'Don't Torture a Duckling' opens with a striking shot of a multi-lane highway curving through hilly terrain, huge concrete stanchions rising from the valley floor. On a ridge overlooking the highway, Magiara (Florinda Balkan) - considered a witch by the good people of nearby township Accendura - scratches at the topsoil with gnarled hands, digging deeper, shifting lumps of dark earth. A child's skeleton is revealed. Modernity and ancient superstition; wide open vistas and hidden secrets. Lucio Fulci's classic 1972 giallo - arguably his most interesting work as a director - starts as it means to go on.
And the longer it goes on - Fulci plays much of the slender 102 minute running time slow burn - the darker it gets.
The next scene has three boys excitedly note the arrival, in a beat up old car, of two ladies of questionable virtue who promptly take a pair of rock ugly locals into a ramshackle lean-to for a bit of the old in-out in-out. Village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri) attempts a spot of voyeurism but is informed by one of the less-than-happy hookers that if he wants to watch he has to pay. Evidently Giuseppe's a bit strapped for cash so he goes scuttling round the other side to see if he can get another glimpse. It's here that the three boys disturb him, mocking him for a peeping tom. Which is rather hypocritical given their motives.
One of the boys, Michele, is next seen assisting his mother, maid to poor little rich girl Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) who is drying out from a drug problem at her millionaire father's ostentacious house on the outskirts of town. All '60s architecture and trendily sterile decor, it's a marked comparison to the clustered dwellings, narrow streets and poverty-striken lives that make up Accendura. The way Patrizia lives her life is in similarly pronounced contrast. When Michele is sent by his mother to take a drink up to Patrizia, he finds her naked on a tanning bed. Rather than throw on a robe or shoo him out, she delightedly teases the boy before perfunctorily dismissing him.
So far so exploitative (there is no further nudity in the film, though Bouchet's costumes emphasise how much of a tease her character is). But it's not just thrown in for the sake of it. Firstly, it mirrors the earlier scene (Michele and his cronies as voyeurs). Secondly, coupled with subsequent scenes where Patrizia interacts - sometimes provocatively, sometimes domineeringly - with local children, it marks her out as a suspect when the three boys, in very short order, turn up dead.
It's only the presence of a more distrusted, more reviled suspect - witch/madwoman/social pariah Magiara - that presumably keeps the townsfolk's vigilante attentions from Patrizia.
Fulci does a number of intriguing things with what could otherwise have been a fairly formulaic procedural in which suspicion shifts from one character to another like a game of pass-the-parcel. To begin with, he keeps the film free of a protagonist for almost the first hour. Patrizia is introduced very early on but is swiftly backgrounded, cropping up to make the occasional dubious night-time drive or find herself blithely floating around very close to the scene of the latest atrocity. Inscrutable journalist Martinelli (Tomas Milian) cables a few reports from the scene, rubs up the Police Commissioner (Virgilo Gazzalo) the wrong way and similarly isn't given much to do till way after the halfway mark. The Commissioner himself - a typical giallo authority figure: big on voicing self-evident gouts of exposition but fuck all use at actually solving the crime - gets a fair bit of screen time, as do the interchangeable local police under his command, but he's definitely not the hero type. Or even the anti-hero type. 'Don't Torture a Duckling' - its title a compromise from 'Don't Torture Donald Duck' (for some strange reason, the Disney corporation took offence), after the distinctive child's toy that provides a big final-reel clue - isn't big on heroes.
By dint of these depersonalisations, the town of Accendura emerges as the main character. And a pretty seedy character it is, cloaked hypocritically by its lip service to the Catholic church. Progressive priest Don Alberto (Marc Porel) reaches out to the Accendura's children, communicating via soccer instead of sermons, but the adults mumble their way through his services (and, in some of the most affecting scenes, funerals), bristling with barely concealed animosity towards Magiara and her sometime lover, hermit/mystic Francesco (Georges Wilson). The old ways - orthodox religion and witchcraft - infect the townspeople, bringing parochialism, mistrust and hatred of outsiders to the fore.
It's not till the last third - possibly as late as the last quarter - that Fulci settles on Patrizia and Martinelli as the main characters. By this time, Magiara's confession of black magic has been rubbished by the authorities who, in an edgy scene where the understanding remains unspoken, turn her loose to the less-than-tender mercies of the mob. The officer who gives the evidence which puts her elsewhere at the time of the first murder, is rebuked by his superior ("a little truth goes a long way in this town") in a shockingly brazen display of buck-passing.
Keeping that opening shot of the highway in the background except for one crucial scene (no spoilers, but you'll wince at the ignorance of the motorists) - and with a helicopter buzzing over an area of woodland patrolled by search parties the only other intrusion of the contemporary - Fulci taps into the wilderness, the rugged unforgiving mountainscape and the inextricable bonds of superstition and insularity that cultivate the dark hearts of Accendura's denizens. Sergio d'Offizi's masterful widescreen cinematography fully exploits the uneven steps and narrow streets of the town, as well as the crumbling cemetery and vertiginous hill paths outside of it; Riz Ortolani's score segues from lilting to perky to downright fucking scary, a crashing motif at the most brutal moments reminiscent of Goblin's work for Argento; and Fulci tops his previous giallo outing, the disorientingly brilliant 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin', keeping the tension at a steady simmer before ramping up the heat and steering the denouement into the finally revealed villain's heart of darkness.