of sheer brutality and perverse comments on Italian traditionalism, which is why it should be considered a league jumper in my opinion.
This wasn't just another sleazy "whodunit", but skilful application of an outstanding talent to a genre movie. Fulci's work was a milestone and till this day easily beats other giallo flicks. "Don't Torture a Duckling" steps over Bava's "Blood & Black Lace" (1964) or "Bay Of Blood" (1971), Argento's "Four Flies On a Grey Velvet" (1972), "Deep Red" (1974) and "Suspiria" (1976) and other good gialli like "Death Laid An Egg" (1968), "Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key" (1972), "Black Belly Of The Tarantula" (1971) or Fulci's own genre works like "Lizard In Woman's Skin" (1971), "Black Cat" (1981) or "New York Ripper" (1982). Whereas all mentioned above play within giallo net, Fulci's picture breaks away from it's fixed limitations, offering instead a way of opening to a larger perspective, which in this case has become a real swansong.
Obviously, Fulci still welcomes the occult thriller as his chosen movie convention, but he goes after bigger butterflies now by playing up the expectations, squeezing the last drop of sweat from the cast, taking long, artistic shots, which are no longer simple tools of enclosing a few characters tangled in their own intrigue, but serve to outline them as living elements of a bigger community, pictured with all raving density. As none other picture, "Don't Torture a Duckling" is carried by maestro's unequivocal poetics – director carefully plays out both acts, into which the film is divided, saturating them with doubts, superstition, ethical choices and red herrings on the top. Significantly it's here, where Fulci starts to develop his trademark style, distinguished by deep camera movements, frog and half-frog perspective frames – applied en masse to his later slasher, gore & occult horrors.
The movie was shot around Sant'Angelo and Manziano in Puglia (deep south of Italy) making use of stunning, natural backdrop of the area. In fact, profound light of Italian summer is visible everywhere here, making "Don't Torture a Duckling" an exceptional picture from the side of set production and photography. Moreover, it was Fulci's first movie digging deeply into traditional, Italian folk culture – blowing these themes to a quasi epic, mythical dimension – which has been kind of a higher call ground for most of the Italian directors. On the top, the story seems inspired at large by anthropological analysis of Southern culture, ambitiously capturing pagan beliefs and fears of the local community within screenplay.
As young boys from the local town die one by one, slaughtered by mysterious, psychotic maniac, a police hunt begins, quickly returning first results, which are unfortunately of a hesitatant nature. Although they all provide precious insight into the state of mental affairs of the local community, they remain worthless in terms of pinpointing the killer. As investigation moves forward, a journalist (Tomas Milian) arrives to town, tempted by a great story. He soon joins forces with one of the local outsiders – a gorgeous daughter (Barbara Bouchet) of a famous Italian industrialist, who's been forced to inhabit a countryside exile in order not to bring more exposure to the pending corruption affair of her father. In the meantime a local witch – Maciara (Florinda Bolkan) falls under suspicion taking the blame, but easily gets off the hook after being caught in crossfire of interrogation and confessing all she's been doing... were black magic rituals!
Despite being innocent, she gets promptly executed by local peasants, who still consider her guilty by default. The famous scene of her death in the cemetery is filled with deep passion and cruelty, but counterweighted by Fulci's satirical agenda, who used 60's soul and Italian pop music in the background achieving a tragicomical effect. Before she dies on the side of the road, we're being loaded with subtle, social commentary on the nature of modern, Italian society. That scene doesn't come alone in this showcase of genre's possibilities, but stays in your mind for long. While plot moves ahead and more red herrings die, the only possible killer comes forward. The finale uncovers not only the source of his psychosis, but also gives an opportunity for Fulci to strike another, electrifying social critique.
Although amazing in terms of artistic vision, "Don't Torure a Duckling" didn't have an easy life after the premiere. Fulci has been tried by the court, accused of exposing the child to Barbara Bouchet's nudity on the set. He had to prove, he was shooting the scene with her naked body from different angles, which technically let him do it with both actors playing it separately! Catholic church didn't like the movie either, disputing it's anti-religious allusions and alleged, occult agenda. Then came the usual onslaught after Fulci's love for on-screen violence, this time concerning exploitation of violence against minors. The fallout affected European distribution of the movie, making it a rather smalltime player, which got shelved shortly. As in the USA it was released for the first time in 1999 - although English audio was ready in 1972 - only recently it had a real chance to finally reach the public. Nevertheless, the revival of film's popularity confirmed it's status and brought it back to a critical acclaim, for which it fully deserves!