It’s giallo time! And I seem to be continuing the tradition of watching movies set and filmed in Eastern European cities I’ve recently visited and dearly missed. Ah, Prague, you weird and wonderful cobblestoned multicoloured-terraced crackpot oversized village stuffed with beatniks and weird museums and repurposed Castle buildings and burly sexy LEGO sculpture and and the Charles Bridge and washed-up alchemy labs.
Day 5 of my horror-a-thon (I wish I’d come up with a better name for this, but in my third year, it’s just stuck) belongs to Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971). Originally named Malastrana after the district in which it was set, then later changed to Short Night of the Butterflies – a direct callback to a conversation in the film – then switched out again to avoid confusion with another butterfly-led title. So don’t even bother trying to read into the damn title.
Our movie begins with a corpse – our main character, journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is whisked to a morgue and examined by doctors. Only he’s actually not dead, as he narrates! He can barely remember what’s happened, other than his unfairly-beautiful girlfriend (Barbara Bach) has vanished. Doctors are treating him as sort-of-dead, although there’s a straggler who can’t quite work out why his body temperature hasn’t gone down yet.
And so follows 90-odd minutes of both of us trying to piece together the events that got him there, on an Eyes Wide Shut-style journey through the seedy sleazebelly of a foreign city’s social elite.
It’s all a bit disappointingly linear, and meekly, repeatedly taps you on the face with its low budget and scant production values. I’m also not sure if I just had a dodgy copy, but the dubbing was distractingly just…off, with badly-timed voices and ill-fitting accents.
I’ve yet to see much giallo, but I’d put this as more of a semi-spooky mystery thriller rather than a straight-up horror. Yes, there’s a sinister, untouchable satanic cult, and there’s elements of body/medical horror, but there’s more shooty-shooty than stabby-stabby, and the film’s oft-repeated theme is a series of lilting but damn-pleasant piano notes and thoughtful murmurs rather than short, sharp crescendoes and nail-biting string-plucking. Though at least we get a weird black-mass-orgy with a floating bell and scores of catatonic, clammy middle-aged bodies.
Still, the payoff is almost worth sticking with it – imagine a movie in which the killer(s) are far smarter in their sadism and track-covering than they have any right to be; horror slashers that prefer to operate in an occult thriller, exploiting the trust and invisibility afforded to them by their places in life. Isn’t that just as terrifying than any pizza-faced paedo or boiler-suit-wearing escaped mental patient with sister issues? (Probably not, but I wanted to end this on a high note, because I never fully dislike a movie.)