In the small Southern Italian village of Accendura, three local boys, Bruno, Michele, and Tonino are engaged in mischief and other activities. Giuseppe Barra (Vito Passeri) a local simpleton and peeping tom, who is seen spying on two rowdy swinging couples, is surprised when the three boys appear behind him and taunt him. Meanwhile, in the hills surrounding the village, a reclusive Gypsy witch named La Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), is conducting sinister black magic ceremonies, first by digging up the skeletal remains of an infant, and then plunging pins through the heads of three tiny clay dolls. It makes it clear that these are the three youths taunting Giuseppe.
When Bruno Lo Casio goes missing, a media circus begins as reporters from all over Italy converge on the town. One of them is Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) a sharp-witted journalist from Rome whose insights into the case are acknowledged by the regional police commissioner (Virginio Gazzolo) working with the collaboration of the village chief of police Captain Modesti (Ugo D'Alessio). Amid local hysteria, Giuseppe is soon arrested when he's found near the dead body of Bruno. But he protests his innocence for he claims to have only discovered the body of the boy and then phoned the parents in a feeble attempt to extract a pitiful ransom. When another dead body of a young boy, that of Tonino is found, the police realize that he really is innocent. A few nights later, during a raging thunderstorm, Michele Spriano, sneaks out of his house to meet with someone he speaks to over the phone, and he too is strangled by an unseen assailant and his body is found the following morning.
Martelli soon meets and befriends Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) whom he recognizes from newspapers where he used to work in Milan. Patrizia is living at her father's house in the town as she is laying low after a drug scandal. She considered a slut by rest of the insular villagers mainly because of her modern style of dress with halter-tops and mini-skirts. Martelli also meets with the amiable young village priest, Don Alberto Avallone (Marc Poreli) and his strangely reserved mother Aurelia (Irene Papas). Don Alberto runs a boys group at the church (which the murder victims came from) and he also encourages the boys to play soccer on the church grounds to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. Since he is the priest and connected with the Catholic Church, he is well known and respected by everyone in the village and surrounding area. But Aurelia is a dour mysterious woman.
Meanwhile, Captain Modesti and his aide meet with Francesco (George Wilson), an eccentric old hermit living in a tumbledown stone hut in the hills overlooking the town, who practices black magic and offers charms and potions to the superstitious. He claims to the police that he has passed his knowledge of black magic to his disciple, Magiara, and also shares time with the causal thrill-seeking Patrizia. He is also rumored to have had (and then disposed of) a baby from a tryst with Magiara. Angered by Francesco's unwillingness to co-operate with the investigation, the police proceed to hunt down and arrest Magiara. Under interrogation, the fevered woman gleefully confesses to the murders. However, it transpires to Modesti and the Commissioner that she believes her voodoo dolls and incantations have merely brought about the deaths of the three interfering boys, and she profess to have no interest or awareness of the physical methods used. An alibi provided by a policeman sighting Magiara miles away from the latest murder scene clinchers her legal innocence and she is released the following day. Nonetheless, the hostile and superstitious villagers are not convinced. Magiara is attacked in a local graveyard by a small group of men who savagely beat her with heavy chains and then leave her for dead. The following day, another young boy is found murdered, drowned in a local stream, which further increases police frustration to the case.
During further meetings with Don Alberto, Martelli also learns that Don Alberto's mother has another young child, a six-year-old mute girl born mentally challenged. Martelli becomes convinced that the little girl is a witness to the killings after seeing that she compulsively pulls the heads off her dolls, as if doing an imitation to the strangulations. One doll's head, that of Donald Duck, is found near the latest crime scene. When Aurelia disappears with her daughter, Martelli and Patrizia track her down hiding out at a remote shack on a hill overlooking the town and when they arrive, Aurelia is found barely conscious begging them to help her stop her crazy son. It is Don Alberto who is the killer. It turns out that he straggled those young boys not for their sins, but to prevent them from committing sin when they grow up. In his twisted mind, Don Alberto believes that as a man of God, he has the right to kill young boys in order to send them to Heaven with clean souls.
Don Alberto now attempts to throw his little sister, a witness to the crimes, off a remote cliff. Martelli arrives in the nick of time, and after a climactic fistfight between Martelli and Don Alberto, the insane priest loses his balance and falls of the cliff to his gruesome death.Florinda Bolkan as La Maciara
Barbara Bouchet as Patrizia
Tomas Milian as Andrea Martelli
Irene Papas as Dona Aurelia Avallone
Marc Porel as Don Alberto Avallone
Georges Wilson as "Uncle" Francesco
Antonello Campodifiori as Police Lieutenant
Ugo D'Alessio as Captain Modesti
Virgilio Gazzolo as Police Commissioner
Vito Passeri as Giuseppe Barra
Rosalia Maggio as Mrs. Spriano, Michele's mother
Andrea Aureli as Mr. Lo Cascio, Bruno's father
Linda Sini as Mrs. Lo Cascio, Bruno's mother
Franco Balducci as Mr. Spriano, Michele's father
Fausta Avelli as Malvina (uncredited)
According to Danny Shipka, the small Italian town of the setting turns out to be an Italian version of Harper Valley PTA, with suspects including voyeurs, drug addicted pedophiles, gypsies and priests. He finds that the film provides a thought-provoking depiction of life and politics in a small town of Italy. The main themes are "repression, sin and guilt". The motive of the murder turns out to be a desire to rescue the boys from the effects of their own sexuality. In other words, the killer attempts to preserve the innocence of the victims. He is attempting to send them to Heaven while they remained in a stage of uncorrupted grace.
Shipka finds that the film also demonstrates the tendency of giallo filmmakers to seriously question religion and priesthood. Mikel J. Koven points that predatory priests also appeared in Who Saw Her Die? (1972) and The Bloodstained Shadow (1978).
Don't Torture a Duckling was released theatrically in Italy on September 29, 1972.
When the film was first released in 1972, it received only a limited release in Europe, due to the film's themes, among which was criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. It was released in France as La longue nuit de l'exorcisme/ The Long Night of Exorcism. Though an English language audio track was created for the movie in 1972, it was never theatrically released in the United States and remained unreleased until 1999 when Anchor Bay Entertainment released the film on DVD and VHS. Adrian Luther Smith's reference work lists the translation of the original Italian title as Don't Torture Donald Duck, since in Italy, the cartoon character is referred to as Paperino.
The film has received mixed to positive reviews from critics.
Bloody Disgusting awarded the film a positive score of 4 1/2 out of 5. Praising the film's cinematography, music, and gory special effects, calling it one of their all-time favorite film by director Fulci. AllMovie gave the film a positive review calling the film "one of Fulci's more successful outings". TV Guide awarded the film 3 out of 5 stars. Complimenting the film's direction, atmosphere, and well executed murder scenes, stating "Lucio Fulci's murder mystery paints an exceptionally unflattering portrait of small-town Sicily as a backwater rife with perversion, ignorance, madness and murderous small-mindedness".
The film was made available for the first time ever in the United States on both VHS and DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment as part of the "Lucio Fulci Collection", uncut and remastered, containing its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 for the DVD release. American distribution company Blue Underground released the same version of the film on DVD on 27 February 2007.
In the United Kingdom, Shameless Screen Entertainment made the film available on DVD on 29 August 2011 in a "Shameless Fan Edition", which contains, for the first time, optional English and Italian audio and subtitles, the Italian theatrical trailer and a booklet adapted by Stephen Thrower from Beyond Terror, his definitive book.