Welcome to Part 2 of my random tour through the sexy-violent world of the Italian thriller. (Part 1 can be found here.) As in Part 1, titles viewed in Italian-language only (i.e. for those discs without English subtitles/audio) will be marked “IT-LANG”. Films are listed by Italian title first, followed by the most commonly-known English title, with AKAs collected below them.
D: Riccardo Freda. S: Riccardo Freda, Alessandro Continenza, André Tranché. Novel: “A Room Without a Door” by Richard Mann. P: Alfonso Donati, Franco Fumagalli, Fritz Hammel. Cast: Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Valentina Cortese, Arthur O’Sullivan, Werner Pochath, Renato Romano. DVD (Germany): New Entertainment World.
“You have to agree, it’s pathetic,” sighs a character at the end of this film, and the viewer is very likely to concur. Directed on an off-day by Italo-horror legend Riccardo Freda, under his “Willy Pareto” alias, Iguana is an exceptionally shoddy and grubby shocker that largely wastes a great cast on a disjointed, hard-to-follow plot. On the plus side, it’s never actually boring, the soundtrack (by busy composer Stelvio Cipriani, with Edda Dell’Orso on vocals) is a delight, and when the blood flows, it positively gushes (even if the quality of the effects is often laughably poor). The Dublin locations are fun, and (thanks in part to an unusually good English dub) the bull-headed “Irish” hero makes for amusing company; with expectations adjusted downwards, giallo fanatics may find something to enjoy.
Iguana kicks off in lurid style, with a young woman murdered by a black-gloved assassin in shades: her body (face scorched with vitriol and throat messily slashed) is later discovered in the boot of a limo belonging to the Swiss Ambassador (Anton Diffring), who immediately wins first place on a long list of shady suspects. A former Dublin police inspector (Luigi Pistilli), who left the force after his wife was murdered, is drawn into the case when he picks up the Ambassador’s daughter (Dagmar Lassander) in a bar. Before long more bodies turn up, mutilated in the same way. “Like an iguana, our killer is good at disguising himself,” remarks the policeman in charge of the case. “His bottle of vitriol is his tongue of fire, you might say…”
If only the film were as good as its title! This is truly ropey stuff: ugly, mean-spirited and crude beyond belief. As director, main scenarist and editor, the bulk of the blame falls squarely on Freda, whose penultimate film this was; his final credit as director was for another giallo, the equally poor Follia Omicida/Murder Obsession (1981) with Laura Gemser. Freda’s earlier Gothics – I Vampiri (1957), The Terror of Dr.Hichcock (1962) and its semi-sequel The Ghost (1963) – do at least evince a smidgen of style, which in the first case can be safely attributed to his DP Mario Bava (who took over direction when Freda walked off the set); I was never a huge fan of Hichcock (a pretty dull effort, less necrophiliac than narcoleptic in effect), though The Ghost has its moments. With Iguana, however, Freda’s utter disinterest in the mechanics of storytelling, and in cinema in general, is plain to see. He abandons all pretence at sophistication, deploying clunkingly obvious camera setups, hamfisted cuts and glaringly fake gore inserts – perhaps to convey his disgust with the material, though that may be an overly-charitable view.
The narrative’s twists and turns are handled with such lack of care, any attempt to follow the clues is hopeless. This is the kind of tortuous plot where everyone seems to be blackmailing everyone else, or leaving each other elliptical notes, or both. If the killer wears shades, you can be sure the whole cast will later be shown sporting a pair (a detail pointed outsubtly each time with a shrill Cipriani musical sting, in case we’d missed it). In an effort to inject a spot of glamour, the film shifts location to the Swiss Alps (for five minutes), simply in order to show an apparent attempt on Diffring’s life – via a bob-sled miniature plunging over a cliff, from which no human being could possibly survive. The immediate cut to a shot of Diffring with a walking stick is so hilarious, one suspects Freda is deliberately trying to undermine his own film.
