Tuesday 10 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #22: Orrore Popolare, Part 1

Don't Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino) (1972);
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La Dama Rossa uccide sette volte) (1972)

The biggest hole in my viewing over the last couple years has been in the cinema of mainland Europe, I think, and in the last year I've got to know a whole bunch of people from the continent, and it's been important to me to rectify the gaps. One area I really felt I should take on is giallo. I've mentioned the word in connection with a couple of films in the last few years, but I've never really written about a film that everyone unanimously agrees is part of the genre.

Let's define that. It's a genre that's Italian; largely from the long 1970s; sometimes has a lot of folk horror-adjacent material; and is, primarily, stabby. Sometimes strangly, and more often slashy, but mainly stabby. Serial murder and urban paranoia abounds. And frankly, this is a shoo-in for my project, isn't it? Weird folklore, popular hysteria. And daggers.

Academic Fabio Camilletti has proposed that rather than talk about giallo as such, we should be talking about Orrore Popolare, which I suppose you could just about translate as "folk horror" and which admits some of the meanings of the term, but which is, as I understand it, skewed towards the "horror of folk" meaning of folk horror, rather than pagans and witches and standing stones and countrysides, necessarily.

The thrills these films offer are their own, and no nation has ever been quite so great at putting a uniquely regional spin on the great cinematic genres as Italy. Orrore Popolare is as much a living, screaming genre as Australian Outback Horror, American Backwoods Horror and British Folk Horror.

I am normally quite dismissive about spoiler warnings, but these movies are basically murder mysteries, and in order to talk about them I really am going to share details that may in fact completely ruin them. Go carefully.

In Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, a rural community is rocked by a serial killer of little boys, which is not, frankly, my favourite subject matter. The police are stumped, but crusading and lushly moustached reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) teams up with disgraced good-time girl from the city Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) to solve the mystery and find the killer.

Don't Torture a Duckling is, I'm told, considered one of the unimpeachable genre classics, although I didn't know that going in. It has a lot of good bits and a fair few actually terrible bits, and several bits that, to put it kindly, Have Not Aged At All Well. It looks beautiful – Pasolini was apparently a big influence on Fulci and it shows – and scene compositions and shots are at times breathtakingly exquisite, and there's really accomplished use of hand held cameras. It's a properly tense and well-structured film: characters get put in the frame one by one as potential culprits and then discarded as we figure out how it can't have been them, and it's really compelling how powerfully the film draws you in, how you invest in it and care about who did it, and how each successive suspect brings more evidence and ensures that there's more at stake.

One central clue involves an apparently autistic kid deliberately breaking her Donald Duck toy, and in Italy, Donald Duck is called Paperino ("Duckling"); in fact Fulci originally wanted to call the movie Non si sevizia Paperino ("Don't Torture Donald Duck") but was forced to add the indefinite article because, sensibly, it was thought (and I would hazard accurately) that Disney would not let that shit fly, frankly, and so Non si sevizia un paperino it is.
Take a look at this poster though. 
A major subplot concerns Maciara (Florinda Bolkan) a local woman who about halfway through comes into the frame because she's a witch. She freely admits to killing the kids, because she's sick of being tormented by them. But under questioning, she also freely admits that she killed them with witchcraft. And Andrea and the police conclude she's just a bit disturbed and let her go, because while making curse dolls is weird and creepy, it's not really the same as actually putting your hands around a kid's neck and drowning him in the town square fountain, and hating children is not a criminal offence. But it's good enough for the locals, and so, after Maciara is released, a group of guys from the community go on a witch hunt and brutally beat the woman so badly that while she manages to crawl to the local main road to beg for help, no one stops and she dies alone on the roadside of her injuries. The townsfolk close ranks, and breathe a collective sigh of relief now the witch is dead. And then kids still keep getting killed.

That's a hard scene to watch, and it's not exactly a gold star landmark in the history of women's treatment in cinema.

More genuinely and I think deliberately icky is Patrizia, who has this really unfortunate urge to torment the local boys by propositioning them sexually and laughing at their embarrassment and confusion. In fact, the first time we see her, she's butt naked, and displaying herself to her housekeeper's kid in a way that's not so much paedophile as just flat-out cruel: want some of this, kid? Well you can't, because you're a kid. Maybe when you're older.
He's not the last little boy she propositions in the movie – it's clear she's not serious, but it's creepy, wildly inappropriate and just gross, and I do really think it is supposed to be, regardless of how stunningly beautiful Barbara Bouchet is. I think that often in things like this you get the subtext that "it doesn't count if it's a beautiful young woman", which is of course a take of classic misogyny, but here it's clearly framed to make her the viewer's prime suspect for most of the film, even if she only comes into the polizia's sights towards the end. Over and over, the film puts Patrizia in the viewer's frame: the viewer is in fact working toward their own solution, entirely independently of Andrea and the polizia, with a slightly different evidence-set. I think it's one of the procedural delights of the thing, the way that you're almost encouraged to play detective yourself.

The reveal of the final culprit is logical and satisfying – and unless you were really on the ball, it's really great that you only realise after the fact that the murderer, considered above suspicion, was present at every child death. It all checks out. It's a good twist, even if the motive for the murders is insanely daft and based on a bonkers misreading of Catholicism and Catholics – when it was explained, I literally threw my hands in the air and cried out in frustration. Fulci was evidently aiming for a critique of the grasp of conservative Catholicism on the hearts and minds of the people, and maybe you could take it as some sort of parable? I don't know. Anyway, even if that didn't reduce the impact of the final reveal, the climactic struggle between Andrea and the child killer ends with a body falling off a cliff and being dashed on the rocks below, except it's obviously a dummy and it's so crude it's unintentionally hilarious.

