The Giallo Films of Lucio Fulci (Part 2)
KR: You can read Part 1 of David’s The Giallo Films Of Lucio Fulci HERE.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
And so we come to the seemingly ridiculously titled Don’t Torture a Duckling, and the first of Lucio Fulci’s great masterpieces. I’m gonna try to stay calm here, but this is one of my favourite films ever made, and sometimes I just can’t help myself.
After two swinging, psychedelic gialli about rich assholes, Fulci completely changed tack with Duckling (and yes, that title does make sense by the end. Well, sort of). Here we have that rarity, the rural giallo. Italian thrillers routinely take place among the wealthy. It’s one of the appeals of the genre. You get to watch insanely beautiful people strutting around their stunning art deco apartments in designer clothing, before getting their rich throats slit. What’s not to love?
Here, though, things are different. The film takes place in a mountain village. The people are poor and dress in ragged, filthy clothing. Some live in shacks and caves. It’s something you rarely see in a giallo, and Fulci doesn’t just use it as set dressing. The theme of the film concerns itself with urban vs rural, the rich vs the poor, science vs superstition, and the opening shot of the film perfectly encapsulates this; a gorgeous valley split down the middle by an endless man-made bridge.
It’s hard to discuss the themes of the film without spoiling the killer’s reveal, so let’s just say that there is no joy or happiness to be found in Fulci’s ultra-cynical worldview. It’s a film of deep loathing and disgust for the hypocrisy of certain institutions. There are no good people here. Even our lead, played by giallo favourite Barbara Bouchet, is a drug addict who flirts with young boys in scenes that are very uncomfortable to watch.
The chief of police, who becomes the audience’s main guide to the superstitious ways of the villagers, seems like the most reasonable character, but even he ends up sending a woman to her death by releasing her from prison into the arms of waiting vigilantes.
This is the scene that transforms Don’t Torture a Duckling from superb giallo to genuine masterpiece. Again, it’s difficult to discuss without spoiling things, but the murder of this character, ironically juxtaposed with a tender love ballad, is one of the tensest scenes I’ve ever watched. It ends with a heartbreaking moment in which the character lies dying by the side of the road while flocks of wealthy tourists simply drive by and ignore her the way the rich tend to do to poor people.
It’s bleak-as-hell, and couldn’t be further from the philandering playboys and high-class decadence of Fulci’s earlier gialli. In perhaps the film’s most shocking break with tradition, the murder victims of Duckling are children. The film opens with a character digging up the skeleton of a baby, and somehow things get darker from there.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is one of those happy instances where everyone in front of and behind the camera were operating at the top of their game. It’s a strong cast of Italian cult cinema regulars — Bouchet is radiant as usual, though portraying a damaged woman, while Florinda Bolkan returns in a role that is the polar opposite of her glamorous turn in Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.
Behind the camera, Riz Ortolani (billed in the credits as Ritz Ortolani) provides a suitably dark score. Those echoing strings are truly nightmare-inducing. Writer Gianfranco Clerici never once drops the ball, even during the lengthy interrogation scenes, which actually serve the narrative and drive the plot forward while keeping the viewer guessing. The star of the show, however, is Sergio D’Offizi, whose camerawork is stellar throughout. He perfectly nails the tone, capturing the grit and grime of the setting, using shaky hand-held shots when necessary. The murder beneath a huge outdoor crucifix in a thunderstorm is the highlight of his work. Oddly enough, the three men mentioned above would all go on to work on Ruggero Deodato’s jungle epic Cannibal Holocaust a few years later.
Anyway, I could go on, but there’s still another film to cover, so suffice to say, Don’t Torture a Duckling is an absolute must-see for Italian horror fans. How on Earth could Fulci follow this?
There’s only one way to find out. It’s time to visit…The Psychic.
The Psychic (1977)
Aka Seven Notes in Black
After Duckling, Fulci abandoned the giallo for a few years. The thriller fell out of vogue with the Italian public, replaced in their affections by the poliziotteschi (cop thriller). In the meantime, Fulci directed a couple of kids’ movies based on Jack London’s White Fang, and a surreal and brilliant western called Four of the Apocalypse.
Then, in 1977, he returned to the genre with the vaguely supernatural Seven Notes in Black, or The Psychic as it’s best known in English-speaking territories.
Oddly enough, the film begins with a near shot-for-shot redo of the climax of Don’t Torture a Duckling, just substituting in a different, though equally fake-looking dummy. It’s a brassy move, as the rest of the film foregoes the sort of violence Fulci had been building up to over the course of his previous gialli. In fact, the maestro is in rather subdued form here, though please don’t mistake that for criticism.
Indeed, The Psychic is a superb thriller. It concerns a young woman played by American actress Jennifer O’Neill who experiences a surreal vision of a past murder, and sets about trying to solve it to clear her husband’s name.
Though there are no black-gloved killers menacing scantily-clad lovelies in this film, what we get instead is a really fascinating mystery. Though the outcome is rarely in doubt, it’s great fun watching the pieces fall into place. It’s also a gorgeous film, wonderfully shot by Sergio Salvati, who would bring the crumbling beauty to Fulci’s later gothic gore-fests. Also along for the ride is the triple threat of Fabio Frizzi, Vince Tempera, and Franco Bixio supplying the exquisite score.
They had worked with Fulci on Four of the Apocalypse, and Frizzi would of course go on to work on most of Fulci’s best films. His soundtracks for the Zombie, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond are among the finest ever recorded.
I can understand why some people dislike the film. After the visual splendour and graphic excess of Fulci’s earlier giallo, The Psychic can sometimes feel more mainstream, as if that’s necessarily a bad thing. But that’s ignoring the weirdness of the visions, and the wonderful scene where O’Neill first visits the mysterious room and starts to understand what she saw. There’s also an investigative suspense sequence in the third act that is among the finest of Fulci’s career.
It would be five years before Fulci returned to the giallo. A lot would change between The Psychic and then. A hell of a lot.
And when he did return, it would be with the most divisive and controversial movie of his career.
I’m talking, of course, about the infamous New York Ripper, which we’ll cover next time in Part 3, alongside the goofball disco giallo Murder-rock.
KR: Part 3 of David’s The Giallo Films Of Lucio Fulci will be next month.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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A relentless folk-horror nightmare from the author of The Forgotten Island, Maggie’s Grave will disturb and shock in equal measure.
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Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
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Combining the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft with the grimy sensibilities of the Video Nasties, The Forgotten Island is an outrageous old-school horror novel packed with mayhem and violence.