This cant be real. It must be a nightmare. I dont feel a thing, says Jean Sorels Gregory Moore. Although Gregory is alert, and his brain is active, his body is immobile, rendering him totally helpless on a slab in the morgue. Gregory narrates the terrifying experience in a voiceover in Short Night of Glass Dolls, Aldo Lados nail-biting 1971 directorial debut. Doctors have pronounced Gregory dead and are scheduling him for an autopsy. Can the glassy-eyed catatonic, suspended between life and death, save himself before its too late?
Set in Communist-era Prague, we learn about Gregorys Kafkaesque story through a series of flashbacks. Briefly reunited with his Czech girlfriend Mira Svoboda (Black Belly of the Tarantulas Barbara Bach) before she vanishes without a trace, Gregory launches an investigation into the mysterious disappearance that uncovers the dark secrets of some of Pragues most powerful leaders.
In the giallo tradition, Lado offers audiences several red herrings. An outspoken Italian judge is buried alive in Sicily, casting suspicion on the oppressive government. We also meet a scientist who has a bizarre obsession with demonstrating the effects of pain on plant life and food. And Gregorys jilted professional associate Jessica (Salon Kittys Ingrid Thulin) tries to engage him in an affair despite his affection for Mira. Finally, the eerie private club Klub 99, which appears to be a music society is revealed to be a front for something diabolical.
Lado is at his best when Short Night of Glass Dolls confronts political and social unrest with nuanced symbolism. In several Slavic languages, Mira means peace, while Svoboda translates to freedom. Short Night of Butterflies is one of the films alternate titles, referencing the butterfly collection Mira gives to Gregory. But Lado makes it clear that it isnt just the relationships at the heart of his film that are fleeting Mira and Gregorys and Gregorys link to his own mortality, before the surgeon pries his flesh apart its our real-world freedoms.
The encroaching, omnipresent other is visible in Pragues crumbling landscape, the oppressive men who delight in taking advantage of the stoned hippie crowd in the film (one young woman, practically catatonic herself, is casually groped at a party), and in the death shroud that blankets Gregory at the hospital, his unheard pleas for help echoing only in his own mind. A wicked oath incanted in the film gives voice to Lados warning cry: 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.
Alison Nastasi is a giallo addict and the weekend editor of Flavorwire. You can find her talking about exploitation cinema, VHS, occult oddities, Hammer horror, and other genre fare on Twitter.