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Short Night of Glass Dolls (Italy, 1971)


Until recently, my exposure to gialli was limited largely to the films of Dario Argento. This had left me with certain preconceptions of what constitutes a giallo, and one happy side-effect of this month’s viewings has been having these preconceptions ripped apart. What Have you Done to Solange and Footprints on the Moon demonstrated the more poignant and emotional side of the form, and All the Colors of the Dark extended the template into more supernatural and psychedelic areas. Short Night of Glass Dolls has proved the most eye-opening of them all, with its unusual fusion of giallo and paranoid Cold War thriller.

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In Short Night of Glass Dolls, Gregory Moore, an American journalist based in Prague, has fallen in love with Mira, a beautiful Czechoslovakian woman, and is working through illicit channels to get her out of the country. These plans are brought to a halt when Mira disappears from his flat, leaving all her belongings behind. Against the wishes of the local authorities, Gregory investigates Mira’s disappearance and uncovers a strange and frightening conspiracy.

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You might be forgiven for deciding that the above summary sounds far more like a thriller than a horror film, and if that were all there was to the film, you would be right. What puts Short Night of Glass Dolls firmly in horror movie territory is the framing of the story. At the start of the film, Gregory is discovered lying in a park, apparently dead. As we discover, he is still alive and conscious, but showing no indication of this to the medics who examine him. As such, he is dispatched to the morgue, where he lies in the cold, trying to remember what happened to him and attempting to regain control of his paralysed body. The sheer helplessness of his condition is horror in its purest form.

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As well as being possibly the most creative giallo I have seen, Short Night of Glass Dolls is also one of the most beautifully shot. Writer and director Aldo Lado makes exquisite use of Prague as a location, bringing out the grandness of the city in almost every external shot. When the film moves indoors, its beauty is not diminished; we are moving through a world of wealthy expatriates and the political elite of Cold War Czechoslovakia, and this is not the bleak, impoverished representation of life behind the Iron Curtain that we are used to.

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No discussion of Short Night of Glass Dolls would be complete without a mention of its enigmatic title. An interview with Aldo Lado, amongst the DVD extras, reveals that the aim was to release it as Short Night of the Butterfly, which makes far more sense, given the use of butterflies as a motif within the film. This name had to be changed at the last minute because of the near-simultaneous release of a giallo named The Bloodstained Butterfly. As the publicity materials had already been designed, Lado changed part of the title so that it would still fit in the right space. In doing so, he created what, for me at least, is one of the most evocative film titles I have encountered.

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While Short Night of Glass Dolls is not exactly a forgotten film, it doesn’t get as much attention from horror fans as some of its contemporaries. This may be due to the almost bloodless nature of the film. What it lacks in gore, it more that makes up for in paranoia and palm-sweating fear at the plight of the protagonist. What’s more, it has one of the darkest and most memorable resolutions I have seen in a horror film.

Two Eyes Staring (Netherlands/Belgium, 2010)


As should be slindingly obvious by now, I love horror films in all their shambling, twisted forms. If I had to choose a favourite subgenre, though, it would be the ghost story. There is nothing inherently superior about ghost stories over bloodier and less subtle forms of horror, no matter what some advocates may tell you, but they do have a way of getting under my skin that nothing else can quite manage. They tap into primal fears of the dark, the dead and of being watched by unseen eyes, but worse, they are stories of our guilt and our worst secrets being given form and power over us. A good bloody slasher film may have us looking over our shoulders when we walk through a quiet car park late at night, but an effective ghost story will fill every shadow with potential nightmares and tickle our thoughts as we lie awake at night.

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As the makers of Two Eyes Staring (or Zwarte Water in its original Dutch) know, you can make ghost stories even creepier by involving children. The imagination of childhood and the easy dismissal by adults of the fears it brings make children even more vulnerable when facing supernatural horrors. The dismissal that young Lisa, the protagonist of Two Eyes Staring, experiences is even keener, as it is largely a symptom of her overall emotional distance from her mother, a woman who will even deny her existence when asked about children at a job interview.

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The horror in Two Eyes Staring begins when Lisa’s mother inherits the family house in rural Belgium when her own estranged mother dies. Lisa’s parents decide to leave the Netherlands and everything Lisa knows to settle in this large, run-down house full of shadows and secrets, despite their daughter’s protests.

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As the family settles in, Lisa makes two discoveries: an old childhood diary of her mother’s which hints at some shocking events, and the ghost of her aunt, Karen, a child herself, who confirms what Lisa reads and is driven to right old wrongs. The revelations start to build, and Lisa finds herself caught up in events that can only end in tragedy.

