Alberto de Mendoza
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Perversion Story / Don't Torture a Duckling July 3, 2018
typically did good business.
Nineteen-sixty-nine, however, marked a change in direction for the filmmaker. That year, he co-devised the story for Double Face, a libidinous thriller directed by the prolific Riccardo Freda. Then he co-wrote and helmed the Vertigo (1958)-inspired Perversion Story (also known as One on Top of the Other), a stylized, double-cross-heavy pulp confection aesthetically in sync with the American erotic thrillers of the 1990s.
Because Perversion Story is essentially a soft-pedaled second cousin of the films Fulci would come to be known for, it is rarely looked at as a breakthrough. It is often considered an early example of the giallo style of filmmaking he would later polish with films like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and The Psychic (1977). But I find this characterization slightly off. Perversion Story is not really a giallo feature — more an amatory whodunit buttressed by its eye-catching style — and because it certainly was a breakthrough.
What was originally supposed to be a dabbling in an unfamiliar genre turned out to be a catalyst for a renewed, more inventive output. While Fulci would continue putting out lighthearted fare post-Perversion Story, erratic thrillers and increasingly violent tales of the macabre would slowly start to overwhelm his oeuvre. Without Perversion Story, one wonders if his filmography might have unfolded differently.
Yet in comparison to his more confidently atmospheric works — especially his 1980 near-masterwork City of the Living Dead — Perversion Story is not necessarily a high point in his career. While stylish and intriguingly plotted, it never quite sells as the parameter-pushing, hyper-sexualized, twist-heavy mystery it wants to be. But you can see how it would affect the way Fulci made movies afterward, and that makes it worth a look, at least if you’re familiar with the more celebrated facets of his body of work.
In the film, itself something of a Brian De Palma-esque intrigue-fest, Jean Sorel stars as George, a telegenic doctor married to the beady-eyed, asthmatic Susan (Marisa Mell). On the down low, George is having an affair with Jane (Elsa Martinelli), a lithe photographer’s (Jean Sobieski) assistant, and is considering leaving his wife for her. This consideration, however, doesn’t last long: Susan dies of an asthma attack while George and Jane are on a clandestine romantic getaway shortly after the film opens.
Romantic bliss should be in the cards. But then an anonymous tip-off leads George to a strip club where a burlesque artist, Monica (also played by Mell), works. Two things are evident: this woman looks exactly like Susan — just blonde and green-eyed — and nothing, probably, is what it seems.
This all leads to a murder plot I’d be smart to avoid getting into. Simply keep Vertigo in mind as you watch and the movie will be more rewarding the more convoluted it becomes.
Or not, since Fulci, artistically savvy as he is, is as much analogous to Hitchcock as Guy Ritchie is to Quentin Tarantino. (Though even that comparison is pushing it.) A lot of the same goods are offered, but ever-present inferiority reigns to a point where any sort of misfire is amplified.
And Perversion Story, which is saddled with wooden dialogue further weighed down by egregious dubbing, has plenty of them. Whether it be the boringly expositional way all the twists are delivered, or the way the ending stinks of running out of money and figuring something out at the last minute, Perversion Story knows plenty about intending one thing but delivering another.
But it’s incorrigibly entertaining all the same — the sort of ultra-stylish semi-trash that wins at the end of the day both because it is so often artistically inspired and because whatever inanities it contains are sort of endearing. And you can never go wrong when your femme fatale’s a minx like Mell.
ALTHOUGH THE ITALIAN director Lucio Fulci is generally most associated with giallo or effects-heavy ventures into gore-centric filmmaking, he’d been making movies for nearly two decades before anyone ever thought to give him the “godfather of gore” honorific. After making his directing debut, in 1950, with the French-Italian period melodrama The Last Days of Pompeii, Fulci’s filmography would mostly be characterized by comedies, musicarellos, and Westerns. He was a dependable director-for-hire — a master concocter of escapist, crowd-pleasing delicacies that
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
Akin to Fulci’s later gore-heavy works, Don’t Torture a Duckling is never quite enjoyable — just a corrupted piece of horror pop art so bloodied and morally dubious we’d almost like to wash it off. But it’s admirably shot and written all the same, and feels like a nexus: It’s something of a halfway point between Fulci the giallist and Fulci the gorehound.
In the movie, elementary-aged boys are being targeted by a serial killer whose reason for murder seems embedded in trying to, in their mind, preserve innocence. This, of course, results in much brouhaha in the town as the murders grow and get nastier. A police investigation naturally ensues. But it isn’t that that we’re most concerned with — we’re more into the makeshift snooping done by the scraggly newspaperman Andrea (Tomas Milian) and the sybaritic brunette Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet).
In lieu of its twists and hearty helpings of red herring-baiting actions, what’s compelling about Don’t Torture a Duckling doesn't exactly have to do with its focal murder mystery. It’s its disdain for small-town vapidity that gives it flavor. Patrizia has found herself labeled the drug-addicted town tramp just because she’s sexually liberated and likes to smoke weed from time to time. People who don’t easily fit within the status quo — like the traumatized gypsy Magiara (Florinda Bolkan) — are accused of the murders mostly because they’re outliers. People act irrationally and violently, often in groups, when they’re wont to think that a certain someone is responsible for the killings. Religious figures aren’t to be trusted; local leaders are more self-serving than authentically community-oriented.
Don't Torture a Duckling, then, is a cynical social commentary made graver because of its storyline: Since little boys are the ones being targeted, there’s an additional sense of loss that enables the movie to haunt rather than trashily thrill in the ways Fulci’s other movies so frequently have.
That said, Fulci’s shortcomings as a writer sometimes outweigh his power as a director. While he’s an excellent stylist, and is adept when it comes to staging murder sequences, both movies are undercut by the rather facile natures of their screenplays. Perversion Story is dependent on its high-powered, almost tiered storyline to prove itself effective. Yet it doesn’t go over: Fulci is more confident in devising sounds and textures than he is in carefully divulging the inner workings of a harebrained scheme. Don’t Torture a Duckling is supposed to be as much a social commentary as a deeply pessimistic horror movie, but really only works as the latter. Still, these films make for good-enough reasons to argue for Fulci’s special brand of genius. The “genius” title might be pushing it, though. Settling for "innovator" might be more germane.
Perversion Story: B-
Don't Torture a Duckling: B-
AFTER THE SUCCESSFUL release of Perversion Story, Fulci kicked his newfound proclivities for horror up a couple notches, doubling down with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a coruscating, pitch-perfectly surrealist pairing of giallo and Fulci’s mounting interest in gore; Don’t Torture a Duckling, in contrast, is a dirtied, pitch-black dark comedy that plants giallo set pieces in a secluded, Italian town. Small minds, perverse sexuality, and hypocritical religious ideologies are widespread. It’s hell on Earth if there ever was one.