Still, in spite of the director’s best efforts, some entertainment value does creep through. Though it’s disconcerting, at first, to see Luigi Pistilli (Un vestito bianco per Marialé) dubbed with a broad Irish brogue – “Well now, me fleet-footed filly, are we going to have it off in the bushes or on the bike?” – his dialogue appears to have been written with an attempt at local flavour, an observation which can be extended to the English dub-track in general; it’s much livelier than the norm, and may even have been recorded in Ireland to judge by the authenticity of the voice talent. (One fey British victim-to-be sounds uncannily like a young Tom Chadbon.) Anton Diffring, in his element as an imperious Swiss diplomat, dubs his own performance flawlessly. The luminous Dagmar Lassander (Femina Ridens) has little to do but stand around, or lie around, looking gorgeous, though she does later on get chased through foggy streets by the razor-wielding killer. I don’t know who plays Pistilli’s Miss Marple-like mother, but she’s endearingly batty. Does she guess the killer’s identity correctly? Since the film handles that reveal so ineptly (Pistilli actually has to tell the audience who it is when he unmasks him), your guess is as good as mine, but I’m prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. Given the charm of Pistilli’s home life, it’s a shame – though entirely in keeping with the film’s misanthropic outlook – that Freda feels the need to destroy it quite so viciously at the end. (The treatment doled out to Pistilli’s young teenage daughter is especially reprehensible.) Still, you can’t say it doesn’t pack a punch.
It’s perhaps fitting that this uniquely grotty film has received such a uniquely grotty DVD release. German label New Entertainment World have slapped an ancient and atrocious Italian VHS master onto their disc, cropped from its original ‘scope dimensions to a screen-filling 1.78:1 ratio. While it’s anamorphically-enhanced, the transfer is quite breathtakingly ugly, never more so than in the opening title sequence (tinged a uniform orange). During dark scenes, of which there are a few, the picture dissolves into swirling magnetic video grain; Dagmar Lassander’s nocturnal chase, for example, is almost completely unintelligible. Faces can be bright red, bright orange or bright yellow, from one shot to the next. Pistilli’s Starsky-like cardigan is supposed to be white, but emerges as lime-green at one point. However, Pistilli and Lassander’s visit to the Cliffs of Moher looks okay, and the transfer is good enough to make out one amusing detail: as police inspector Arthur O’Sullivan examines a receipt, we fleetingly see the company’s name – Swastika Laundry! New Entertainment’s disc comes with three audio options: German 5.1, German mono and English mono. (The latter is adequate, though not without some slight background noise.) Sweetening the deal is the disc’s sole substantial extra, the full 16-track Stelvio Cipriani score in stereo – a welcome touch, and almost enough to forgive the remedial presentation of the main feature. Almost.
(Note: the same poor quality transfer has also been uploaded to YouTube, for anyone who doesn’t want to shell out for the German disc.)
D: Duccio Tessari. S: Gianfranco Clerici, Duccio Tessari. P: Cecilia Bigazzi, Averoe Stefani. Cast: Helmut Berger, Evelyn Stewart [Ida Galli], Giancarlo Sbragia, Wolfgang Preiss, Gunther Stoll, Silvano Tranquilli, Carol André. DVD (Germany): Eyecatcher Movies.
“All men like young girls because they’re so irresistible,” an oily lawyer casually remarks to his mistress, after she’s caught him molesting her daughter. For once, we’re not invited to endorse this view – just one sign amongst many that The Bloodstained Butterfly is not your standard giallo fare. Duccio Tessari is perhaps better known for his brace of westerns with Giuliano Gemma (A Pistol for Ringo, The Return of Ringo) than as a director of thrillers, though that’s a situation that deserves to change. Butterfly is a mature, complex work that in some ways stands as a critique of the misogyny so prevalent in this often sordid niche. Passion is the driving force of Italian cinema, with the giallo in particular amplifying it to operatic levels, from its breathy, overwrought heroines to the breathy, overwrought vocals of Edda Dell’Orso. But this time around, it’s the disordered passions of middle-aged men, and not the emotional apparatus of young women, that comes under the spotlight. And it’s not a pretty sight.
Tessari favours sobriety above sensation – so if Strip Nude For Your Killer is your benchmark of excellence, you may want to look elsewhere. He observes the conventions of the form – Argentovian title, raincoated killer, a string of murders peppered with sex – but minus the usual exaggerations of style, adopting an almost documentarian approach within an intricate puzzle-box structure. There’s the obligatory flashes of nudity, a bestial sex scene which prefigures Blue Velvet and some snappily-edited flashback violence, but Tessari is more interested in exploring the forensic investigation of the crime scene, carefully documenting the various techniques by which evidence is assembled to link the killer to the crime – ranging from the low-tech (plaster-of-paris footprint moulds) to the high (spectrograph analysis) – and spending an atypical amount of time observing the oratorical art of the courtroom.
