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Aldo Lado: Beyond giallo

Short Night of Glass Dolls

Short Night of Glass Dolls

Although he doesn’t have the status of Italian filmmaking pioneers and favourites like Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado is often considered one of the most interesting directors in Italian cult cinema, mainly because of a handful of giallo-inspired thrillers he directed in the early 1970s: Short Night of Glass Dolls (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro, 1971), Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972) and Night Train Murders (L’ultimo treno della notte, 1975). Prior to his directorial debut, Lado worked as a scriptwriter, contributing to Maurizio Lucidi’s Hitchcock-inspired giallo The Designated Victim (La vittima designata, 1971), among others.

Like Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), Short Night of Glass Dolls is a remarkable debut feature, and one that shows a talent already well-developed. The film was co-written by Lado himself and Ernesto Gastaldi, the genre’s pre-eminent scriptwriter, responsible for a number of classic gialli, including most of Sergio Martino’s films.

Unlike the majority of giallo films, Short Night of Glass Dolls is not constructed around elaborate set-piece murders, although it does feature a typical giallo hero in Jean Sorel’s Gregory Moore, an American journalist living in Prague. When his girlfriend (Barbara Bach, The Spy Who Loved Me) disappears in the middle of the night Moore begins questioning anyone who might have spoken to her on that last evening, as well as looking into several similar disappearances. In a bizarre twist, all this is related by Moore in a series of flashbacks as he lies on a mortuary slab, having apparently died from heart failure. While the doctors try and figure out why his ‘corpse’ is still warm and why it hasn’t gone into rigor yet, Moore looks back on recent events in an effort to understand what’s happened to him.

In most giallo films the journey is more important than the destination, and the pay-off is often something of a disappointment, although some of the finest efforts manage to construct a climax worthy of the rest of the film (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for example). Short Night of Glass Dolls definitely falls into the latter camp and features one of the genre’s most memorable conclusions, both in resolving the mystery of the girl’s disappearance and in Moore’s eventual fate. Although it appears to be inspired by a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lado takes the film in another, more exotic direction, one which it is doubtful that Hitchcock could have conceived of.

Watch the trailer for Short Night of Glass Dolls:

Although it’s very successful in purely horror terms, Short Night of Glass Dolls also works on a number of different levels. It can be assessed as an overtly political film, with an American journalist struggling to solve a mystery in a society that does not tolerate dissent and hides its secrets behind a corrupt bureaucracy. Because of this approach Lado was able to secure funding from pro-western sources; ironically, he also received financial support from pro-communist groups, who interpreted the film as a parable about the way the wealthy, upper-class elite prey upon the working classes like parasites. On a more abstract level, it’s also concerned with the fleeting nature of youth, and its exploitation by those desperate to recapture their own youthful vitality. This theme is reflected in Lado’s frequent references to butterflies, whose brief lifespan has made them a popular metaphor for youth and mortality. After the director’s original title, Malastrana, was rejected by the producers, it was changed to Short Night of the Butterflies, an appropriate enough choice, but that was altered because it was considered too similar to the title of another giallo released at roughly the same time, Duccio Tessari’s The Blood-stained Butterfly (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate, 1971).

Despite its continued critical acclaim Short Night of Glass Dolls has not been widely influential, but does seem to have inspired a handful of later films. Both Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972), which was also (co-)scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi, and Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Il profumo della signora in nero, 1974) feature secret groups and sinister activities. In contrast with Lado’s film, they focus upon female characters played by actresses with a solid giallo heritage, Edwige Fenech and Mimsy Farmer, allowing both films to portray their heroines’ collapsing mental state, much like Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Neither film is entirely successful; All the Colors of the Dark is compromised by a hysterical central character and doesn’t stand up to Martino’s other gialli, while a solid performance from Farmer in The Perfume of the Lady in Black isn’t enough to remedy a slow-moving plot and a largely event-free first hour.

