page contents

FILMFinding the Sacred Among the ProfaneDon’t Torture a Duckling (1972)Sean Woodard

Image © Medusa Produzione

Image © Medusa Produzione

Horror represents the ripest genre to provide commentary on contemporary issues. Not only do horror films appeal to our basest emotions, they are the most malleable in terms of form and content. Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre that the three levels of Horror—revulsion, horror, and terror—not only conjure up a wide range of emotions in viewers, but also allow themes to grow out of the narrative—including those that wrestle with spirituality, faith, and morality. This column will explore how faith and religion are represented in particular staples of the horror genre. 

Lucio Fulci, affectionately known among his fans as the “Italian Godfather of Gore,” directed a wide array of genre films including spaghetti westerns and comedies, but is most remembered for his Euro Horror films. While most casual fans may recognize him as the director of Zombie 2 (1979)—a pseudo-sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)—and The Beyond (1981), Fulci also contributed some solid entries in the 1970s to the giallo genre, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972).

For those who are unfamiliar with the giallo, it is an Italian film genre combining mystery and horror elements, often featuring grisly murder set pieces, dark themes, and tinges of eroticism. Two recurring tropes include a black-gloved killer and amateur detectives trying to solve a murder. Prominent titles include Blood and Black Lace (1964) by Mario Bava, Deep Red (1975) by Dario Argento, and Torso (1973) by Sergio Martino. For a more formal introduction to giallo cinema, I refer you to Drunk Monkeys’ interview with Mikel J. Koven.

Don’t Torture a Duckling is acknowledged by many critics, scholars, and fans as one of Fulci’s masterpieces. Controversial upon release, the film was blacklisted in Europe and never received a U.S. theatrical release due to extreme violence as well as a plotline and themes that criticize the Catholic Church.

In a 1982 interview with Starburst Magazine, Fulci commented on his relationship with Catholicism:

"I think each man chooses his own inner hell, corresponding to his hidden vices. So I am not afraid of Hell, since Hell is already in us. Curiously enough, I can’t image a Paradise exists, though I am a Catholic—but perhaps God has left me?—yet I have often envisaged Hell, since we live in a society where only Hell can be perceived. Finally, I realize that Paradise is indescribable. Imagination is much stronger when it is pressed by the terrors of Hell. . . . I have realized that God is a God of suffering. I envy atheists; they don’t have all these difficulties.”

The scope of this month’s column is not to argue Fulci’s opinions on Catholicism, but rather to examine how these themes work in the context of Don’t Torture a Duckling and the time in which it was made. Please keep in mind that the following will contain spoilers, including the identity of the serial child killer, given how the themes of sin, sexuality, superstition and modernity inform the plot.

At the start of the film a highway divides a rural Italian countryside. The camera pans until we see a woman named Maciara (Florinda Bolkan) digging into the earth and removing bones from a makeshift grave. Soon after we are introduced to a boy named Tonino who gets pleasure from torturing a lizard with a slingshot. The setting is further cemented as establishing shots capture a remote Italian village with one modern residence before the camera showcases the interior of a Catholic church. The space is dimly lit by candles and from the light which comes through the main entrance. Children kneel in pews or at the communion rail to pray. In a profile shot of a group of boys, a skeletal figure in a monk’s robe with a rosary dangling from its clasped hands looms in the background.

Two pre-teen boys named Michele and Bruno leave the church to go meet up with Tonino. On the way they smoke cigarettes, imitating the characteristics they believe constitute what it means to be grown up. Once they find Tonino, they make fun of a local village man named Giuseppe for peeping on a pair of prostitutes and their clients. Following this at an unknown location, a hand inserts pins into three voodoo dolls. We hear the sound of three children in pain and then see flashes of the three boys’ faces.

In these first ten minutes, the main themes are introduced. The highway and the ’70s-style house suggest how the modern world is intruding upon a town miles away from any metropolitan area. The boys’ penchant for mischief shows how their budding sexualities and actions reflect sins of which the Church would disapprove. With the local church’s low lighting, claustrophobic space, and spectral figure near the altar, Fulci imbues the Catholic Church with an oppressive atmosphere. Lastly, the woman digging up the bones of a dead infant and the voodoo dolls introduce a sense of superstition that conflicts with the village population’s Catholic sensibilities.

The film continues to follow Michele to the modern house, where his mother serves the wealthy family. She makes him carry a tray upstairs. He enters a room to find its tenant Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) reclining nude. She immediately grasps onto the boy’s shyness and arousal and seductively toys with him. Their moment is cut short by the voice of Michele’s mother calling for his assistance. If the scene with the prostitutes didn’t already conflict with the Church’s views on sexuality, this tense and occasionally humorous scene challenges that view as Michele is enticed by Patrizia’s beauty.

As the film progresses, all three boys are murdered by an unknown figure. When police swarm the area, a city reporter named Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) arrives in town to initially get a story, but becomes embroiled in the mystery. One of the people he speaks to is the village priest, Alberto Avallone (Marc Porel), who knew all the boys well.