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Two Eyes Staring has a timeless feel to it. It is a style of ghost story that has been with us since Victorian times, but with a few modern twists and flourishes. As with the best ghost stories, it is fundamentally about the psychology of its characters, and in this aspect it doesn’t disappoint. Lisa is a disturbed, lonely child, and her broken relationship with her mother is echoed perfectly by the supernatural manifestations she encounters.

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The style and pacing of Two Eyes Staring are very European. There is a slow build-up of dread, with few outright frights and very little action. The effect is, appropriately enough, haunting rather than visceral, and the film will almost certainly appeal to fans of The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage.

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Ultimately, there is little in Two Eyes Staring that is original, but it makes up for that by exploring some fresh angles of the classic ghost story, leading to a powerful conclusion. And if creepy little dead girls unnerve you as much as me, you may be turning the light on occasionally at night just to make sure they aren’t watching you.

Matango (Japan, 1963)


When I was a child, one of the easiest ways to feed my growing horror addiction was to catch hold of every episode I could of any weird TV anthology series that passed through the airwaves near me. I loved The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, amongst others, although they were only repeated sporadically in Hong Kong. When my parents moved to Switzerland, I continued to watch these programmes, even though my ability to understand them in French was very limited at first. In some cases, this just added to the strangeness, and few stories were stranger than The Voice in the Night when it appeared as an episode of Suspicion.

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Based on the short story of the same name by William Hope Hodgson (who would later become one of my favourite writers), The Voice in the Night depicted a ship encountering a lifeboat at sea, the sole occupant of which told the tale of how his crew mates had been devoured by a strange fungus while shipwrecked on an uncharted island. In the end, it is revealed that the previously unseen refugee is also covered with the fungus and is barely human any more. The image of that encrusted figure sitting in the lifeboat haunted me.

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I didn’t realise until I started watching Matango that it was also an adaptation of The Voice in the Night, albeit a freer one. In this version, a pleasure yacht sailing out of Japan is caught in a storm, and its passengers and crew are forced to anchor at a strange island while they attempt to repair their vessel. They discover that the island is a veritable ships’ graveyard, and one of more recent wrecks is abandoned and riddled with an unfamiliar fungus. When they discover strange mushrooms on the island and encounter shambling, barely human figures, the horrible truth begins to dawn.

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While body horror is very much at the forefront of Matango, most of the tension comes from the pressure put upon the protagonists by dwindling food supplies, old rivalries and sexual jealousy, driving them to acts of violence, betrayal and madness. This comes to a head as food runs out and they are faced with the choice of starvation or suffering the effects of eating the mushrooms.

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The effects of the mushrooms are not only physical — eating them brings about a kind of liberating insanity that is reminiscent of the changes induced by the parasites in David Cronenberg’s Shivers. As with Shivers, it is open to debate whether the transformations undergone by the characters in Matango are wholly negative.

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The mushrooms and the people they have changed are disturbing presences, often shrouded in the constant mist that cloaks the island. The meaty, deformed appearance of the fungus is made all the more unnerving by the way they grow and change in the rain and, worst of all, laugh with a girlish, echoing giggle.

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One particularly chilling aspect of the fungal growths on the human characters is how much they look like radiation burns, given that this is a Japanese film made within living memory of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is accentuated by the abandoned ship being a research vessel equipped with a Geiger counter and the hint that the strange properties of the fungus may be related to exposure to radiation.

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Matango is a bizarre, disorientating film, with many shifts in tone between comedic scenes, bleak horror, poignant drama and even a couple of musical numbers. While it is not exactly gruesome, the body horror aspect is quite repellent, and the make-up effects are remarkable for the period.

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The only weak point is how long it takes Matango to bring in the weirder elements of the plot. The first half of the film is very much about the storm, shipwreck and the struggle for survival on the island, which, while not dull, did leave me slightly impatient. Once the mushrooms come walking, though, we are on an inexorable journey to madness, doom and desolation, exactly as we should be.

Saturday Morning Mystery (USA, 2012)


Everyone knows Scooby-Doo. It is one of the cultural touchstones that link generations and nationalities. While we may have been exposed to it through different incarnations, the Scooby Gang, the Mystery Machine and the loveable mutt himself are as much a part of our shared cultural consciousness as Ronald McDonald, Coca Cola and genocide.