Tessari opts for a piecemeal revelation of the truth, which can seem confusing at first: once the butterfly-themed title sequence is over an avalanche of clues greets the viewer, through a quick montage identifying each of the main players with on-screen captions. At this stage, we don’t know how these characters are linked, nor the parts they’ll play in the drama to follow – are they victims, villains, red herrings? Very quickly, we learn the role of one of these subjects, as Françoise Pigaut (Carol André), a virginal French girl, is stabbed to death in a rain-lashed park. The maniac manages to escape in the downpour, his flight observed by a number of witnesses. As police and onlookers gather at the murder scene, we notice another of the main players watching, in a condition of some agitation, from the crowd: Giorgio (Helmut Berger), an affluent pianist, whose connection with Françoise we are invited to guess. He’s clearly on the edge of a breakdown; we get the impression it’s not just class guilt that’s eating him up.
Forensic evidence soon points overwhelmingly to a single suspect: Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia), a TV sports presenter whom the police quickly arrest. Although his lawyer (Gunther Stoll) appears dedicated to Marchi’s cause, we soon discover that he has begun an affair with Marchi’s wife (Evelyn Stewart, of The Sweet Body of Deborah), and that his commitment to freeing his client is not quite as firm as we first thought… But when two more women are killed in the same park in a similar fashion, Marchi’s guilt is thrown into doubt and he is freed – and before long, all the tangled threads start to unwind…
This is quietly impressive stuff. Interspersed with his dryly comic character-work with police inspector Silvano Tranquilli (whose assistant is charged with the Sisyphean task of fetching the perfect cup of coffee) and the suspicious goings-on in and around la famigilia Marchi, Tessari treats us to almost subliminal flashes of detail harking back to Françoise’s murder, creating an impressionistic collage of clues which gradually assemble into coherent form. The use of the central butterfly motif is subtly handled – tantalising appearances here and there tip us off to its importance in the narrative, but it never becomes obtrusive – and the final revelation is satisfactory without being overly-contrived. Gianni Ferrio’s score is interesting, too. The opening title, beginning with a classical rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1, abruptly segues into jazz-lounge improvisation mid-cue, catching the audience off-guard. Later in the film, Tessari stages a similar fusion of classical and modern, within a scene played between Berger and his father; as papa idly tinkles the ivories in Tchaikovsky mode, Berger rudely interrupts by putting on a blaringly loud jazz disc. Tessari seems to be suggesting an emotional turbulence within the male psyche, a constant war between the rational and the irrational. Men, more than women, are prisoners of their emotions, their lusts apt to drive them to random and irrevocable acts of madness.
The fate of Françoise Pigaut is treated with an uncommon degree of pathos for this typically-ruthless genre; Ferrio supplies a lovely cue (“Soliloquio”) reminiscent of Morricone’s more melancholic phrasing, which serves as a kind of elegy for the doomed girl. This is a rewarding film on many levels: a more thoughtful exploration of the usual tropes, beautifully scored and quietly moving. Revisiting the character-intro montage again, armed with the final revelation, solidifies and enriches the experience considerably – and enhances the sense of needless loss for the girl we never got to know.
Germany’s Eyecatcher Movies have gone the full distance with their DVD presentation, which utilises the same good-quality anamorphic ‘scope transfer as the Italian disc from Medusa (under the title Blutspur im Park). There are a few minor differences: the opening Titanus logo, shown at a puzzling 1.78:1 ratio on the Medusa disc, is rather brutally cropped here to 2.35:1 (to match the feature ratio), and some artificial sharpening seems to have been added to the image (Medusa’s transfer having tended towards softness and lack of clear detail in long shots). Colours and black levels are good, with no print damage in evidence. While the Medusa disc offered only Italian audio with optional HoH subtitles, Eyecatcher offer a surprisingly generous selection of options: a choice of German, Italian or English audio, with optional German and English subtitles. (I heartily recommend the subtitled Italian track.) And the generosity doesn’t end there. In addition to the usual reversible cover designs, showcasing Italian and Spanish poster art, Eyecatcher also provide the full Gianni Ferrio score in stereo as an extra. A first-rate disc which deserves a place in any serious fan’s collection.
NOTE: Avoid the Spanish DVD from Manga, which carries the English track but is cut by over 5 minutes (including the opening character-intro montage).
