Sometimes I like to imagine I have the kind of loyal readers who would hunt through my back catalogue like the kind of completist that, well, that I am. Although at this point I’m not entirely sure if you can find my pre-Sequart back catalogue, but if you had you might’ve come to the accurate conclusion that I quite like Giallo. Giallo is an Italian horror genre. The name is derived from the Italian word for yellow, which is a reference to yellow paperback novels dealing in lurid fictitious crimes.
There are a few things necessary for a film to qualify as a giallo movie. I’m going to rank them in order of importance.
1: Murders. It’s just not giallo if someone isn’t getting knocked off. The central premise is always someone’s killing people.
2: A mystery. Gotta figure out who that murdering so-and-so is. That being said it’s no guarantee that the mystery will actually hang together or be successful.
3: Gore. Not always necessary, but generally you have to actually see the murders in question. Which is why giallo killers almost always wear masks. The lurid novels that inspired the genre mean most of the films attempt a similarly lurid tone. These first three entries are the genre conventions that John Carpenter would mutate to create Halloween and invent the American slasher. Giallo films are almost always filled with blood and fake heads made from newsprint.
4: Tone. This is the least tangible characteristic of the genre, yet I seriously considered making it number one on this list. Giallo films tend to be very stylish, atmospheric things. They’re frequently filled with great music, heavy-handed cinematography, and other formalistic flairs. This tends to create an ornate but distant affect, and it’s very important to the genre.
5: Women. This ties into number three. The lurid adult tone of the genre means gore and occasional tame nudity abound. Adult in a “you can’t show this to kids way.”
That’s pretty much the gist of it, other than the obvious big one – it has to be Italian, being an Italian genre. Which brings us to Don’t Torture a Duckling. This is the Americanization of a title that referenced Donald Duck, a key piece of evidence in the film. However it was changed for obvious legal reasons when it was released overseas. The movie was directed by the magnificent Lucio Fulci. I reviewed his film The Beyond for my Halloween Binge last year. It was a great movie filled with beautiful gore, eerie zombies, and a nihilistic and Lovecraftian ending. Before that I’d seen his seminal film Zombi 2. Zombi 2 was an occult flavoured zombie film filled with tropical islands, stabbed eyes, undead conquistadors, and another phenomenal nihilistic ending. Don’t Torture a Duckling is an early Lucio Fulci film belonging to the giallo genre. It came out in 1972 and is considered one of the first Fulci films to feature gore, something the director would become known for later on in his career. Lucio Fulci is frequently known as “that guy who likes stabbing eyes onscreen” for a reason. Although more concise is his real nickname “the godfather of gore.” Fulci would go on to be charged for murdering dogs due to particularly vivid special effects in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Don’t Torture a Duckling was the first of his films to gain him any notoriety or negative attention. The grim gore in the film and the perceived anti-Catholic sentiments of the film garnered him a taste of the controversy that would reappear a few times throughout his career.
Lucio Fulci would eventually see his career fall apart after becoming horribly ill. He was hospitalized with hepatitis. After that, between the diabetes he suffered from and the loss of his screenwriting partner, Fulci’s career started to decline. After that he worked on a host of sub-par badly received projects. His health held him back and repeatedly forced him to rely on mediocre collaborators. His fans turned against his attempted comebacks. Then his wife committed suicide (she had inoperable cancer) and his daughter died in a car accident. He started to suffer from diabetes symptoms in his feet, a fact he hid so that he seemed like someone who could be safely hired. He began lending his name to movies he had no involvement with. He was bitter about the lack of appreciation for his films, especially when compared to a contemporary like Dario Argento. The two almost collaborated on a film, but Fulci’s health and Argento’s busy schedule held them back. Eventually Fulci died alone in a hotel room, possibly after deliberately failing to take his diabetes medication. Years later the filmmaker started to garner a following among horror and genre fans, although not much success in the mainstream. The closest to high profile success came from Tarantino, who cited him as an influence and brought The Beyond back to theatres.
As a brief aside, the film features a great soundtrack by Ritz Ortolani the Grammy award winning and Oscar-nominated musician (for Mondo Cane). His music was also used in Drive. Personally I knew him as the same Italian musician behind the soundtrack to Cannibal Holocaust. If you’re interested in that sort of thing Mondo sells a great vinyl copy of the soundtrack with art by comic artist Jock. The sticker on the disc even has a top down drawing of the film’s iconic impaled woman, so the spoke of your record player becomes the wooden pole.
Don’t Torture a Duckling pretty much starts at it’s seediest, with a series of shenanigans involving prostitutes, the mentally handicapped, and underage boys. Apparently the ingredients to a great Friday night in rural Italy. Some men go up to a remote shack in the mountains to, well, shack up with some local prostitutes. Some kids named Bruno, Michele, and Tonino and a handicapped man from the same village are well aware of this location and creep up to watch the proceedings. The kids catch the handicapped man and taunt him. Tonino then gets a scene where a nude sunbathing woman new to the village tries to seduce him, before they’re interrupted. It seems like a cruel mind game more than anything, but you can see what I mean about the seedy beginning. The plot kicks into gear when Bruno gets kidnapped. He goes missing and his family gets ransom calls. Eventually the police find Bruno dead and arrest the blackmailer, who’s the same simpleton from the film’s opening. However it becomes clear that the man found Bruno dead and decided to try to earn some money and bury the corpse. He’s not responsible for the murder.
The movie then moves into a proper giallo frame of mind, one rife with suspicious characters, misleads, and secrets. The newly arrived woman from before starts to seem increasingly suspicious. Her name is Patrizia, and she always seems reticent to reveal her whereabouts at any particular moment. Patrizia is played by Barbara Bouchet, who played Miss Moneypenny in the first Casino Royal film, appeared in Star Trek episodes, started her own production company, and played a character in Gangs of New York. Her character claims to be an ex-drug addict moved to the isolated town by her rich father. She begrudgingly explains where she is by saying she was driving around trying not to cave and buy marijuana. The movie introduces a suspicious local witch, and an old warlock. There’s a reporter dead set on solving the crimes. There’s a kindly local priest who seems committed to keeping the town’s children safe.
Of course more children start to turn up dead and asphyxiated. In the movie’s finest wrinkle the local witch actually turns herself in. The police arrest her and bring her in and interrogate her. She had a son, rumoured to be some sort of Devil Spawn, who was buried near a local hangout. When these hooligan-like kids started hanging out near the grave she swore revenge. She has motive, and she’s agreed to the crime. The problem arises when the police start questioning her about the methods of murder. She believes she’s killed the boys, but she believes she’s killed them with voodoo dolls. Clay dolls with pins in them are hardly incriminating evidence. Despite what the police would like to do they can’t hold her. However the town’s people are so superstitious that this doesn’t dissuade them from brutally lynching and killing the witch in a breathtakingly crafted scene. It’s in many ways the film’s most striking moment, watching a misguided but innocent woman getting beaten by ignorant villagers.
When Tonino gets killed, the film’s mystery kicks into high gear. Patrizia and the town’s reporter start working together in hopes of catching the vicious killer. They start to figure out the crime when they find a Donald Duck hat, hence the film’s Italian title. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a wonderfully dark cap to the film.