Aldo Lado's directorial debut, initially titled Short Night of the Butterflies, has been released at various times under a number of names, including Malastrana (after the area of Prague in which much of the film is set) and Paralyzed. Identified here as Short Night of Glass Dolls, it remains the superb debut of a talented filmmaker, as well as his best film and one of the finest examples of Italian genre filmmaking, even if it doesn't really fit comfortably under the "giallo" moniker with which Anchor Bay have labelled it.
Prague: the body of a man, American journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel), is found in the flower-bed outside an ornate mansion, taken to the local hospital and prepared for the morgue. However, this is no ordinary death: while exhibiting no outward signs of life, the man's mind is very much active, and as he lies on the slab, he tries desperately to work out what led to him ending up in this situation. As he reruns the events in his mind, he pieces together a dark and disturbing conspiracy involving the sudden disappearance of his girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach) and an extensive cover-up operation involving multiple disparate figures...
It is something of a shame that the title Short Night of the Butterflies did not survive (it was hastily retitled to prevent confusion with Duccio Tessari's giallo The Bloodstained Butterfly), because the image of the butterfly is one of the film's most oft-repeated themes and is used throughout to symbolize freedom. Indeed, liberty is what this film is all about: a simple theme dealt with in an extremely assured and intelligent manner by Lado, who also contributed the surprisingly clever European riff on Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, Night Train Murders, four years later. By setting the film in Soviet Prague in the 1970s, Lado seems to have managed to fool both his Communist and capitalist masters to the extent that each thought the film was an attack on the other. Certainly, Short Night's theme of decadent elders feasting on the blood of the young is a potent image and one that could probably be applied to just about any system of government with a reasonable level of success, but it is mainly thanks to Lado's deft touch that the metaphor is ensured to be universal.
Ennio Morricone provides the music, as he did for Lado's other two genre entries, and while the score is one of his lesser efforts, that doesn't mean it's bad by any stretch of the imagination - it's merely unexceptional by his standards. The highlight is the deliciously bourgeois piano piece accompanied by Edda Dell'Orso's wordless vocalizations that plays in a number of scenes featuring the richer members of this supposedly Communist-controlled city living it up. Like the later Night Train Murders, much of Short Night is without music, and the soundtrack CD that sits on my shelf is comprised mostly of a whole lot of low humming and orgiastic moaning, most of which is absent from the film itself. It's a good thing that Giuseppe Ruzzolini's photography more than makes up for the lack of music, painting Prague as a city of contrasts, with the warm tones of the interior locations pitted against the monochromatic morgue and the cold hues of the various alleyways at night. Prague has certainly been used in a great number of films throughout the years, due to the relatively uninhibitive shooting costs, but here it looks unlike any other film, showing both the usual tourist traps and its less-traversed underbelly. Making full use of the wide framing, Ruzzolini's compositions are immaculate and often resemble classical paintings - no doubt an intentional touch. An air of foreboding pervades throughout, with every shadow seeming to hold secrets and the daylight scenes being as ominous as those that take place at night.
The casting comes across as solid, too. Jean Sorel makes for a reasonably engaging protagonist, and Barbara Bach, a.k.a. Mrs. Ringo Starr, who has the most amazing pair of legs you're ever likely to see, is a pleasure to watch, although underused. With her wide, innocent eyes and very young face, she makes a sympathetic victim, and it is a real shame that we do not get to know her better before she disappears. The various suspects and conspirators are well-cast, too, with a heavy emphasis on sinister-looking faces. My only real complaint in this respect is that the English dub features some rather bizarre voicing choices, the strangest of which is the completely incomprehensible accent with which Mario Adorf is saddled. His character's name is Jacques Versain, suggesting French nationality (although in the English dub he is referred to as "Jack"), but his speech sounds like an extremely bad imitation of an Irish accent.
It should be noted, however, that the film cannot really be considered a giallo in the traditional sense. Although it is the first title in Anchor Bay's Giallo Collection, it contains none of the black-gloved assassins or psychological trauma that became iconic for films of that genre. Instead, this is a more traditional thriller, one that has more to do with espionage than lurid slashers. Viewers should also be warned that it moves extremely slowly, especially at the start. Lado takes great care to establish a specific mood and as a result it goes nowhere in a hurry. Having said that, everything comes together in the final act, and scenes and pieces of dialogue that previously seemed unimportant or out of place take on newfound significance. Gregory's line "I'd better rescue Mira from the body-snatchers", for example, becomes bitterly ironic given what later transpires (and I must give appropriate credit to KinoCite's review for this observation). I think that this is a rare example of an Italian genre movie in which not a single line of dialogue is wasted. Everything has a purpose or leads towards a purpose, and if you can ignore the sometimes awkward dubbing, this comes across as one of the most tautly-written thrillers of the period. It may not have the urgency or production values of some of the more well-known American efforts, but it has a habit of getting under your skin and remaining in your mind long after it has finished playing.
Anchor Bay's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks extremely good and is marred only by a negligible softness and some weak black levels during the darker scenes. Certainly it's hard to believe that the film is nearly 35 years old, as the print is in immaculate condition and the colours nicely saturated (although they do have that slightly yellow tint that most films of this vintage feature). Compression is handled expertly, and although at 14:44 there is an odd jump suggesting some missing frames, I really have no major complaints about this presentation.
The audio fares less well. The only track present is a Dolby Digital 2.0 affair presenting the English dub in its original mono format. It has not ages well, and although there are not major drop-outs, the dialogue sounds very shrill and flat, and the soundtrack as a whole suffers from noticeable distortion. As is so often the case, Anchor Bay have neglected to provide subtitles of any kind.
This release definitely stresses quality over quantity, with the only major bonus feature being an 11-minute Aldo Lado interview. As always, Lado is outgoing and eager to talk about his work, discussing a range of subjects, including his political motivation for making the film, the casting choices, the confusion surrounding the title, his stormy relationship with cinematographer Ruzzolini, his work with Morricone, and the experience of shooting the bizarre climactic orgy sequence. Due to its short length, this interview only really skims the surface, and in my opinion the film has enough substance to it to have warranted a much longer documentary.
The rather confusing albeit dreamlike theatrical trailer is also included, in addition to an Aldo Lado filmography.
Short Night of Glass Dolls is a rare gem in European genre cinema and it is criminal that is has received so little attention over the years. Anchor Bay's DVD features a fine transfer and some solid (albeit limited) extras, but it suffers in terms of its audio presentation.