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When it comes to Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, most people know his later work: the incredibly gory supernatural films that are usually gloomy but full of inventive and gruesome effects, films like Zombi 2 and The Beyond. But going further back in his filmography, we get what are easily the more interesting but just as scary entries. These are the gialli, the murder mystery thrillers that were all the rage in Europe in the ’70s.

Among these is Fulci’s hands-down best movie, and a scary as hell flick, Don’t Torture a Duckling, out soon on Blu-ray by Arrow Video.

(The below trailer is NSFW.)

The giallo was a very specific brand of Italian thriller, usually a very stylish and sexy affair, often concerning a black gloved, black hatted maniac stalking and killing glamorous women in big cities. (I’ve written about many, including Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?, and the progenitor, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace.) Don’t Torture a Duckling doesn’t fall into these giallo trappings much if at all, shifting the focus from the metropolitan European city to the Italian countryside, and the victims from nubile young women to adolescent boys. It’s a deeply troubling, effective, and oddly beautiful movie.

In a small Southern Italian town, a trio of adolescent boys get up to typical mischief, like smoking and swearing. They catch a local simpleton and peeping tom watching vacationing couples have sex, and they point and laugh at him. Elsewhere, a gypsy woman (Florinda Bolkan) engages in dark magic — digging up the bones of a dead infant and sticking pins in three dolls, clearly meant to represent the boys. One of the boys then goes missing and a media circus ensues, inviting investigative reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) to come all the way from Milan to cover it. His insights impress the police commissioner — the story’s main moral center — but the local police chief just thinks of Andrea as any other outsider, and therefore doesn’t trust him.

The simpleton is arrested for the boy’s murder once his body is found, but he protests his innocence, and the evidence tends to agree. Andrea investigates further. One of the people he encounters along the way, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), is the daughter of a wealthy businessman and is staying in town, in exile, following a drug scandal in Milan. When we first see her, she’s sunbathing totally nude, playfully seducing one of the other boys. But as the movie goes on, we learn that she’s playing into the image people have of her. Her style of dress and “modern” sensibilities make the townsfolk label her a trollop, another outsider not to be trusted. Andrea also meets the town’s young priest, Don Alberto (Marc Poreli), and his standoffish mother. Don Alberto runs a boys group at church, which the victim was a part of. Gradually, more of the boys end up dead, and the town becomes frantic looking for the truth, no matter how false their version of the truth ends up being.

There’s a constant sense of dour dread in the movie as the deaths of the boys pile up. They feel strangely inevitable as the theme of loss of innocence continues throughout. The boys were once totally innocent, in the simplest sense of the word, laughing and playing football. But as they grow up, they begin concerning themselves with more grown-up things, like sex, and therefore in the killer’s mind, they are tainted. At the same time, the small town is castigating and targeting any outsider as a possible suspect. “You’re not even from around here” is everyone’s┬ámentality outside of the police commissioner, and mob rule tends to show itself most during times of great strife.

The mysterious gypsy woman herself is soon suspected. When it’s revealed she has epilepsy — she has a full seizure in the police station — it’s decided that she has the devil inside her and therefore needs to be destroyed. In one of the movie’s most infamous scenes, the woman is stalked through the woods by a group of angry male villagers and made to suffer for her perceived evil and wrongdoing. Misunderstanding and a fear of the other is as much to blame for this horrific scene as it is for what ultimately happens to the boys.

Don’t Torture a Duckling, as your might have guessed, is not your typical giallo. It feels much more to me like Mystic River or a similar crime movie, but it veers definitively into horror in many instances, including every time a dead body is found. Instead of having the actor lying on the ground with fake blood or wounds, a dummy is used with a grotesque and usually obscured face. These moments are used for shock but not salaciously. All of the on-screen violence in the film is reserved for adults, and this movie marks Fulci’s grand entrance into using full-on gore, incredibly unsettling and effective here. The music by Riz Ortolani adds to this and is alternately like an idyllic Italian summer and a Friday the 13th movie.

In a film where no one is above suspicion, everyone is equally guilty. While we do learn the identity of the killer, and their motives are explained, there’s little sense of closure. This town, which shuns modernity and chooses to solve its problems its own way, will have to deal with being rocked by tragedy in so many ways. And to Fulci’s credit both as a director and a screenwriter, absolution doesn’t come in any form. He glorifies no behavior nor tolerates any closed-mindedness on the part of any character.

Don’t Torture a Duckling is not an easy or a particularly fun movie, but it’s an incredibly thoughtful, tough look at a very upsetting situation. Rarely have Italian horror movies gotten this real or as tragic, and it’s rightfully remembered as both Lucio Fulci’s best and one of the best in the genre. You can also see it looking better than it ever has in the upcoming Blu-ray release from Arrow video (which you can pre-order right here). It contains commentaries, interviews, and essays with several prominent film scholars about its impact and Fulci’s depiction of violence. As usual for Arrow, the extras are as engaging as the films.

With a movie like this, the more you can engage with it, the more rewarding it will be.

Images: Arrow Video/Medusa Produzione

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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