A.k.a. Red Rings of Fear, Trauma, Virgin Terror
D: Alberto Negrin. S: Massimo Dallamano, Peter Berling, Marcello Coscia, Franco Ferrini, Alberto Negrin, Stefano Ubezio. P: Artur Brauner, Leo Pescarolo, Antonio Tagliaferri. Cast: Fabio Testi, Christine Kaufman, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor, Bruno Alessandro, Helga Liné, Silvia Aguilar, Nicoletta Elmi. DVD (Germany): Eyecatcher Movies.
One of the skits in John Landis’s Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) was a faux-trailer for a lurid porn film, “Samuel L. Bronkowitz Presents: Catholic High School Girls in Trouble”. It’s tempting to imagine the germ for Rings of Fear sprang from a viewing of that sketch, since its spoof title handily summarises the content of this seedy thriller from Alberto Negrin, a director mainly known for his work in TV (where he’s still employed today). He does quite a respectable job, at least from a technical standpoint; so far as the lurid content goes, respectability is not one of this film’s chief qualities.
The body of a nude teenage girl, raped to death by a huge sex toy, is discovered wrapped in plastic. (Ah, the life of a film critic: an epic poem of culture, poise and grace.) Inspector Di Salvo (Fabio Testi) discovers that the victim was a pupil at St Theresa’s boarding school, where she belonged to a clique of girls calling themselves “The Inseparables”. Di Salvo’s investigation uncovers some puzzling clues; the dead girl’s diary is marked on certain days by a cartoon cat, and a large sum of money is found in her effects. When the drawing is later identified as a billboard logo, Di Salvo begins to suspect that the girls have been involved in some shady enterprise involving various captains of industry. (Altogether now: teenage prostitution racket!) Before long the other girls’ lives are also in danger – one suffers a violent fall down a stone staircase at the school, when someone slips marbles under her feet, and another is almost killed when her horse is shot with a dart and bolts. Each girl has received a threatening note from the killer, signed “Nemesis”. Where will he – or she – strike next…?
Rings of Fear is hardly the acme of subtlety, but it gets the job done. Often considered the unofficial final chapter in a trilogy of gialli that began with Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange? (1972) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974), the film bears more of a stylistic connection with the second film, being more of a gritty police procedural with action elements than a giallo proper. Emphasising this is a sparse, funky score from Riz Ortolani, channelling more the spirit of Lalo Schifrin than, say, Bruno Nicolai. (It’s actually repurposed from Dallamano’s Superbitch , a cost-saving measure familiar from The French Sex Murders.) The film has a lively pace, good action scenes (with a bone-crunching, Mad Max-style motorbike stunt and a foot chase taking in a graphic tour round a slaughterhouse), violent innovation (watch those curling tongs!) and decent production values, helped by a good choice of locations (including a dam that’s pretty spectacular). And then there are the seamier attractions to consider.
Perhaps aware that this would be his only feature, Negrin goes all-out to cram in as much sleaze as possible: a Porky’s-style communal shower scene, sex-party flashbacks, giant dildo mayhem and assorted rudery, all of it gratuitous in the extreme. Watched back-to-back with Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971), with its sly critique of dirty old men, it’s hard to sit through Rings of Fear with an entirely clean conscience – but then, the giallo always relished playing to the viewer’s baser instincts, stoking the furnace of guilt and desire. (I’m tempted to suggest it’s a Catholic thing – but then why does it work so well on me, a confirmed atheist?) It seems unlikely Negrin could have filmed this material without some awareness of its political impact, but maybe I’m just trying to mitigate my own complicity in the film’s blatantly sexist attitudes. Still, any film that encourages self-examination can’t be all bad – even if that wasn’t the filmmaker’s primary intention.
The cast is okay, if unexceptional. Fabio Testi, later in Negrin’s TV movie Mussolini and I (1985), makes his second appearance here in the Schoolgirls Trilogy, graduating from Dodgy Teacher in Solange to Hero Cop for Rings. With the exception of a nice domestic scene with his girlfriend’s pet cats, testy Fabio delivers an aggressive one-note performance, haranguing and intimidating suspects left and right, though his interrogation technique (half-throttling a suspect on a speeding rollercoaster) is at least original. And Testi’s girlfriend (Christine Kaufman) will raise a wry smile from English viewers: a literal “tea-leaf”, first introduced shoplifting Twinings’ Best from her local supermarket. Nicoletta Elmi, the ginger tyke from Deep Red (1975), Baron Blood (1972) and many others, pops up here as a pupil supplying Testi with clues about the older girls’ activities, while Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor (The Bare-Breasted Countess) cameos as a fey sicko well-served with some just desserts. Bruno Alessandro, as Inspector Di Salvo’s sidekick, is actually referred to as “Starsky” by his boss, though with Testi it’s hard to know if he’s joking.
