Monday, October 22, 2018

The Halloween List: Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) and Upgrade (2018)

Previously: Tragedy Girls, Evil Eye, and What Have You Done to Solange?

Today I offer you two movies, separated by nearly fifty years, with two very different approaches to paralysis. One is a suspenseful Giallo about being mistaken for a cadaver. The other is an action movie that would love to forget disability even exists.

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Gregory Moore isn’t dead, but the morticians don’t know that. His body is discovered in a garden one morning in Prague by a gardener who only cares about not getting blamed for a homicide. Moore is actually totally paralyzed, unable to speak or so much as blink or move an eye. He’s mistaken for an unusually warm dead body, and morticians study him trying to figure out what’s wrong with the cadaver. If they don’t figure it out, he could be buried alive, or accidentally killed on an autopsy table.

He struggles to think of how to alert someone for help, and tries to comb his memories for what caused all of this. Because of his condition, he can’t act on the immediate conflict. The movie punts, using his memories to flashback and tell the story of what happened before this morning. Moore had a girlfriend who abruptly disappeared, and with police refusing to help, he infiltrated the seedier parts of Prague’s society for answers. It brought him into the proximity of some grim murders, although he didn’t notice them at first and didn’t realize what peril he was in.

So there’s a dual narrative here: the present tense, where he’s helpless, willing himself just to move a hand, and the past narrative, figuring out what happened to his girlfriend. The latter is much less dire and compelling until the final act, when Moore gets so desperate that he’ll risk anything to cajole the people responsible out of hiding. Jean Sorel, who plays Moore, does a strong job both as a sleuth and as a cadaver that must look both lifeless and desperate.

If you stick it out, you get an ending that made me yell at the screen. It earned my highest praise for Horror movies this day: I laughed at how dark this was. But it was earned, and without spoiling it, I’d say it’s up there for the boldest endings of anything I’ve seen for the Halloween List. It’s worth watching with someone just so you can spend the next hour afterward talking about how messed up it is.

That contrasts with the slog of getting through the meandering flashbacks. You have to tell side-stories here since the present Moore is utterly inactive; your only other option is to switch protagonists. But I’m fundamentally less interested in what led him here than I am in where he goes from here. The present stakes are too dire to cut away from without making the past story feel negatively indulgent. Yet it’s that past tense mystery that gives us the explosive ending.

Upgrade (2018)

I want to like Upgrade. I want to write about the cool music, slick fight scenes, and the character growth of an AI. It has neat parts. But honestly, fuck that.

Upgrade has one of the worst openings of any movie I’ve watched this October. Grey Trace is a manly man who hates technology, but lives in the future. He’s married to Asha trace, and while they occasionally kiss, they spend most of their time bickering. If they annoy you, it’s okay because it won’t last long. Random criminals fridge Asha and live Grey paralyzed from the neck down. He makes snide jokes about how being disabled is the end of his life and he’d rather commit suicide than go on.

Fortunately for the plot (and for nobody else), a mad scientist billionaire shows up with technology that lets Grey move again. It’s called STEM, and it starts backseat driving all his actions. Grey is a wooden and garbage character, so all he wants in life now that he can move is to find his wife’s killers and murder them all.

What we get are some sumptuously shot action sequences as he finds them  and tries to figure out who was behind it all, done to great grimy music and with visceral camera work. These are really fun scenes, especially contrasted to all the scenes of people mocking his apparent disability, and him having to “fake” being disabled for cops who are way more skeptical of him than anyone reasonably could be. He’s a paraplegic with tech that literally only two people know exists, but they are sure he’s hopping out of his chair and murdering people anyway.

The thing is that Upgrade doesn’t give a shit about the disabilities it’s exploiting. Obviously they couldn’t cast a paraplegic actor on their budget, because the character has to get up and act abled most of the time, and they (like the rest of the film world) have no interest in stories about paraplegics that aren’t about them being magically cured. This is a great way to fuck with the psyches of another generation of disabled people.

I say they don’t care because sometimes there’s a good moment. During one of the murder scenes, a bar tender outside says his mother always warned him not to mess with disabled people. One witness chastises Grey for faking before revealing that he, too, can walk, and tries to steal Grey’s cool mobility chair. These touches have to share run time with villains stabbing Grey over and over until they find a spot that hurts, and Grey constantly insisting that his life wouldn’t be worth living without the STEM powers.

Upgrade isn’t malicious. It just hasn’t put much thought into being disabled in its rush to make a commercial product out of disability.

Come back tomorrow for a review of the brand new Halloween (2018)!


  1. Glad I skipped the second one but I'll seek out the first film.

  2. Sigh.
    Disabilities rarely get real (or fair) coverage in anything it seems to me. Not books, not movies, not society. Or not mine.


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