Monday, September 21, 2015

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “oh no, he’s reviewing another freaking giallo again,” but this isn’t just another giallo.
Short Night of Glass Dolls, Aldo Lado’s directorial debut, is actually quite the surprise, in that it manages to meet, defy, and exceed expectations right up from its mellow start to its killer climax. It interweaves elements from occult horror and the detective thriller into a nonlinear narrative that has a little bit of a Citizen Kane (1941) format and a plot that’s driven by the interesting mystery of what could’ve befallen its unfortunate protagonist. The explanation is pretty much what you’d expect, but the sheer weirdness and the way it plays out, not to mention the alternate Prague setting, causes Short Night to be refreshingly different from the more common giallo of the early ‘70s and yet still look and feel very much like one.

The success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was still freshly permeating its influence around this time, and it’s no surprise that numerous films continued to capitalize on its black magic, occult, and conspiracy themes, and Short Night is no exception, with murders, kidnappings, and sanity breakdowns feeling orchestrated by some sort of secret order, also bringing to mind The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).

The more typical Satanism seen in occult horror is eschewed in this case for something a little more arcane and eldritch, with a secret organization of old elitists who, in order to prolong their own lives, use black magic rituals to sacrifice young people, which is supposed to be a sort of underlying cynical message from Aldo Lado about how the young are sent to die in war by the elder generation in order to maintain power. It’s disturbing and depressing but still worthwhile viewing with an exhilarating third act containing one of the weirder and more insane ritual scenes… Two words: geriatric orgy...

Journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) has found himself transformed into a motionless corpse, although still sentient and with a partially lost memory. Aware of his predicament, Gregory slowly recollects memories of events from the preceding days, while chillin’ in the morgue, as the narrative jumps back and forth from the past to the present. Hoping to remember what has happened to him, Gregory explores his own memories of when he was trying to figure out the mysterious disappearance of his lover, Mira (Barbara Bach). So it’s kind of like an investigation within an investigation. When he starts getting too close to the truth bad things happen. The morgue framing device is eventually made more interesting and suspenseful thanks to a certain skeptical doctor temporarily foregoing the autopsy and attempting to revive Gregory because it is noticed that the rigor mortis isn’t setting in. Can Gregory figure out the mystery and break out of paralysis before his autopsy?

Aldo Lado said that there is something Kafkaesque about Short Night. I’m still working my way through Franz Kafka The Complete Stories, and so there is probably a lot that I don’t yet understand about what it means to say Kafkaesque other than evoking a sense of bureaucratic nightmares, but the one comparison I can make is that of Kafka’s most famous novella The Metamorphosis, which starts out with the story’s protagonist Gregor Samsa waking up one morning in bed to find that he has inexplicably transformed into an insectoid. An instantaneous interest in the story is catapulted by this simple yet bizarre starting point, and the effect is somewhat similar with Gregory (who also has a similar first name as Kafka’s protagonist) in Short Nights starting out and realizing his own kind of weird transformation, and a key feeling of helplessness.

Gregory’s character is the obsessed investigator archetype, a journalist who, against the warnings and hostilities from the possibly corrupted Kommisar Kierkoff (Piero Vida), continues to try and uncover his lover’s disappearance, which has all the implications of bedroom abduction. As Gregory pries further, he finds out that there’s a lot more to it, as there seems to have been an epidemic of missing girls that have been erased from the official archives. His search ultimately leads him to a secret society that on the surface is a prestigious music club.

Aside from the climactic ritual set piece, the scene where Gregory explores the music club is probably one of the more memorable scenes (and my personal favorite). Gregory walks by an audience of creepy, pasty frozen-looking people, who I wrongly suspected at first of being wax dolls (hey the movie is called Short Night of Glass Dolls).

Also of note in this pantheon of weirdness is a science experiment that demonstrates that tomatoes are sentient and feel pain, something that’s obviously mirroring Gregory’s situation in the morgue.