The DVD, from German outfit Eyecatcher Movies, has been sourced from a Spanish print under the title Trafico de Menores. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the transfer is clean but a trifle soft, with a couple of extremely grainy inserts (where optical zooms have enlarged the frame; a choice of the original filmmakers, not a flaw of the disc). Three mono audio options are offered: German, Spanish and English – the latter is a bit hissy, but at least it’s there. The quality of the English dub is par for the course (an Italian taxi driver lets out his fares with a cheery “There y’are, goyles!”). Optional German subtitles are provided. The sole extra is a full-frame German trailer, offering a spicy digest of the film’s most lurid moments (of which there are many); the menu screens are frankly outrageous. The disc comes with reversible cover art, featuring details from the UK quad movie poster. All in all, a quality package that should please collectors.
Postscript: A word on the various titles, none of which are much cop. The Italian is okay, if bland, while the English variants are uniformly uninspiring. I can’t help feeling the makers missed a trick in failing to continue the trend begun with Solange and Daughters: What Are You Doing With That Massive Dildo? would have really packed ‘em in, I think.
D: Alfonso Brescia. S: Peter Skerl, Gianni Martucci, Antonio Fos, Lorenzo Gicca Palli, Aldo Crudo, Alfonso Brescia. P: Luigi Mondello, Roberto Capitani. Cast: Robert Hoffman, Pilar Velázquez, Adolfo Celi, Irina Demick, Patrizia Adiutori, Howard Ross [Renato Rossini], Philippe Leroy. DVD (Italy): Cinekult/Cecchi Gori. IT-LANG.
Title aside, this is a ploddingly conventional thriller with few high notes to speak of. The story opens in Berlin, 1945, where a German officer binds and gags his wife and young son, inches away from a ticking time-bomb. With his young mistress in tow, the officer flees – and when the bomb explodes, all evidence of his crime is concealed under the cover of an Allied bombing raid. We then cut to the Luna Park funfair in Madrid, 1972, where the body of well-to-do nabob Johannes Wartenburger is found in the Ghost Train. His insurance company immediately smells a rat, as the victim recently took out a million-dollar policy on his life, and assigns top investigator Chris Bayer (Robert Hoffman) to the case. Meanwhile the victim’s sickly-but-hot daughter Katherine (Pilar Velázquez) is being persecuted by phone calls from a heavy-breathing sadist, who soon moves on from empty taunts (“You killed your father!”) to terrorizing her inside her own apartment, causing her to keel over in a dead faint. (She suffers from a long-term heart condition, known to clinicians as Expedient Swoon Syndrome.)
Chris chats up Katherine at a fancy soirée, and soon she’s invited him to stay over with her family at their sprawling estate. There Chris finds himself the object of more female attention, from both Katherine’s hot-to-trot sister Barbara (Patrizia Adiutori) and her mother Magda (Irina Demick), a hopless lush with a tenuous grip on reality. It’s not long before Chris and Barbara get it on, but the next morning her naked body is discovered lying in a patch of woodland near the house – her throat cut. Could the killer be Gunther (Howard Ross), the razor-toting gardener who ravished Barbara in the woodshed? Or is it the vengeful paterfamilias Johannes, back from the grave to settle old scores…?
Oh, who cares. Alfonso Brescia (sometimes credited as Al Bradley) plays this one strictly by-the-numbers, continuing an uninterrupted run of hackwork that began with Revolt of the Praetorians in 1964 and ended with Club Vacanze in 1995. (Anyone who’s seen the trailer for his 1974 “comedy” Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women will be astonished that his career lasted as long as it did – or that he had a career at all.) The black-and-white prologue, intercut with horribly battered stock footage, is a cheap and unpromising start, and while he handles the suspense of Katherine’s apartment trauma adequately enough, it’s downhill all the way from there. Brescia piles on the intrigue without enthusiasm, and stages the killings with a typical disdain for flair. The potential excitement of the funfair finale – with a foot-chase across live rollercoaster tracks – is surgically neutralised before it gets out of hand. With Brescia at the helm, you’re sure of a pink-knuckle ride.
