A couple is terrorized in their new house haunted by the vengeful ghost of the woman's former husband, who possesses their young son.
Shock could be glibly dismissed as one of those ten-a-penny Amityville Horror (1979) knockoffs, or a cheap Poltergeist (1982) wannabe, where a middle-class family move into a house that hides a sinister supernatural secret. But that’s before one realises which film came first…
Of course, Shock does have its own antecedents and its US distributors capitalised on the ‘possessed child’ aspect by rebranding it as the sequel to Beyond the Door (1974)—which, in turn, was an internationally successful Italian horror tied-up in a drawn-out lawsuit for copyright infringement of The Exorcist (1973). However, Shock was only linked to the former by its child star, David Colin Jr.
Shock is perhaps most noteworthy as being the last feature from Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, and the directorial debut of his son Lamberto Bava, who transitioned into co-directing after assisting his father on many previous productions. It’s said Lamberto pushed the project into production to help update his father’s career with a contemporary horror film; others say Mario pushed Lamberto to the fore to give his son’s career a boost, passing on the directorial baton from father to son. Perhaps this partly explains the inconsistencies of style that lend the movie its appropriately schizophrenic feel.
The slow-burn suspense of the first half probably won’t hold the attention of modern audiences, and anyone unfamiliar with the work of Mario Bava shouldn’t start here. Instead, be sure to first check-out his definitive Gothic horrors, The Mask of Satan (1960) and Kill, Baby …Kill! (1966), his seminal giallo Blood and Black Lace (1964), or even the pop art anti-hero romp Danger: Diabolik (1968). They’re all vastly superior movies. Shock is still worth a look for fans of Italian horror and segues from the dark Gothic stylings of those earlier classics to the more psychological ‘daylight horror’ associated with Stephen King adaptations, such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976).
The fragile Dora (Daria Nicolodi) is taking the brave step of moving back into her family house with her son, Marco (David Colin Jr), and new husband Bruno (John Steiner). To begin with, we’re as unsure of her past as she seems to be, but gather her first husband’s suicide led to her mental breakdown and subsequent long stay at a sanatorium. The film’s success hinges on an astonishing, and sometimes unhinged, central performance from Nicolodi. She cited it as her favourite and, clearly, she’s giving it her all. That’s saying something after her, admittedly more subdued, female lead for Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso / Deep Red (1975).
Here, though, she’s drawing upon plenty of relevant personal experience having recently become a mother to Asia, her daughter with Dario Argento. The couple had just separated, perhaps falling-out whilst co-writing Suspiria (1977), and she was suffering from a serious eating disorder in the aftermath of her own nervous breakdown. Maybe Shock provided some form of cathartic therapy?
Here’s a passage of dialogue that clumsily sets out the backstory in a scene missing from some prints but restored for this definitive ‘Director’s Cut’ from Arrow Video. It’s delivered by Dr Spidini (Ivan Rassimov), Dora’s psychiatrist: “Your past continual state of anxiety and depression, as a result of having to live with that drug addict, his suicide in the sea, your six-months in a sanatorium and your electric shock treatment might very well have influenced your behaviour…” Rassimov is a stalwart of Italian pulp cinema whom Lamberto Bava had just worked with as assistant director on Ruggero Deodato’s Jungle Holocaust (1977).
Daria Nicolodi’s often too convincing performance is one to rival Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), a film that shares thematic parallels. She’s not a naturalistic performer, but imbues the part with plenty of raw intensity and a distinctive style that immediately signals Italian horror and suspense. With the Bavas wisely giving her plenty of screen time, she pretty much carries a film that would’ve floundered with a less capable actress in the lead.