Don't Torture a Duckling is a real curate's egg, but, just as I said with Blood on Satan's Claw, another Great Classic that didn't enchant me, I'm still on the fence as to whether it's a really great film with a lot of terrible bits or a terrible film with a lot of excellent bits. But it aims so high. It has so much it wants to say. Bear with me, I'll get back to this.
Barbara Bouchet is also the lead in Emilio Miraglio's groovy, convoluted, absurd and ridiculously entertaining stabfest, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, from the same year. Here, she's Kitty Wildenbruch, heiress to an ancestral estate in Germany, managed by her grandad Tobias (Rudolf Schündler). Although it's set in Germany, everyone speaks Italian, but honestly, if you think that's weird, consider: how many films have you seen set in mainland Europe where everyone speaks English?

As a child, Kitty's already strained relationship with her sister Eveline was not helped by discovering that the Wildenbruchs are victim to an ancestral curse of sororicide. Every hundred years, two sisters are born to the family, one, whom folklore refers to as the Red Queen, is a bad seed, who drives her otherwise more sympathetic sister to murder. But the Red Queen rises from the grave, each time, and murders seven people in ghostly revenge, the last of whom is the sister who killed her. "When is the Family Curse next due to fall, grandad?" the little girls say. In 14 years, he says. 1972. When you're both all grown up. But it's not real, right? Nothing to worry about, right?

Oh dear.
Grandad Tobias is the first victim of a spate of killings committed by – you guessed it – a Red Queen. Kitty's working as a photographer for a couture house now (and the fashion sequences are glorious, even if they're exactly the sort of sequence that Mike Myers spoofed so accurately in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). Meanwhile, an older sister, Franzizka (giallo ice queen Marina Malfatti), managed the estate and Eveline's moved to America and hasn't kept in touch.

Could the killer, who cuts a murderous yet entertainingly creative swathe across the Springe fashion house, be Eveline, returned?

Kitty doesn't think so, because "Eveline moved to America and hasn't kept in touch" is actually a euphemism for "Kitty accidentally killed Eveline in a fight". Franzizka and her husband Herbert (Nino Korda) helped her to cover it up by hiding Eveline's body in the crypt of the ancestral castle. But what if it's Eveline anyway, from beyond the grave? But if it isn't, who could it be?

A parade of sexy, sleazy, salacious and suspicious characters enter: could it be Kitty's married boyfriend Martin (Ugo Pagliai), the ambitious fashion executive? Sexually predatory personal assistant Lulu Palm (B movie goddess Sybil Danning)? Eveline's creepy boyfriend Peter (Fabrizio Moresco)? Just as in Don't Torture a Duckling, suspects are raised and discarded with a whirlwind frequency, and the film becomes a complex guessing game. Its delights are many, and if the whole thing is ludicrous, it still works because the whole thing barrels along with genuine verve – forza! – and it works because its confidence that it makes more sense than it actually does is so infectious that you've got no time to say, "hang on a minute."

Twice in the movie (twice!) someone says "I know who the Red Queen really is! Talk to me later and I'll tell you the secret!" and you just know they're very shortly for a gruesome death, punctuated by the Red Queen's maniacal laughter as she runs away from the blood-spattered scene. There's an interesting hidden subtext about what we see here: the camera shows us what the victims see shortly before they die (the face of Eveline), rather than what they're looking at (which turns out to be a mask that looks a bit like Eveline) and those wobbly perceptions make the whole thing uncertain, in question, and add to the thrill (note: this, by the way, is the literal opposite of what Dario Argento does in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red: Argento shows you exactly what characters see in pivotal split-second moments – it was an era long before domestically available freeze frames, remember – and encourages you to work out what's wrong with the picture).
The only thing that kind of ruins the film is a brief, perfunctory, and entirely gratuitous rape scene about halfway through, which makes little sense either as a character moment or in terms of plot. I cannot help thinking that Miraglia and company inserted it purely because we hadn't got to see Barbara Bouchet with her clothes off yet.

That one nasty disappointment aside, the final denouement of The Red Queen Kills Seven Times at least lives up to the expectations raised by the plot. The reveal makes about as much sense as the rest of the movie, but since you've not had the chance to come up for air, let alone the leisure to pick holes in the plot, it all checks out and it's pretty satisfying. The theme tune's a keeper too, a persistent, catchy evocation of that one time and place where the flares and ascots were unironic and primary coloured, and harpsichords were a sensible addition to a pop ensemble.
I don't think The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is by any means a better movie than Don't Torture a Duckling. I think it's a less serious and less ambitious movie that has less to say. Don't Torture a Duckling is about poor people in rural Southern Italy who, in the grasp of superstition and stifling religion, fear for their children and grieve for them, and who engage in mob violence to avenge them. Stuff that matters, in fact. On the other hand, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is about gorgeous, wealthy fashionistas who live in castles and all sort of hate each other. It's relatively slight. But it does exactly what it set out to do – it's a more or less perfectly executed giallo with all the clichés present and correct – in a way that Don't Torture a Duckling doesn't quite, even if Fulci's film does probably deserve its commonly recognised status as a (flawed) classic of the giallo genre and is, in the grand scheme of things, the better film technically, structurally and in content.

Normally, in a choice between an ambitious movie that doesn't quite get there and an unambitious movie that hits its goal bang in the middle, I'll go for the thwarted ambition every time. But this time – and this surprises me – I found the Red Queen quite a lot more fun to watch.

Regardless of which one is more entertaining, both films have a sort of delirious paranoia to them, a sort of sense that death is close, and sudden, and capricious, that it could take anyone, and be anyone, and this has the effect you'd expect on the communities it looms over. If anyone – absolutely anyone – could be a crazed killer, everyone we know could dissolve into bloody madness. We all of us are just one psychotic break away from blood, and knives and murder. Is this Orrore Popolare?

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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