Pilar Velázquez, one of the decadent revellers in Romano Scavolini’s Spirits of Death (1972), makes a pretty but colourless heroine, weak in every sense; she does little more than look demure, strip off and swoon decorously, as required. Though her passivity, to be fair, has a medical justification, it fast becomes boring. As for Austrian star Robert Hoffman, he’s as blandly adequate here as he was in Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974). Still, he’s good at looking nonplussed, which I suppose is an advantage in this sort of thing. Patrizia Adiutori is good value, however, as the titular victim, throwing herself into the part with an energy sadly absent from the film around her. In what was probably his twelfth such cameo that week, Adolfo Celi pops up as a smirking copper. Franco Ressel, another busy character actor familiar from Blood and Black Lace, Sabata and Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him part as the family butler. (I don’t think he even gets a screen credit; perhaps working with Brescia was honour enough.) The score, by Carlo Savina, is modestly pleasing – but then I’m a sucker for dreamy female vocalising all’italiana.
This undistinguished giallo gets a so-so DVD, from Italian genre specialists Cinekult. To take the positives first, it’s in the correct aspect ratio (2.35:1), uncut and anamorphically enhanced; however, the image quality is extremely soft, with only closeups showing much detail. Though the disc is dual-layered, it seems to suffer from heavy compression problems, with sections of the image prone to digital instability. (The disc not English-friendly, with only Italian HoH subs for the main feature.) Annoyingly, the trailer is in far better condition than the main feature – sharper and with far more robust contrasts. Other supplements include an interview featurette with co-writer Gianni Martucci (who later directed the 1980 giallo Trhauma [sic]), plus a selection of Cinekult trailers for all sorts of delectable tosh – including Joe D’Amato/Filmirage erotica, a sexy drama by Luchino Visconti’s nephew Eriprando (who also made the sleazy kidnap classic La Orca), and, incredibly, a 1967 film co-starring none other than Dimitri-son-of-Vladimir Nabokov! (Evidently he had a few days free from his main duties as translator, opera singer and racing-car driver, and didn’t want to waste them. Two peas in a pod, Dimitri and me.) Per standard Italian practice, each trailer takes care to include every salacious moment – a thoughtful touch. The disc is quite inexpensive, and comes with a reversible sleeve featuring lovely Italian and Spanish poster art. Though the film itself cannot be recommended, completists will find something here to justify the purchase.
A.k.a. Malastrana, La corta notte delle farfalle, Paralyzed
D/S: Aldo Lado. P: Enzo Doria, Dieter Geissler, Luciano Volpato. Cast: Jean Sorel, Ingrid Thulin, Barbara Bach, Mario Adorf, Fabijan Sovagovic, José Quaglio, Relja Basic, Piero Vida. Blu-ray/DVD (Germany): Cinema Obscura.
The first film by director Aldo Lado, who later made the Venetian giallo Who Saw Her Die? (1972), Short Night of Glass Dolls is a tense and claustrophobic thriller with an intriguing political subtext. The body of Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel), an American journalist working in Prague, is found in a public park and transferred to the local morgue for examination. Doctors are puzzled: though Gregory looks dead as a doornail – no heartbeat, eyes fixed and staring – his body temperature is normal, and there’s no sign of rigor mortis. Unknown to them, Gregory is still very much alive – trapped inside his own body in a kind of living death. Though he can hear and see everything happening around him, he can only watch helplessly as the doctors try to revive him; and bit by bit, he starts to recall the events that led to his grim predicament…
Some days earlier he attended a party with his Czech girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach), who was quite a hit with their fellow guests – a circle of rich and elderly movers and shakers, rumoured to share certain decadent tastes. Soon after that Mira vanishes, apparently leaving behind all her clothes; police find the body of a naked girl in the river, but it’s not her. With the help of his fellow journalists (Mario Adorf and Ingrid Thulin) Gregory begins to look into Mira’s disappearance, to the displeasure of the Communist authorities. A potential informant agrees to meet Gregory at the railway station, but before he can talk he’s pitched over the bridge onto the tracks. With the wall of silence growing ever thicker, and the local commissar keen to frame him for Mira’s murder, it seems Gregory is the victim of a powerful conspiracy – whose nature and purpose he will learn to his cost.