Lado’s second film was another giallo, but a more traditional one, this time co-written by Lado, veteran scriptwriter Massimo D’Avak, and Francesco Barilli. Although it’s not as effective or original as Short Night of Glass Dolls or Night Train Murders, Who Saw Her Die? is still an interesting example of the genre, with a few unusual aspects that make it worth watching. A compelling introductory scene shows a child being murdered by someone in a black veil. Four years later, sculptor Franco (played by George Lazenby, the forgotten Bond) and his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) are living separate lives in Venice. When their daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi, Deep Red, 1975) is found murdered, Franco tries to track down her killer, uncovering a web of paedophilia and sadomasochism.

With a grieving father exploring the baroque and otherworldly city of Venice, trying to understand his daughter’s death, it’s not surprising that many commentators have seen connections between Who Saw Her Die? and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), although Lado’s film came out more than a year before Roeg’s. It’s never been established whether Roeg was familiar with Who Saw Her Die?, but the similarity of certain shots, locations and events suggest that he might have been. While Lado’s film is respectable enough, Don’t Look Now is still the superior film.

Watch the trailer for Who Saw Her Die?:

Like Short Night of Glass Dolls, Who Saw Her Die? is a window into a world of clandestine societies with secret agendas, and it’s also concerned with the themes of youth and mortality. The final revelations are less effective here, partly because they’re considerably less exotic, but also because it’s an altogether more traditional film, one that rarely strays from the established giallo pattern. It’s certainly technically accomplished, boasting excellent cinematography from Franco Di Giacomo, who had recently worked on Dario Argento’s long-elusive third giallo, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971). Like all of Lado’s early films, it boasts an excellent Ennio Morricone score. The composer downplays the jazz-rock tendencies and abrasive strings that characterise most of his giallo soundtracks in favour of choral pieces that predominantly feature children’s voices. This works for the most part, tying well into the film’s subject matter, but some of it seems too light for the material. Ultimately, despite its qualities, Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t stand up to Lado’s other films.

The final effort in Lado’s loose giallo-esque trio is 1975’s Night Train Murders, an unofficial remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). One of the most notorious exploitation films ever made, The Last House on the Left depicts the rape and murder of two young girls, and the subsequent bloody revenge taken by the parents of one of them. Although Craven wrote the script, the movie takes its plot and its central themes from the Ingmar Bergman classic The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukä;llan, 1960). Despite its notoriety, Craven’s film was a commercial success and gave rise to its own sub-genre, the ‘rape-revenge film’, including Meir Zarchi’s misogynistic I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Takashi Ishii’s mournful Freezer (2000) and Lado’s Night Train Murders, arguably the finest of the movies inspired by The Last House on the Left.

Night Train Murders begins with school friends Margaret and Lisa, played by Irene Miracle (Inferno, 1980) and Laura D’Angelo; having stayed with Margaret’s parents in Munich, they are travelling to Italy to spend Christmas with Lisa’s family. Although their journey starts out well enough, the presence of two pretty young girls attracts the attention of thug Blackie (Flavio Bucci, Suspiria, 1977) and his junkie friend Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi, The Church, 1989). Margaret and Lisa switch trains to escape from them, only to discover their attackers have done so too. By this time Blackie and Curly have been joined by a well-dressed Woman (Macha M&#223ril, Deep Red) whose obvious status and wealth conceal a nature every bit as sadistic and brutal as her new friends. They imprison the girls in a deserted carriage and subject them to a barrage of sexual, physical and psychological abuses. Eventually Lisa dies at their hands, and Margaret tries to escape out of the carriage window, but ends up dying on the rocks below. The three killers leave the train at the next stop and unwittingly accept an offer of a lift from Lisa’s parents, who have come to the station to pick up the girls. When they discover what has really happened, they turn upon the killers with surprising ferocity.