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While the Scooby-Doo connection is present in Saturday Morning Mystery (AKA Saturday Morning Massacre) from the title to the VW camper van as mobile HQ to the templates for the characters themselves (including a dog which, sadly, does not talk), people expecting a Scooby-Doo parody will be disappointed and quite possibly repelled. Once we get past the light dusting of pastiche, Saturday Morning Mystery is an average splatter-fuelled slasher film with a surprisingly grim tone. The latter half seems to owe more to the remake of The Hills Have Eyes than anything from Hanna-Barbera

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The set-up, as explained in the opening scene and voice-over for the titles, is that a group of friends from college banded together to investigate paranormal events, but discovered each time they got to the bottom of one, it turned out to be someone in a mask, covering up some kind of nefarious activity. Now the friends have turned to exposing these activities, pulling the masks off malefactors and turning them in to the authorities.

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The problem, they discover, with this line of work is that it does not pay the bills. This drives them to take a commission from a bank to debunk the dark rumours surrounding an old foreclosed house that the bank is unable to sell. Cue stories of cults, dark rituals, hauntings and disappearances, and an eventful night in the creepy old house itself.

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While there are comedic moments until the last twenty minutes or so of the film, the content gets darker and considerably bloodier once night falls. There are still flourishes which remind us of the cartoon inspiration, including lots of running around in corridors, which, frankly, becomes tedious.

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With the Scooby-Doo elements stripped away, Saturday Morning Mystery would be an average slasher film. It offers a reasonable build-up of tension, with plenty of bloodshed and frights. This is slightly undermined by some poor pacing, which makes the action drag at times.

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Given that the nods to Scooby-Doo are what elevate Saturday Morning Mystery from mediocrity, it is a shame that the film-makers did not make more of them. By cleaving closer to their inspiration, they could have made the eventual gore and brutality all the more shocking, while making the comedy elements keener. As it stands, Saturday Morning Mystery is entertaining enough, but falls short of being memorable.

All the Colors of the Dark (Italy/Spain, 1972)


As someone who was born in the 1960s, my formative years were filled with children’s films and television painted in garish hues, filled with disjointed narratives and bizarre imagery. This early exposure left me with a love of psychedelia and surrealism which persists to this day, and I often go back to the cinema of the late sixties and early seventies out of preference. While most films of the time aimed at adults were slightly more restrained, some were every bit as weird as anything The Magic Roundabout or Sid and Marty Krofft could throw at their audiences. When the DVD cover of All of Colors of the Dark (my spell-checker is pouting about the American “u” deficit) promised that I would “enter a kaleidoscope of psychedelic horror”, my interest was piqued.


Promisingly enough, All the Colours of the Dark opens with a dream sequence that could have been lifted from a Jodorowsky film, with an array of strangely dressed or undressed characters doing equally strange things in an abstract space until a man with unnaturally blue eyes gets stabby. Once we snap back to the waking world of Jane Harrison (played by the preternaturally beautiful Edwige Fenech), a distressed young woman who sleeps with her make-up on, things take a turn for the mundane.

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No, scratch that. Calling All the Colors of the Dark mundane is not quite fair. It does offer us a Satanic cult with a hippie leader, human sacrifice, paranoia, conspiracies and betrayals, and a blurred sense of what is real and what is hallucination, but none of it quite lives up to the giddy chaos of the first five minutes. For the most part, it is a standard giallo, with an imperilled young woman being stalked by a mysterious man, with equally mysterious eyes, for most of the running length. Apart from his near-luminous eyes, the only thing that stops this man being an archetypal giallo villain is his refusal to wear black leather gloves.

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What sets All the Colours of the Dark apart from most gialli is the machinations of the aforementioned Satanic cult. By the time this story line is in full swing, the film feels more like Rosemary’s Baby than Deep Red. While there is nothing explicitly supernatural in All the Colours of the Dark, it is certainly possible to interpret it as such.

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As per many gialli, the plot and details do not stand up to close inspection. Characters behave in irrational manners that serve the needs of the script and nothing more. Jane, the protagonist, is a wet fish of a character and spends most of the film simpering, sobbing and swooning to the extent that I was rooting for the murderer to end the suffering for both of us. But, ultimately, gialli are vehicles to deliver shocking and memorable images, and in this, All the Colors of the Dark succeeds.

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Any disappointment I felt when watching All the Colors of the Dark was almost certainly due to mismatched expectations. What I had heard about it lead me to anticipate a visual assault on the scale of Amer, but what I saw was a slightly above-average giallo with a few twists. These twists do set it apart, and the visual style makes it a film worth seeing. Just set your expectations accordingly.