I couldn't make heads or tails of the dead old man in Gregory’s office, who’s just casually carried out by paramedics, while no one makes much of a big deal about it, like an employee dropping dead, perhaps as a result of being worked to death, is just another day at the office (OK he might’ve just passed out, but it’s still odd). There’s a tad bit of black humor as Gregory asks his colleague Jack (Mario Adorf) to give the dead man his hat. It’s a mind numbing moment that is never referred to again and may or may not be a bleak satire on the emotionless bureaucratic nature of work employment.

Someone who I feel is perfectly cast here is Barbara Bach as Gregory’s missing, and obviously kidnapped, lover Mira Svoboda. She’s a doll herself, and although their romance is a bit sappy at times, they have good chemistry. Given her beauty and the connection they make, his obsession over her suspicious disappearance is convincing.

She’s fabulous looking in that shimmering silver dress she wears when Gregory takes her to an elegant party full of aristocratic weirdos, where he practically shows her off. It’s not like any crazy secret cult members might take an interest in her. There’s something suggestively Eve-like about Mira during the few moments she’s juxtaposed with an apple, a prop that almost becomes a mini icon for this character.

The other love interest is Jessica (Ingrid Thulin). She's a nice looking older woman, who wears gypsy bandanas and babushkas most of the time. She is jealous of Mira and continues to pursue Gregory’s affections even after Mira disappears. She has a bitterness that’s kind of understandable. She’s more Gregory’s age and in the same journalism profession and would presumably be a closer fit. Jessica was frustrated when Gregory left her for a much younger woman and maintains her annoyance at Gregory’s obsession with Mira’s disappearance and not moving on and accepting that she left, despite the obvious signs of her being abducted. Jessica didn’t quite come off as a red herring to me but more or less a third wheel to amplify the drama.

The film was originally called Malastrana but after completion the producer insisted on changing the name, which then became Short Night of Butterflies, most likely because, thanks to Dario Argento’s animal trilogy, it was all the rage with the Italian thriller at the time to have a title that included an insect or animal like cats, flies, lizards, dragonflies, or butterflies. However, another movie called The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) had come out, and so Lado had to change the title again. The butterfly concept is still in the story, and it carries a certain ambiguity to the plot. There are several moments that pop up in the story here and there emphasizing butterflies that don’t fly, because, as one of the characters puts it with his dying words, “”they” don’t let them fly.” It’s suggested that this is significant to the mystery of the disappearing girls in Prague, but it really never ends up being all that significant. Why butterflies? The attention paid to a butterfly statue with clipped wings could probably be seen as a kind of “McGuffin” in the script, but, thinking of the idea of grounded butterflies as some form of oppression of a species’ true nature, I can’t help sensing a symbolic reference to communist oppression.

There’s a small music number late in the movie that I always look forward to, which presents a weird feeling of walking into a music video, with a song, performed by Jürgen Drews, with lyrics repeatedly asking, “whyyyy don’t you let… butterflies with gaily colored wings fly free in the clear skiiiies”. It’s catchy and surreal, and I like the way it precedes a murder attempt on Gregory. Which reminds me, the soundtrack is a major strong point because when you have Edda Dell’Orso’s voice set to music composed by Ennio Morricone and conducted by Bruno Nicolai your film is bound to be a worthwhile experience on its soundtrack alone. Dell’Orso is a little spookier sounding here, with some chilling siren wails which when heard alongside the visuals of some of the Gothic architecture gives an uneasy feeling of something sinister underneath.

Despite the surreal orgy scene this is not something that’s considered to be erotic. It definitely succeeds as an unnerving mystery thriller, and although it’s kind of obvious what’s going on here, it doesn’t really lose any points for predictability, because it is the strong insinuation of the horrible truth that makes it work so well, and when all is revealed it’s like a direct confirmation that your paranoia was well founded. Short Night’s closeout scene seems a little forced, which the film tries to distract from with Ingrid Thulin screaming into a freeze frame, yet it ends up memorable and chilling nonetheless.

Short Night is quite the impressive and unique debut. Aldo Lado followed it up with the child murder mystery Who Saw Her Die (1972), which was great in the first half but became less interesting in its more formulaic second half. Lado’s Night Train Murders (1974), one of the Italian answers to The Last House on the Left (1972), is equally as impressive as Short Night but borders a little too uncomfortably on the rapesploitation side for it to be one of my absolute favorites. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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