Well, this is a strange one. While the mystery plot conforms broadly to the conventions of the giallo – women in peril, flashes of nudity and violence, a haunting Morricone score (plus Edda Dell’Orso vocal) – the execution is anything but ordinary. Writer-director Aldo Lado uses the brooding Prague locations to unsettling effect, crafting a uniquely eerie chiller with occult overtones somewhat in the style of Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark (1972) and Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974). Lado employs recurrent imagery and odd vignettes to build a growing sense of entrapment, mirroring the predicament of the hero. Blind characters drift around Sorel throughout the film; at a party of jaded toffs, Adorf gropes a zombie-like girl as unresponsive to his touch as the Apathetics in Zardoz (1974); two lovers fondle one another as if in a trance. Are these foreshadowings of Sorel’s own living death, a corruption of memory by the brain’s failing processes, or an allegorical critique of state repression? Lado’s script (unusually, for this genre, a solo effort) subtly interweaves all these elements into a bleakly ambiguous whole. Rather than a specific attack on Communist tyranny, Short Night is a broader condemnation of social injustice, and more specifically the exploitation of the young by the old. (Lado expands on this subtext in an interview included on the Camera Obscura blu-ray release. At 81 years old, the topic incenses him as much as ever.)
Another of the film’s recurring motifs is the butterfly – or rather, a particular species of flightless butterfly, seen preserved in a glass case in Sorel’s apartment. If the butterfly is a symbol of the soul, his collection takes on a disturbing significance in the light of later revelations. (It seems likely this imagery supplied at least some inspiration for Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy , where it was put to even more overtly symbolic use.) It’s interesting to note that the film was originally called Short Night of the Butterflies, an allusion to the Prague Spring of 1968 and also the title of a folk song caterwauled in the film by Jürgen Drews; to avoid confusion with another similarly-titled giallo released that year, Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly, the title was altered to the poetic but meaningless Short Night of Glass Dolls. Posters for the film were printed using the Butterflies title, with a snipe bearing the revised suffix pasted over the top.
With The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), Fulci’s Perversion Story (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), and Lenzi’s A Quiet Place to Kill (1969), French star Jean Sorel was a staple feature of the giallo by the early Seventies. With his good looks and easygoing charm, Sorel is more of a clean-cut hero than, say, Franco Nero or George Hilton; while that means he lacks their often seedy edge, it also makes him easier to identify with – a real plus in a film like this, where the viewer is essentially locked inside the hero’s head. Sorel’s impotent cataleptic is the ultimate extrapolation of similar figures in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Argento’s Bird With the Crystal Plumage: a man reduced to the condition of a movie camera, powerless to do anything but record what he sees.
Sorel gets solid support from his co-stars. Improbably cast as a reporter – presumably he’s the Cosa Nostra correspondent – Mario Adorf (Calibre 9) is unusually subdued as Sorel’s best pal, while Bergman star Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries) has a somewhat ambiguous role as Sorel’s former lover, a proud woman d’un certain age who resents her replacement with a younger model. Barbara Bach, also in Black Belly of the Tarantula the same year, does okay in the thankless role of The Pretty Girlfriend. Technical credits, as you’d expect, are sound across the board, with DP Giuseppe Ruzzolini (Theorem) supplying some effectively chilly imagery. Lado makes a clear stylistic distinction between past and present, so the viewer never feels lost: while the morgue scenes are lit with a clinical glare, the flashbacks are all shadows and gloom. Long associated with alchemy, golems and Faustian pacts, Prague makes a fitting backdrop to the tale. With its dark, winding streets and esoteric past, it’s a nice metaphor for the film itself – and the genre to which it belongs.
The new blu-ray from Camera Obscura, a 2-disc set (one BD, one DVD), is a real collector’s item. Together with a splendid HD rendition of the main feature (in 2.35:1 ‘scope, with Italian audio), there’s a commentary track with critics Christian Kessler and Marcus Stiglegger, a second commentary with actor/singer Jürgen Drews, a short interview featurette with the legendary Edda Dell’Orso, another with German co-producer Dieter Geissler, a brief scene-selective commentary featurette (with Aldo Lado, conducted in French) and a feature-length interview with Lado, interspersed with comments from Jean Sorel. All the supplements, like the film, carry optional English and German subtitles. A beautiful package, assembled with great care and respect; for anyone with a passion for Italian cinema, it’s an essential purchase.