Martelli first sees Father Avallone when the body of Bruno is found; he  approaches the crime scene with a group of children following him, as a shepherd leads his flock. He looks clean cut, intelligent, and respectable. He crouches over the body and makes the sign of the cross over it.

After Tonino’s body is found drowned in a fountain, Martelli converses with Father Avallone.

Father Avallone states, “People aren’t worried much about their immortal souls.”

He explains how people see terrible things on the television or read about them in the paper. He views liberalism as the culprit for new occasions to sin, even going so far as to prevent certain magazines from being sold by the news vendor. During their talk, they run into Patrizia, who is a stranger to most of the residents. Word goes that her father was born here, made a lot of money in Milan, and built the house nearby. She’s staying here because of her history of drug abuse in the city. Because of these things, she’s viewed with suspicion.

Patrizia is seen as representing that type of outside influence, the sense of liberalism Father Avallone mentions. She’s beautiful, has questionable morals, and a stranger.

If something is unknown to the townspeople, they become wary of it. The same could be said of Maciara, a woman who locals dub “a witch.” Her use of voodoo dolls and black magic is something not to be trusted, even feared. It is seen as a product of the devil.

At one point she is apprehended and questioned by the police. She admits she killed the boys, but not by strangulation. She states it was their fate to die, that the black magic she performed marked them for death and the means in which they met death are immaterial. Everyone in the room views her statement as fanatical, especially when she begins raving. She then foams at the mouth and enters a seizure-like state.

Once Maciara is released by the police, some men from the village lynch her because they believe she killed the boys. In a horrifying scene, she’s beaten with chains and other instruments. But the men get no pleasure from this; when the camera shows their faces, their expressions remain grim. There’s even a hint of guilt that appears in their eyes.

All these instances of death and the reasons that lead up to them serve as a platform to discuss morality and sin in the context of the Catholic Church at the time. Don’t Torture a Duckling contains many red herrings, so when the killer is revealed to be Father Avallone, the result is shocking. But his reasoning for committing the murders is more bizarre.

As he falls to his death during the finale, his motive is heard via voiceover:

"They grow up. They feel the stirrings of the flesh and fall into the arms of sin. Sin that God easily forgives, yes. But what of tomorrow? What sordid acts will they commit? What sins will they enact when they no longer come to confession? Then they will really be dead. Dead forever. For all eternity. They are my brothers. And I love them. My children, I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Many film journalists as well as academics like Mikel J. Koven have contributed to the conversation on the implications of the priest’s twisted logic for killing the children.

As a community leader and representative of the Catholic Church, Father Avallone has developed trust among others. This makes him less likely a suspect. In addition, he describes the closeness he feels with the children of the village as a brotherly bond. Through his capacity as a priest, it is his responsibility to not only look after them physically but spiritually as well.

This harkens back to Avallone’s earlier conversation with Martelli, when he admits that people do not diligently look after their immortal souls and ensure that they live a righteous life. He is conflicted with the fear of seeing the children damned to Hell and mentally develops a sort of loophole to ensure the purity of their souls. By murdering the children before they can commit additional mortal sins and bestowing absolution upon them following their death, Avallone believes that they will enter Heaven. But even the “best intentions” can inform madness.

But what might be causing this proclivity to sin? In Avallone’s mind, it is modernity intruding upon the town—this sense of liberalism that is present in television and magazines that depicts loose morals and scandal. With this in mind, it makes sense why he tries to limit what publications the townspeople view since it might upset the quiet, reserved way of life and provide near occasions to sin. As previously mentioned, Patrizia represents that outside world with her beauty, her sports car and house, as well as her history of drug use.

Another important aspect regards the representations and actions of priests in the presence of children. With the unfortunate Catholic Church’s history of covering up sexual abuse of children, it wouldn’t be surprising for viewers of Don’t Torture a Duckling to assume that there was some paedophilia aspect that informed Father Avallone’s motives. Despite how prominent such an assumption has been in the collective public consciousness, Fulci actually subverts this stereotype by having police inspectors note throughout the film that none of the dead boys showed no signs of having been molested by the murderer Whether Fulci did this as a way to divert audience suspicions toward Avallone until the film’s conclusion or for other reasons is up for debate.

The climatic scene where Martelli confronts Avallone appears to mix irony and horror with a sick sense of comeuppance as the audience watches how Avallone’s body—particularly his face—gets mutilated along the cliff as he falls to his death.

For a person such as Father Avallone to physically represent the face of the Catholic Church, to have his face torn to shreds adds insult to injury—no pun intended. Not only is Avallone’s outward societal mask stripped when Martelli and Patrizia realize that he’s the murderer, but also his connection and representation of the church are torn away like bits of flesh from his face.

As a whole Fulci’s film represents one of the finest examples of the giallo genre. It’s tight storyline and consistent themes help elevate it above others that were churned out during the genre’s 1970s heyday. Whether as an effective murder mystery or a critique on religion, Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling remains a compelling and thought-provoking rumination on morality and sin.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University.  Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Found Polaroids, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is a journalist for Addiction Now and serves on the Film Department for Drunk Monkeys. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.