An outspoken Italian judge is 'buried alive' in Sicily and communist Prague has just been invaded by Soviet troops. Thus forms the inspiration for Aldo Lado's 1971 directorial debut, La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (Short Night of the Glass Dolls). With giallo at its peak in the 70's, directors felt comfortable taking more liberties with their subject matter and Lado certainly took advantage of this. Though it bears some of the familiar giallo markings, Lado's violence begets violence agenda is as poetic as it is political--transcending the expected with story driven thrills.

The film takes place in Communist era Prague where American journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) wakes, only to find himself in a catatonic state. He's unable to move or speak but starts to recall the bizarre occurrences which led to his current demise. Through these memories, we are introduced to his Czech girlfriend Mira Svoboda (Barbara Bach) who has disappeared after he tried to help her leave the country. Moore launches into an investigation that takes him to a private club (Klub 99), which appears to be a music club but is revealed to be a front for something unimaginable. Meanwhile, Moore's body shows no signs of rigor mortis but Doctors have presumed him dead and schedule him for an autopsy. Can he remember everything before it's too late?
The butterfly collection Mira presents to Gregory is quite the telling gift. The film was originally called Short Night of the Butterflies but was changed at the last minute due to a similar title being released that year. The butterfly's fragile and symbolic nature flutters in line with Lado's markers for political upheaval and social unrest. Though many will be lost on Lado's clever references (Further research reveals that Mira Svoboda's name translates to 'peaceful freedom'), there are a few that see the light of day. The paralyzed man is frozen in the wake of political turmoil while the vampire-like cabal is the suppressor made conscious by Klub 99's oath: "We will hold the reins of power in the world. Our bitterest enemies are persons who love freedom. We need the young to keep us alive. They must become as us. They must think as we do. And those who rebel must be sacrificed."

Mira is the elusive butterfly that slips from Gregory's (American anti-communist) hands--once strong and sure (or arrogant) now desperate and helpless. She is trapped, pinned and crushed under the cause. Lado's camera is the peering and intrusive eye that follows all in its path and confronts the glassy eyed catatonic who cannot escape its gaze. Several eerie scenes foreshadow a dark fate for Mira and Gregory; a graveyard romp, a stoned and nearly catatonic hippie girl who is thoughtlessly groped, Gregory shrouded in cool hospital sheets and a bizarre scene where a scientist demonstrates that tomatoes can feel pain as he crushes a particularly sensitive one in his hand.

Ennio Morricone's perfectly understated score organically weaves its way through the story--haunting and discriminating. Lado's hypnotic flashback sequences are effectively shot and there are several gorgeous moments throughout the film; the architecture in the district of Malastrana (also his working title for the film), Prague is particularly beautiful. There is an incredible anxiety that builds until the final moments of the film where we already know what will probably happen but the tension is almost unbearable. And even though the end is final, there is no relief or compromise--just a bleak and nightmarish conclusion.

There are few things I can pick on about Short Night of the Glass Dolls but the dubbing would be one of them. Several of the actors seem to change accents which is utterly distracting at times; however, if you're a giallo fan you're probably used to this already. In addition, I realize that the hippie song sequence (about butterflies even!) probably held some significance for the time it was made, but it's overkill compared to the more interesting, latent symbolism. I am tempted to say the same of the famous orgy scene, which obviously pays homage to Rosemary's Baby, but is creepy nonetheless. Of note is Ingrid Thulin's (Salon Kitty) performance as Jessica, a journalist who aids Gregory in his investigation.

Short Night of the Glass Dolls is a symbolic journey that takes on a whole new significance considering the political climate of the time. Aside from that, the film is a haunting and refreshingly different giallo that offers a strong storyline and immaculate compositions. Lado would go on to carry a political undertone throughout his other work in films like Night Train Murders, but Dolls became the model others seemed to fall short of. Lado's technique and omission of the usual signifiers renders Dolls more in the vein of Hitchcock than his gialli brothers. He foregoes the baroque idiosyncrasies and imbues shadows and secrets with more unease than many of the black gloved killers. If you're looking for a departure from the expected that still thrills, give this one a shot.
categories Features, Reviews, Horror