Director: Aldo Lado
Stars: Jean Sorel, Barbara Bach, Ingrid Thulin
There are better giallo films out there. Purer examples of the genre. But Aldo Lado’s Short Night Of Glass Dolls is a devilishly entertaining and under-celebrated example. It’s giallo seen through a fun house mirror, contorted into something that might’ve been just as fitting sat in the middle of a portmanteau horror film; a tale of the unexpected with bizarre twists and one hell of a sting in the tail. That makes it a lot of fun and well worth investigation for fans of the macabre.
Having been wooed by the more famous titles which proliferated in the early 70’s following the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, it was the title itself that drew me to Short Night Of Glass Dolls. These Italian proto-slashers all have such absurd and creative names. And just as there are no lizards in a woman’s skin in Lizard In A Woman’s Skin there are no glass dolls in Aldo Lane’s short night. Neither, for that matter, are there short nights.
Jean Sorel is American journalist Gregory Moore and he’s been found dead in Prague. Bummer. Duly, his body is taken to the morgue, except… Greg isn’t dead, he just appears to be. He’s paralysed. Helpless. He narrates his own wandering thought processes as he tries to remember what’s led him to the mortuary slab, keenly aware that it’s only a matter of time before the coroner gets to perform an autopsy.
The film unravels in flashbacks as Greg pieces together what happened to him while lying prone and naked. In doing so, Short Night Of Glass Dolls reveal its more typically giallo conceit; a series of kidnappings that Greg was investigating, including that of his own glamorous girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach).
It’s a kooky set-up that places the untrustworthy narrator up against a lethal ticking clock. The false pretense is that we’ll never get to hear the whole story; not to mention the horrific suggestion of being operated on by accident while you’re awake to feel it, unbeknownst to your surgeons. In that sense, Glass Dolls belongs within the small yet specific ‘surgical horror’ subgenre.
Greg’s ‘body’ is discovered by a crow and a groundsman in the famed Malá Strana. Between the bird and the motif of sweeping, the ominous scent of death is on the picture from the very start. A man with no legs bares witness to this. His presence sets the tone for Lado going forward; this isn’t going to be your usual stalk-and-slash procedural. It’s altogether stranger, and prone to exploitation of the uncommon.
I can’t make a case for Glass Dolls as high art. It’s not. In terms of technical competency, it is good if unremarkable. Lado’s skill is fine, especially for a debut, but not exceptional. Still, the rain drenched cobbled streets, the cramped cars and the early 70’s European fashions provide the usual distinct and specific aesthetic pleasures that mark nearly all giallo films of the period.
Gialli are not often celebrated for their performances, thanks to the extensive use of dubbing, and not just into other languages. Italian cinema is renowned for having sound recorded and synchronised after the fact, often lending the vocal performances an overtly theatrical or even hysterically melodramatic register. So it often goes in Glass Dolls. One thing’s for certain though; whatever his faults, Sorel plays a good corpse.
So why do I love this flick? To answer, I’ll have to wade further into spoiler territory. For as pleasurable as the look and feel of the film is, and as fun as the guessing game gets (let’s be honest, medium fun), the revelations toward the end of Glass Dolls are the warped delights that keep me coming back for more with this deliciously silly title.
At a party for social elites recalled near the beginning of the film, our mustachioed Greg encounters a young woman who appears drugged and completely vacant, echoing his future fate. She is blithely taken advantage of by Greg’s lecherous associate Jacques (Mario Adorf) and, not insignificantly, she is dressed like a hippie; a social set not keenly embraced by Italian society, and certainly not among the rich.
But her early appearance belies the later reveal that the city’s upper classes are engaged in a nefarious sex cult, and have been responsible for the kidnappings. She represents free love, but her docile, empty state is sinister and underscores that she is being used; a vessel for the purposes of others. The rich exploiting the poor. The old exploiting the young. There’s a curiously vampiric quality to Short Night Of Glass Dolls.
Let’s not exaggerate though. Glass Dolls has little of the political collateral of, say, Jordan Peele’s recent Get Out, but when Lil Rey Howry’s Rod exclaims to Chris in that film that the answer to the mystery is “sex slaves!” it is the trope exhibited in Lado’s film that Peele is referencing. As Greg finds himself surrounded by aging cult members, one can’t help but imagine that the creators of The League Of Gentlemen are very likely big fans of this film, and Peele too. It carries that same streak of twisted hysteria.
In the gonzo reveal of the cult, the exact means through which they manage to render Greg paralytic isn’t made clear. It is as though the bizarre secret society is enough of a gift to the audience to quell all other questioning. It nearly works. Instead we’re brought back to Greg on the autopsy slab for the film’s memorable climax.
Presented with an unexpected air of sadistic glee, Greg doesn’t manage to rekindle his ability to move in time. Having been bombarded with writhing nude bodies and the dark arts, Glass Dolls bows out with its hero suffering his long-threatened fate; getting autopsied alive, in front of a university lecture class, no less!
With his conspiratorial plot Lado appears inspired, in part, by horror hit Rosemary’s Baby which appeared four years earlier and has proven influential on many storytellers. But the advanced age of this film’s villains shouldn’t be ignored. Here Glass Dolls doubles down on the threat of mortality. Funereal madness hangs heavy over everything, like that gargantuan chandelier Greg finds himself beneath while hiding in a darkened room.
During his investigation into Mira’s disappearance, Greg begins an affair with his older colleague, Jessica (Ingrid Thulin). This should be perfectly acceptable, but thanks to the sexists standards of cinema around the world (most certainly including Italy), it feels like a more deliberate choice. Place Jessica into the greater context of the story, and she becomes a further indicator of Greg’s dangerous flirtation with mortality, and Lado’s interest in (literally) embracing a death wish.
That’s about as pompous as I can get here. There’s only so much intellectualising something like this. These facets of the story make for playful mental masturbation, but the film’s true pleasures are more immediate than that. It’s a crazy story that endures, personally, for the insanity of its third act. Vivid, horrific and darkly funny, Short Night Of Glass Dolls will delight those in search of the strange.