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FANGO Flashback: “SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS”

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Nothing gets the ball rolling on a good scary movie better than a person trapped in a single location. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen people get trapped in an elevator (DEVIL), a ski lift (FROZEN), a coffin (BURIED), and a radio station (PONTYPOOL); now, with the release of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, we’ll see what happens when three people trap themselves inside a Cold War-era bomb shelter. And while we hold out hope that 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE will prove itself as one of the all-time great movies about being trapped, no room or building can match the horror of being trapped inside your own body. This is the premise of Aldo Lado’s SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS, one of the many exploitative murder mysteries – otherwise known as giallo – to be produced in Italy from the 1960s to the 1980s.

SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS came at a bit of a transition point for the giallo. In the 1960s, these films made a name for themselves through their inventive camera work, convoluted narratives, and half-baked appropriation of Freudian psychology. By 1971, however, the subgenre had begun to shift into high-gear, away from its murder mystery roots and towards the proto-slasher characteristics that would inspire a renewed interest in these films in subsequent decades. A month before SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS’s theatrical release, giallo godfather Mario Bava would again lead the charge with A BAY OF BLOOD, a movie that boldly announced its departure by introducing a recognizable giallo killer and promptly (and gratuitously) stabbing him to death. Compared to his contemporaries such as Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, Aldo as a first-time filmmaker is relatively restrained, favoring the outdated investigatory process over the spectacle of the kill.

Of course, the film’s central premise is so unnerving that it never needs much in the way of escalation. Like many of these films, SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS opens on a dead body; we follow the body from discovery to the morgue until, without warning, the dead body begins to talk to us. “Dead? I’m dead? Can’t be! I’m alive! Can’t you tell I’m alive?!” In time, we come to discover the man lying on the morgue slab is Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel), an American journalist in Prague during a period of civil unrest. Moore and his girlfriend Mira Svoboda – played by future Bond girl Barbara Bach – had made plans to leave the country once his posting is completed, but one night, when Moore is called away by a source, he returns to find Svoboda missing despite the fact that her clothes and passport remain.

The film unfolds, then, in two parallel storylines. In the present, Moore lays paralyzed in the morgue, hoping that his doctor friend will prove smart enough to realize he may not be as dead as he seems. As he waits, Moore replays the events of the previous week in his head, trying to uncloud his memory and perhaps discover the man behind all his grief. We watch through Moore’s memories as he conducts his own investigation into Svoboda’s disappearance, working with his Russian counterpart – played by the wonderful character actor Mario Adorf – to discover the link between her disappearance and those of young Czechoslovakian women over the years.

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Had SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS cut its framing device entirely and played its disappearance straight, we might still mention the film as a giallo worth watching. Jean Sorel – one of the great expat leading men of Italian cinema – built his reputation on the strength of murder mysteries and police thrillers in the 1960s and 1970s. Here he and his flashing blue eyes are a cut above the competition as the giallo’s signature citizen sleuth. The film’s villains, too, offer a more compelling narrative than the tired cliché of the gender-confused killer. Moore’s investigation takes him deep into the dark rituals of Prague’s elite, where the city’s oldest and most powerful gather to commit sins of the flesh. This vast conspiracy raises the stakes above a single murderer, adding a political subtext that suggests the disposability of human life is more systemic than psychological.

With the framing device in place, however, SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS makes a case as one of the best gialli of them all. No death sequence in any giallo – no matter how explicit – can match the horror of the single incision that ends this film. Moore, now fully aware of his circumstances and the toxin that has caused his paralysis, sees that he is being wheeled into a medical amphitheater as part of a surgical lecture. He feels his heart begin to beat in his chest; with a great deal of effort, he starts to lift his right arm, only to have the surgeon delivering the lecture suddenly reach out and hold it flat against the table. The surgeon’s spectacles trigger one last memory: a man in similar glasses, reading aloud from a leather-bound book as the men and women of the secret society writhe in sexual agony around him. Calmly, without so much as a pause in his lecture, the man inserts the blade between two of Moore’s ribs. He dies without ever having been recognized as alive.

As much as we may fear being killed, there is no horror like that of not being missed. Few films can match SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS for the boldness of its ending; within the broader realm of Italian genre cinema, only Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE offers the same cold look at how men with power will always triumph over men with morality. A re-watch of the film only drives home this effect; each small victory that Moore has over his own faulty memory or body is tempered by the knowledge of what is to come next. And while 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE may offers its own twists and turns – its own grim conclusion to a story about people being trapped – it can never match the dull horror of watching our protagonist’s hand flutter and fall back to the table.  

About the author
Matthew Monagle

Matthew Monagle got his start writing about horror films for Paracinema Magazine and Daily Grindhouse. He is currently a columnist for Film School Rejects.and a graduate student in Columbia University’s Film Studies program.

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