This tasty Italian feast has been on the Zombie Club menu for a great many months. The tradition of the 'so bad it's good' film choice in recent times has gained (worrying?) momentum, so much so that we really have to think twice about suggesting watching films that are actually any good in the dull conventional sense. That's because myself and Rawshark worry that Jim will get bored with anything that's not directed by Bruno Mattei, or some other incompetent Italian. Having said that, no one enjoys the work of inept Italians as much as myself. Except Jim of course.
However, having recently procured Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling on Anchor Bay DVD to replace my crappy VHS copy, it was crystal clear that, as neither Jim or Rawshark had seen it, this was a necessity for the ZC Giallo night. A month or two before I got my paws on Lucio's Duckling, I thought it was time to see Argento's Opera, except that since it was delivered it hasn't managed to hack it's way out of the shrink-wrap - until tonight. And so a Giallo marriage took place. One from the reputed Master of the Italian Murder Mystery that none of us had seen, and a favourite of mine from a director for hire, dipping his toe into yet another genre. And thank Christ he did.
Brought to you by the Italian National Opera in association with the Society for the Protection of Homicidal Rural Priests.
Plot An obsessive, crazed killer stalks and torments a young operetta.
Zomblee There's no denying it, folks - Argento has the eye. This film looks absolutely stunning. When it comes to filming staged productions (like, say, an opera), the director is given that extra bit of legroom for style, something that Argento was probably more than aware of, what with his reputation for visual excess.
When an accident prevents opera singer Mara Jackova from performing Verdi's Macbeth, her understudy - Betty ("Betty?!") - gets the part. But Betty has a secret admirer. And a rather nasty one at that. The skiing masked-killer psychologically tortures her by pinning her eyes open and slaying people she knows in front of her. This throws the jinxed production into chaos while the director devises an ingenious method of identifying the mysterious killer.
You normally know what you're getting with an Argento; bad acting (or maybe that should be bad direction of actors), awful post-production sound-synching that makes everyone in the cast sound like complete fools, and a murder mystery whodunit scenario, all counter pointed by his undeniable skill in construction of ultra-stylish human executions. And that's what we get here. Expected flaws aside, this film was looking like a real winner until something truly terrible happened.
If you're familiar with Phenomena (AKA Creepers) you'll know that in the 80's, Argento had an unfortunate tendency to use heavy metal on the soundtrack. And that's exactly what he does here. During the murder scenes. Spoiling the murder scenes. The film is based around an opera – would it not have made more sense to use the opera music to accompany the wonderful set pieces?
That is my main problem with Opera. Other imperfections are expected with Argento and the film has enough else going for it to make it worth watching once. The character of Betty provoked some of the usual intellectual Zombie Club banter. When we are informed she's frigid, Rawshark asked "What word came first, refrigerator or frigid?", while Jim really enjoyed the latter part of the movie - "I like the sweat pouring off her!"
Ultimately though, this is proof that using bad metal really can spoil an otherwise ok horror film. I missed the last three minutes, which apparently featured a lizard.
"It's not true you're frigid, you're a bitch in heat!"
Jim Yes it did. The ending of this film escapes into the alpine hills (Blade Runner stylee) and after all the plot stuff has been resolved the surviving character has a brief conversation with a lizard. Then the film ends. Weird. What's weirder still though is the fact that tonight's second movie opens with some kid on an alpine road killing a lizard with the catapult. Is it the same lizard? Man, it must be. But don't ask Zomblee about it because he spent both lizard sequences in the kitchen cooking burgers for me and Rawshark. And they were very nice too although the baps were too big for the short but fat home made burgers Zomblee had rustled up earlier.
Anyway Opera; what's it all about then? Well unsurprisingly it's about an Opera, or rather it's about a giallo set around an opera, and once you understand that giallo is Italian for "murder mystery with a bit of gore" then that pretty much explains everything, although the twist of Betty being forced to watch each murder adds a suitably macabre twist to the proceedings. First to go is an usher, then Betty's stage hand boyfriend who ("looks like Damien's cousin in Omen II grown up" – Zomblee), followed by her neurotic dressmaker Julia, which was a crying a she was tonnes of fun while alive.
After that things get a little surreal. The inconsistently weird dubbing is part to blame ("It's a shame about the dubbing, it's so unexpressionless..." – Rawshark) as is a bizarre subplot involving the killer culling crows ("The days before CCTV eh?" – Rawshark), the killer wearing two pairs of gloves, and ("the best pillow dropping out of a window scene I've ever seen!" – Zomblee). The mysterious figure behind the grill in the ventilation shaft is also a surprise, although according to Zomblee it's not a patch on Venom, as "there's a lot of shaft work in that too" apparently. Okay.
