We now welcome a new director to the Summer of Blood, though not to the site: Mr. Lucio Fulci, whose last appearance in these pages was in regard to a pair of movies he made at either end of the great Italian zombie boom. One of these, Zombi 2, is quite probably the best Italian gutmuncher ever produced, and the other, Zombi 3 is not at all the "worst" film of its field, though this say much more about the general quality of the Italian zombie film than the quality of Zombi 3 itself, for it is wickedly awful.

This unmatched set I mention because it nicely provides a small-scale version of Fulci's entire career: some of the best Italian trashy flicks of the 1960s and 1970s mingle on his CV with some of the most amateurish, ill-made and hackish of the 1980s. This has largely left Fulci with a reputation as a mediocre, even disposable director, not as terror-inspiring as Bruno Mattei or Joe D'Amato perhaps, but at the same time not in the same sport, let alone the same ballpark, as Mario Bava. I don't care much for that reputation, but it's more than I can do as just one man to redeem the fella who directed Demonia and The Ghosts of Sodom.

But oh! Fulci is certainly a fascinating character and worthy of study. In addition to boasting one of the most uneven careers in cinema history, he had one of the most varied: at different times in the three decades he was active, he made gory horror films, atmospheric mysteries, sex comedies, nihilistic Westerns, spy spoofs, and two films based on Jack London's White Fang. Unlike some directors who combine this kind of fluctuating quality with a wide variety of genres, there's no consistent link between the type of movie he was making with how well it was going to turn out: when he was on, he was on no matter what, which is why he could produce in the span of hardly 18 months from 1971-'72 three very different films, and all of them pretty much great: a hallucinogenic giallo, a whip-smart political satire/sex farce, and in something of a combination of the two, a satiric giallo.

I also happen to think that third of these, the marvelously-titled Don't Torture a Duckling, is potentially the best film of his career. It's also, possibly the smartest giallo I've ever seen, although "smartest" is maybe a misleading word. It's not intelligent in the manner of Twitch of the Death Nerve, with an immaculately constructed murder mystery screenplay; nor is it like Deep Red, brilliant because of how the precision of each shot and note of the score builds open everything preceding to create an overwhelming final experience. It is "smart" in the much simpler sense that it has a certain thoughtfulness to it wholly lacking from the genre otherwise: it is a giallo wherein the blood and murder as used as metaphors to further the film's inquiry into close-mindedness and provincialism, and to cast aspersions on the gullibility of Italian spirituality. Dario Argento might have been a damned smart filmmaker, but you can't accuse him of going around and making arguments about religion so controversial that they got any of his films banned on moral grounds.

Set in a fictional country town named Accendura, Don't Torture a Duckling opens with one of those images that announces with trumpets and a parade that fucked-up shit is coming down the pike: a dusky-skinned woman with wide eyes and wild hair (Florinda Bolkan) is scratching in the dirt with her bare hands, on a hill far above the small village, close to the highway. She digs up what is unmistakably the skeleton of a human infant, and... scene. The action then shifts, jarringly but not unpleasantly so, to a scene much more familiar from Italian movies set in the countryside: a trio of young boys (the actors are uncredited) goofing around outside, terrorising animals and tormenting the local idiot, Giuseppe (Vito Passeri), who was busy spying on a couple of prostitutes and their johns in the old abandoned house in the woods. It's a snapshot of the lazily cruel life of a rural Italian child that feels not entirely unlike a low-budget version of Amarcord, which can of course only mean that Federico Fellini stole all of his ideas from a Fulci picture.

At any rate, the turn that Duckling takes in the first couple of scenes after that most unsettling opening indicate, rather strongly, that we're in uncharted waters, for a giallo. And it's in those waters that we'll stay for the rest of the movie, for even though the plot will quickly turn into a whodunnit, it is always tied intimately to Accendura and its people: the story is about the revelation of a certain kind of rural character as much as it is about the uncovering of a mystery. (In which respect it's also a bit reminiscent of Amarcord, and while I don't honestly think that Fellini was cribbing from a giallo, it's curious anyway that a genre film and one of the country's few bona-fide art-house masterpieces from the 1970s should feel similar in so many ways).

What happens, is that the three boys spying on Giuseppe are murdered one at a time. The first of these looks like a simple kidnapping case, and the man asking for the ransom turns out to be Giuseppe himself - but when he's found out, he insists that when he found the boy's body, already dead. We in the audience have good reason to agree with Giuseppe, for we've seen the mud-encrusted figure fashioning small dolls in some black magic ritual, driving pins into the dolls' throats that correspond rather uncannily to the lesions on the boys' throats where they were strangled to death.

As Accendura is gripped by what appears to be a full-on killing spree, a media circus settles on the town's quiet streets, and the reporter we'll be following is one Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian), from some big city paper. In fine giallo tradition, it falls upon this dogged amateur to notice all the theoretical holes that the cops won't pay any attention to, and to enlist as his assistant in amateur detecting the town's requisite outsider, the wealthy Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a sexually open young woman who hates Accendura's stuck-in-time conservatism - and Accendura is happy to return the feeling. Unluckily for Martelli, it quickly becomes obvious that Patrizia is one of the best suspects in the killings, though even he can't know to what degree, not being privy to our knowledge that her sexual teasing extended even to 12-year-old Bruno, the first victim. Also in Martelli's camp is the local priest, Don Alberto (Marc Porel), whose widowed mother (Irene Papas) and mentally under-developed kid sister help him keep open a sort of boys' town for all the local youths to have fun without danger; he's taking the murders especially hard, blaming the forces of secularism and liberalism for ruining the innocence of childhood.

