Saoirse’s Cult Corner #36: Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This fortnight we talk about an underrated gem of the Giallo movement, Aldo Lado’s masterpiece thriller, Short Night of the Glass Dolls.

Giallo can take many forms. You get the manic bombast that comes with films like Tenebrae, or you can have the weird kookiness of films like All The Colours of The Dark or A Lizard in the Woman’s Skin and you get the conventional murder mystery of The Girl Who Knew Too Much or A Black Veil For Lisa. Short Night of the Glass Dolls seemingly encapsulates all of it and more. Similarly, when you think of Giallo certain names come up, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, maybe Sergio Martino. They’re the big hitters. Of course, you get others, we’ve already covered Massimo Dellamano here as well as Michele Soavi and Ruggero Deodato, who were known for other things but did direct Gialli, but we’re yet to touch on one of my favourite directors, Aldo Lado. His films Late Night Trains and Who Saw Her Die? are two of the most shocking, exciting, and downright good of all Italian exploitation cinema. Here with Short Night of the Glass Dolls, he delivers his most exciting, ingenious, and professional effort that I’ve yet seen. 

Short Night of the Glass Dolls opens with one of my favourite openings in all of Giallo. Euro film legend Jean Sorel, known for films like Belle de Jour and One on Top of the Other, plays Gregory Moore. Moore is an American journalist in Prague, and he is dead. He is totally aware of everything around him, but to all intents and purposes, he’s dead, monologuing in voice over as to how we got here as he’s wheeled through the morgue in a pleasingly cineliterate homage to one of the best sequences in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece, Vampyr. As he lies there and goes through the process of the mortuary he wonders how he got in the situation. It’s a tale of perversion, petrification, and kidnapping. It’s a thematically rich film that I’ve written a lot about academically in a way I will attempt to consolidate in this column while exploring its individual pleasures.  

So, what are the individual pleasures of Short Night of the Glass Dolls? Well first of all, it looks amazing. Shot by Pasolini regular Giuseppe Ruzzolini, Ruzzolini helmed Theorem, Arabian Nights, and Oedipus Rex for Pasolini. He also helmed Duck, You Sucker for Sergio Leone. As it turns out Italian cult cinema is just the same group of talented artists making trash together. Good for them, honestly. Ruzzolini gives Short Night of the Glass Dolls a much more professional look than the heady experimental aesthetic of some other Aldo Lado films. At one point we see light coming in through blinds as our central cabal of foreign journalists strategise together and it looks certifiably glacial and pristine. As the film gets more and more paranoid and unhinged, it is largely the collaboration on the visual storytelling between Lado and Ruzzolini that holds the narrative together. The exact relationship between the two is, as with most films, hard to discern, but what they create together is stunning. The horrific and stark images they create together that push you along the proto Kill List plot towards the horrific trap we and the protagonist and being led into eventually break into psychedelic mania, edited together in a way that breaks in order to let us fall into the transcendent catharsis of cinematic breakdown at just the right moment. The isolation of the living dead scenes in the film are captured through a combination of point of view shots and detached, cold shots that let us feel the separation between Moore and his world. 

The actual writing itself is excellent. It builds a sense of paranoia as Moore himself becomes a criminal suspect that you get more and more involved in as more and more stuff keeps going wrong. This is, though, a plot we’ve seen many times, especially in Giallo. What makes this stand out is its supernatural elements, something rarely seen in Giallo. It foreshadows its ending, which I shant giveaway, in ways that slowly ratchet in tension while never allowing you to quite place what is happening. It’s sublime really. Aldo Lado co-wrote the movie with Giallo veteran Ernesto Gastaldi. Gastaldi is someone I’ve wanted to talk about for forever because he’s one of my favourite writers. Aside from Argento himself he’s probably the most famous and prolific writer in Giallo. He’s had an incredible career outside of Giallo that needs highlighting though. He’d been a journeyman writer in Italy for a long time but the earliest film of his that you might have heard of was  Antonio Margheriti’s 1964 chiller The Long Hair of Death. From there he’s made more supernatural chillers like Mario Bava’s The Whip & The Body, westerns like Day of Anger and My Name is Nobody, and Elio Petri’s incredibly influential sci-fi flick The 10th Victim. He was even one of Leone’s cabal of writers on Once Upon A Time In America. In the world of Giallo though, he is a monolith. His work with Sergio Martino is unprecedented, working on Martino’s iconic run of five Gialli between 1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh to 1973’s Torso. His approach to logical mystery differentiated him in a sea of Giallo writers and filmmakers purely interested in spectacle, which his directors normally compensated for in spades. Gastaldi has said that his approach to writing was to write half the movie just doing whatever he wanted, then figure out who the murderer is after that based on who it could possibly be and write the rest. While there are movies in his canon like The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Death Walks on High Heels where you can easily see this technique at work, films like Short Night of the Glass Dolls is such a singular, surreal story that it’s impossible to imagine they ever imagined that the ending could be anything else, probably due to Aldo Lado’s co-writing credit. 

The writing also succeeds because of its strong thematic coherence. Set behind the iron curtain with an American journalist as the main protagonist, the focus is immediately on elements of control. A year ago I wrote my dissertation on fascism in Giallo and Short Night of the Glass Dolls played a big part of my analysis. Without spoiling the film, the film’s central anxiety revolves around a secret club for the wealthy and powerful. This club is exploitative of women and has a seemingly psychological control that it uses to enforce sexual exploitation. It has deeply religious, yet satanic connotations, and it uses the police to enforce its power. Despite the iron curtain locale, more parallels can be made to fascism than communism, despite the communism of the era having a distinctly fascist flavour to it anyway. It is certainly true that for most Giallo, a foreign locale was compulsory for a glamorous selling point, but Czechoslovakia is hardly glamorous. It feels more like a pointed thematic comparison to what it has to say about political power under fascism. Fascism, amongst other things, is concerned with hierarchy and is concerned with using whatever tools are available to maintain hierarchy. These include, traditionally; rigid enforcement of gender norms, use of state violence, and compulsory religious worship. All of these elements turn up, in one way or another, in Short Night of the Glass Dolls. The vision of being trapped in a perpetual corpse is an unambiguous statement on the experience of suffering this violence. It is a kind of waking spiritual death. 

I love Short Night of the Glass Dolls and despite its high level of quality, it’s a film I hardly ever see talked about. Which is a shame, because I feel like it deserves to be revered on the same level of the works of Bava and Argento, and I feel like Lado deserves to be seen as one of the great Giallo directors with them. It is very much the dark horse of the Giallo world. 

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