But it's the rock soundtrack that really cheesed everyone off, and it even follows them into the alpine mountains, prompting a chorus of... "The hills are alive, to the sound off... ROCK!!!" You guys, you kill me.
"What is this, an opera or an amusement park?"
Rawshark Opening with a rehearsal for Verdi’s Macbeth, you just know things are going to go wrong as soon as half the bloody cast and crew start mentioning the title of ‘The Scottish Play’. Or does that tradition only apply in theatre? Well, whatever, the theatrics of this operatic offering of visual opulence is definitely worth checking out mainly because amidst it’s terrible use of rock music (“Not just rock, but bad 80s ‘hair’ rock!” – Zomblee) and bad dubbing, there are moments of visual grandeur and truly gruesome murders.
We first meet the killer (black mask, binoculars, and two pairs of gloves!) as he sneaks backstage to tear up Betty’s costume. Meanwhile the ravens escape their nearby cage, so our masked maniac starts killing the birds one by one, prompting Jim to announce that “this dude is a right raven lunatic.” Yes he is. He also has an unhealthy obsession with Betty and keeps tying her up and forcing her to witness his murders whilst keeping her eyes open with the aid of some sewing needles and sticky-back plastic. “If you try to close your eyes, you’ll tear them apart.” Nice guy, eh?
As an audience member though, you certainly won’t want to close your eyes for a single second, as Argento pulls out all the stops here with some great visuals. The lavish setting of the opera stage allows Argento’s cameras to fly (at one point quite literally) with glorious swoops, track-backs and ‘killer POV’ steadicam shots (“I love prowling cameras” – Zomblee). There is also a mind-blowing 3-shot close-up sequence of a bullet flying through a door’s eyehole, that was, as Zomblee said “Better than CGI!”, and enough twirls, heartbeat zooms and close-ups (“Italians love to juxtapose close-ups with the big ‘what’s happening’ shots.” – Jim) to suggest there’s no end to Argento’s library of visual trickery.
Ok, so the plot does run out of steam towards the end perhaps, but the director of the opera does come up with one final genius solution to finding the killer during the performance to suggest that maybe he hadn’t just “completely OD’d on weird this time”. Think we can also apply that to Argento too. In summary then; Concept – good. Visually – excellent. Dubbing – awful. Music – 50/50.
“Maybe it’s unwise to use movies
as a guide for reality, don’t you think Inspector.”
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Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
Plot The Priest is a very naughty boy...
Rawshark In 1972 Lucio Fulci dipped his toes into the giallo genre, dabbled with some extreme violence and gore, and never looked back. Don’t Torture a Duckling (called Don’t Torture Donald Duck for its limited theatrical release in the UK) is a reasonably atmospheric mystery / thriller that contains a couple of outstandingly gory moments, and was criticized and blacklisted by the Catholic Church because of its controversial storyline.
In a small Italian village, someone is going round murdering little boys. Is it Giuseppe, the peeping tom local village idiot? Is it the naked lady seductress (“Orangeade m’lady?” – Jim) who seemingly likes to sleep with underage boys? Is it the feral wild woman who makes voodoo dolls out of wax and looks over the grave of her deformed child? Or is it Don Alberto, the mild-mannered priest? Could be.
Not the most original of plots then, and it’s not a particularly easy film to follow, especially as there’s not really one person to identify with during the movie. Suspects and news reporters come and go with barely a register, but Fulci manages to bring the film to life with nice camera shots and gory set pieces. Sure, there may be one too many Fulci-trademark zooms, but as Zomblee pointed out “ Fulci always frames two people talking very well.”, so we can forgive him here.
Outstanding set pieces include the truly disturbing murder of the feral woman at the hands of the vengeance-fuelled villagers. Suspected of killing the boys, but eventually cleared, she ultimately meets her fate as the villagers take matter into their own hands in a scene of repeated night time chain whipping. With the music soundtrack being supplied by a radio (no rock music here) and fantastic gore by Gino De Rossi (not Giannetto De Rossi) in his first ever film the scene is genuinely shocking and uncomfortable. The end sequence with the killer falling down a cliff, face being ripped apart by rocks as he falls (“Milk it! Milk it!” – Jim) is pretty good too. Not quite Fulci’s best then, but far better than his worst.
“Which would you prefer; a kiss or money?”
Jim You know, it’s no secret here at Eat My Brains just how much Zomblee really likes Lucio Fulci’s stuff so, knowing that these giallos were going to take a bit more thought than the usual rock’em sock’em Italian rubbish we sit through at Zombie Club, I’d decided in advance I wasn’t going to drink too much in the first film so I still had my wits about me in the second. I failed of course, but it didn’t seem too matter: the narrative thread of Duckling is so loosely strung together, that I honestly don’t think it matters.