Although it devotes less screen time to the protracted rapes and assaults than most films of its kind Night Train Murders still makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing, thanks to a number of scenes that raise the bar for cinematic nastiness. The effect is compounded by the fact that Lado takes his time with Margaret and Lisa, allowing the viewer to understand and sympathise with them before their ordeal begins, roughly halfway through the film. They’re sweet, good-natured girls about to cross over into womanhood, but still childlike in many ways: secretly stealing cigarettes, flirting with boys and exploring their own nascent sexuality. It’s this innocence that draws Blackie, Curly and the Woman to them, with the corruption and destruction of this innocence being their primary motivation, as if rape and murder (and their own personal sexual satisfaction) were secondary considerations. All three of the killers seem genuinely surprised when one of the victims dies; this incident shatters the folie &#224 trois, and they soon begin to turn on each other.

Blackie and Curly are garden-variety thugs. Under the opening credits we see them snatching purses, beating up a market stall Santa, slicing up an expensive fur coat and jumping onto the train to escape from the police. They leer over Margaret and Lisa, attack a navy officer who attempts to help them and generally make a nuisance of themselves. No motives are provided, although Curly is a drug addict, which in a horror movie means he’s capable of anything. The well-dressed Woman is a different matter. We know she is intelligent, well informed and clearly wealthy. Beneath that respectable veneer she’s also a merciless sadist with a high sex drive (she carries pornographic photos in her handbag) and a dominant personality. Blackie’s attempt at rape quickly becomes consensual, with the Woman taking the lead over her surprised would-be attacker. Blackie and Curly revel in violence, but the Woman derives a sexual thrill from watching the rape and torture of two young girls. Her obvious intellect and imagination make her capable of acts of depravity that her cohorts could not conceive of.

Watch the trailer for Night Train Murders:

The Woman’s monstrous sadism is well hidden beneath a middle-class exterior, however, just as her face is concealed by her veil. Blackie and Curly look the part, but few would suspect the Woman of being responsible for a pair of vicious murders. One of the core aspects of the rape-revenge movie is the meting out of justice (or vengeance) upon the responsible parties, but Night Train Murders is one of the few films of its kind in which not all the killers are punished. [SPOILER] Instead the Woman (wearing her veil again) is able to claim that she had been kidnapped by the two thugs, and the credits roll after Lisa’s father has killed Blackie and Curly, with no apparent intention of killing her at all. It’s an incredibly cynical ending, but one that’s in keeping with the rest of the film. [END OF SPOILER]

Set in Germany and Italy, Night Train Murders takes place against a background of violence and revolution. Europe is still reeling from the last war, in which Munich played an integral role. Not everyone has managed to move on yet, as we can gather from the cabin full of German businessmen in suits, happily singing the archetypal Nazi hymn, the ‘Horst Wessel Song’, even though it’s been illegal for 30 years. Like the Woman, their secrets hide beneath a semblance of respectability. Meanwhile Italy is locked in the middle of the ‘Anni di piombi’, the Years of Lead, a two-decade period characterised by political turmoil and violent unrest. The nihilism and anger of young people like Blackie and Curly is being channelled towards political ends, although whether the end result will be any different remains to be seen. Margaret and Lisa’s train is stopped after a tip-off that a bomb has been placed upon it, forcing them to take another train and eventually bringing them into contact with the trio of killers.

Despite some flaws – Lisa’s parents, played by veterans Enrico Maria Salerno (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Marina Berti (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, 1974), are essentially just cardboard cut-outs – Night Train Murders is still one of the best Italian cult movies from the 1970s, and comfortably superior to almost every other rape-revenge film, with the exception of Wes Craven’s trailblazing original. It even inspired its own knock-off, Ferdinando Baldi’s awful Terror Express (La ragazza del vagone letto, 1979), which pads its brief running time with soft-core sex scenes that try to be controversial or shocking but usually end up being laughable instead. At the other end of the spectrum, Franco Prosperi’s Last House on the Beach (1978) was another stylish, well-made rape-revenge movie based on a story by Ettore Sanz&#242, who co-scripted Night Train Murders and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? The last twitch of the Italian rape-revenge cycle was Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park (La casa sperduta nel parco, 1980), a rather unpleasant film that cemented Deodato’s reputation as one of the most extreme Italian exploitation directors. It’s the opposite of the taut, economical plotting of Night Train Murders, and a somewhat ignoble end to one of the more notorious aspects of Italian cult cinema.

Jim Harper

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