Eventually, it comes out that the murders have been committed by Maciara, the crazy woman from the first scene, and the town's resident witch (or, at least, the lover of the resident male witch), using her little voodoo dolls. The cops can't quite hold somebody on the grounds of black magic, unfortunately, so out she goes from prison, and a few of the good local townsfolk capture her in a cemetery, beating her to death with chains and a big tree branch, and everything is happy ever after.

Except that Martelli, at least, realises that it's 1972, and witches don't actually exist, and the last act of Don't Torture a Duckling finds him exposing some inordinately nasty truths that make Accendura - which has been looking more and more petty, ignorant, and vicious with every passing moment, especially in the wake of Maciara's mob-rule execution - seem like the most lie-besotted backwater ever; yet it's far from clear that the problem is one of provincialism or religion or superstition. Even Martelli, in the end, is shown to be something else than we'd been expecting him to be all along. And if you can't trust a giallo protagonist to level with you, what can you trust?

There's quite a lot going on here: Fulci's righteous indignation at the overly credible national character of the Italians mixes with his desire to craft a really twisty mystery that, like Twitch of the Death Nerve, ends up making perfect sense at nearly every point, making for a perfectly entertaining movie that turns into one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing gialli ever, though to explain exactly why that's the case would mean revealing the killer's motives and therefore the killer. Let us just leave it thus: the murders are not just laid on top of a rural community that's been looking for an excuse to explode. Rather, the murders are committed because of the values of the community, growing out of it organically - and that is the most disturbing thing, that "traditional values" should be able to turn, with so little actual corruption, into a psychosis that tracks down and murders little boys.

Compared to this, the relatively common depiction of the Good People of the town as superstitious murderers who'd trap and torture a woman they think is a witch, is not much more than a palate-cleanser, there to make sure we haven't missed (as though it could possibly be missed) that this is a film about the evils of tradition. It's the local tradition of witchcraft (which is, oddly described as something that isn't usually seen as "evil" - the Church and the witches often work together) that lets the police believe that Maciara really could commit the crimes she's been accused of, which is seemingly why they let her go: not because the charges are unwarranted, but because they know the crowd will take care of things for them, and then the crime spree will be over. At all moments, the behavior of the Accendurans is hypocritical and small-minded in ways like this, and that is why death sits on the town like a carrion crow. But Fulci isn't stacking the deck, either: our "heroes" include a woman who stands naked in front of a kid and taunts him, and a man who hides evidence from the police for no reason that ever makes much sense.

Social commentary is one of the privileges of genre films, but it's still a bit surprising to see honest-to-God angry satire in one of them anyway, especially in a genre as specifically dedicated to style and imagery as the gialli. And Duckling is no less piercing for the passage of 37 years, nor for transplanting the viewer from Italy to contemporary America. Its assault on very basic human failings means that its perhaps the single most relevant of all Italian genre films to the modern viewer, and its for this reason that I think if I could pick one single film out of the entire corpus of Italian horror to sit someone down in front of and say, "Think you don't like this kind of movie? Try anyway", this would be the one.

True, it's not the most stylish of gialli, nor even of Fulci's movies - Zombi 2 is a far better example of the man at the full command of his abilities with the camera, and it boasts significantly better gore effects (the dummy at the end of Duckling is decidedly comic) - but it does have some very nice anamorphic photography by Sergio D'Offizi, who spent his entire career wallowing around in genre filth (including the infamous Cannibal Holocaust) despite a good eye for capturing the texture of landscapes, that serves Duckling particularly well; it is a film very much tied to its setting and place, and D'Offizi and Fulci's combined visual talents give Accendura a very real tactility that the film doesn't, perhaps, require, but which surely counts as a huge benefit anyway.

Despite that slight caveat, this is really top-notch filmmaking all the way down: a fine score (if not as iconic as anything in Argento's movies), much better acting than you'd ever expect from the genre, or even the industry - Barbara Bouchet has never been better than she is here - and Fulci brings the story to a boil so slowly that the viewer, like a frog in a pot of water, doesn't realise how dangerously hot things are getting until far too late to get out. That's not just good for fans of the thriller form, it's part of what makes the sociology work so well: by the time that Fulci's game is obvious, we're hooked, and even as the final strokes of the story turn to one of the most legitimately dark places that any giallo ever reached, we cannot bear to turn away. The crudity of the final moments of the film, cheap as hell and even funny, helps us to back out of that darkness enough that the film isn't hellishly depressing, but nothing can dull the savagery of Fulci's bite. This is a nasty-minded movie that earns every inch of its nastiness.

Body Count: Taking things down a step considerably from Twitch of the Death Nerve, we have but six deaths, only two of which are accompanied by much of any blood at all, and both of those looking rather entirely fake. There's also the bones of a long-dead human baby and a lizard that may or may not be killed on camera - so hard to tell, with these Italians.