What you essentially have to contend with are string of well shot, well structured if a little bizarre scenes (that naked lady orange drink scene killed me), that don’t seem to gel together to make a convincing story. They look great though, (“Fulci does have his moments on visuals...” – Rawshark) and the composition seems less forced than in Argento’s movie (“Yeah, he does it without trying…” – Zomblee) but like Rawshark said without a convincing lead it’s hard to feel much for what’s going on. I actually had a problem with this funky 70s dude with a moustache who would occasionally wander into key scenes. Who the hell was he? “He’s the hero!” Oooh thanks Zomblee, I’m glad you’ve seen this before.
Having said that the film has several highlights: the feral woman digging up baby bones, the church scene where the mad woman screams “The killer is among us!” and the mad guy mobbed shouting “I didn’t kill him, I only buried him!” are particularly stand-out. The musical score too is much more consistent than in Opera with some sections “disturbingly knockout…” (thanks Rawshark) and the finale is a neat taste of things to come for schlock gore hounds out there. I just wish the movie had a bit more character driven, maybe then I wouldn’t have confused the story jumping around with badly inserted flashbacks. (“There’s no flashbacks here Jim!” – Rawshark) Shame, it worked for Night of the Demon.
Zomblee Ok guys, so why do you think that I’ve been worried about pulling this one out of the bag for ZC for such a long time? Yes, the narrative thread is, erm, threadbare and yes, one could say that there’s no real central character to guide you through the labyrinthine plot, but you know what? It’s just a complex film which does make sense, and is infinitely more rewarding when you’ve either seen it once before, or if you’re stone cold sober. But not necessarily both, of course. Complex films sometimes can be iffy territory when it comes to ZC – but hey, it’s partly my fault for insisting that we watch this second on the bill tonight.
Rawshark was a little late in arriving tonight, meaning of course that if he and Jim were to get home at a respectable hour (if indeed at all), then the rewind button was strictly off limits for once. Perhaps not the best situation for drunkenly watching a thickly-plotted Giallo from Lucio “I don’t care of it doesn’t make any sense” Fulci. But like I say, folks, this one does actually make sense and you know what? It’s bloody fantastic, too.
It’s true that Fulci has crammed a lot into this one. As is customary with a giallo, blame for the murders must be directed at innocent parties before the real culprit is discovered, so care is taken to divert attention away from the (somewhat obvious) identity of the real killer. But what Fulci also does is take the time to show the murderer’s effect on the village’s inhabitants, as well as throwing a few bizarre red herrings at us in the process.
The concept of a giallo set in a rural environment is a clear breakaway from conventions in this seemingly restrictive genre – the setting in the south of Italy (Sicily?) is unusually idyllic and instead of city slickers we are treated to Fulci’s impression of backwards rural villagers. He was critically lambasted for depicting rural dwellers in such savagely generalised terms – are these people really capable of such awful deeds? Well, in a Fulci film, of course.
A quick mention to the infamous chain-whipping scene where the lovely Florinda Bolkan gets lynched by some of the disgruntled, justice-seeking villagers; this is possibly the best and most disturbing sequence Fulci ever committed to film. It’s during this few moments that Rawshark murmured, “disturbingly knockout…” while a stunned Jim gave in with “This is…really good.” Yep. I could go on and on about this scene – just see it. (For anyone who’s actually interested, it begins at about 1:04 into the running time. And no, I don’t get out much).
Don’t Torture a Duckling is more coherent than it initially seems but may not feel that way until a second viewing. If you don’t get it first time, see it again – maybe that’s when you’ll fall in love with it.
“Only St. Benedict and St. Mark can tell us that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take a crap.”
Please note - the clip below contains MAJOR spoilers.
Director Lucio Fulci
Cast Florinda Bolkan
Runtime 102 mins
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So, at last, Giallo Night happened. Although clearly not in keeping with recent ZC traditions, I think the guys really enjoyed a change of flavour, and although that heavy metal music Argento used in Opera pretty much ruined the entire film for me, I was comforted to know that the Fulci film was imminent. It had a good soundtrack. I knew that. Everything was going to be ok.
My girlfriend Sam came back early tonight, about 5 minutes before Don’t Torture a Duckling ended. She had never been to a ZC before and as I walked her up the stairs, she sweetly asked if she should wait in the kitchen. “What? And miss the last 5 minutes of Don’t Torture a Duckling?!” You gotta be kidding, right?.
What she saw when she entered the smoky room really made her giggle in hindsight when she said to me the next day, “It was so sweet to see all of you with your little pads, furiously writing stuff down when the priest’s head was getting smashed up in the film”.