Nicolodi even brings the best out of her young co-star, David Colin Jr. Admittedly not the greatest child actor, he does manage to deliver a few lines of genuinely creepy dialogue. I think he’s supposed to oscillate between obnoxious and sweet innocence, but generally hovers in some annoying limbo between the two. He’s rarely convincing, but then we must bear in mind that children often act in ways that seem false as they try to appear more grown up. So, he’s actually well-suited to a role which becomes increasingly ambiguous as he channels the malevolent presence of the house—something which may (or may not) be the ghost of Dora’s first husband, Carlo…
Appearing only in the delirium of flashback montages, Carlo’s played by Nicola Salerno. He was cast during production because, being the film’s assistant director and assistant production designer, he was conveniently on-hand. Shock was filmed almost entirely at the house owned by his father, the prolific actor Enrico Salerno, whom I remember best as Richard Martin in Bandidos (1967) and Inspector Morosini in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). I presume the house was loaned as a favour, which would’ve helped keep the budget incredibly low—in the region of just $60,000.
It’s a fairly contemporary 1970s family house but treated, visually, as if it were a Gothic mansion. The prowling camera makes much of the grand staircase going up and a long series of stone steps descending into a dark and cobweb-enshrouded cellar area which seems to have a couple of bricked up recesses for good measure. Objects and décor are shot to imply they might be watching, a sort of ‘environment-as-voyeur’ approach. From time to time, the characters challenge the fourth wall and make direct, accusatory eye-contact via the lens. An early line of dialogue is delivered to camera, drawing us in and making us complicit, as if we are the sinister unseen presence affecting their fictional lives…
Observant viewers will appreciate some top-notch foreshadowing in a scene where Dora and Carlo watch a puppet show in the park. The somewhat sadistic Punch & Judy-style action is framed within a painted house, complete with a section of brick wall that seems to be decorated with eyes. There are plenty of other visual clues peppered throughout and many will only make sense in retrospect or on second viewing.
Mario Bava is a master of the montage and one of his trademarks is the use of purely visual, cinematic devices to convey key narrative elements. He’s also known for inventive mechanical effects and in-camera trickery and Shock is no exception. There’s some inspired visual play using reflections and a striking scene where Dora does something gravity defying, achieved by strapping Nicolodi to a bed fixed to a rotisserie-like rig. Even when one knows how it’s done, the result is dreamlike, rather arresting, and has since been imitated by others.
Bava’s also a master of Hitchcockian suspense which he cleverly employs before delivering some well-executed jump scares. However, more often than not the promised fright is withheld, which only adds to the increasing unease. At times this dread-laden atmosphere is diffused by imagery that can come across as ludicrous, even humorous and it’s unclear if that’s intentional or misjudged. Don’t get me wrong, Shock is far from being a comedy, but being attacked by an antique wardrobe—which would be terrifying in reality—could seem a bit silly.
Shock was a long time in the making, beginning as far back as 1960 with Lamberto Bava first considering an adaptation of Le Horla, the 1887 short story by Guy de Maupassant. He worked with several colleagues over the years and touted various versions around as it gradually mutated further away from the source material with each successive rewrite. About a decade later, prolific writer Dardano Sacchetti, who had written A Bay of Blood (1971) for Mario Bava, was assigned the task of adapting the 1971 supernatural suspense novel The Shadow Guest, by Hillary Waugh. That script became It’s Always Cold at 33 Clock Street, which fused contemporary crime thriller with ghost story as the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims bring about their murder’s demise. It was with this script that Shock initially began its troubled pre-production but early on it underwent a substantial rewrite by Lamberto Bava to pare it back to basics and make it filmable with a tiny budget and minimal cast…
Considering the financial limitations and super-fast shooting schedule spread over a few weeks, the finished film can hold its own alongside many of its bigger budget contemporaries. Though it does feel, at times, more of a TV Movie than the grand cinema one expects form Mario Bava and one pines for his more painterly, false-colour lighting. With such a minuscule budget, it couldn’t help but be a financial success and went on to do fairly well at the domestic box office, where it suffered from competition with Argento’s stylistically ground-breaking Suspiria, and found itself completely overshadowed by 1977’s most notable releases—Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind!
ITALY | 1977 | 95 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • ITALIAN
director: Mario Bava.
writer: Lamberto Bava, Francesca Barbieri, Alessandro Parenzo & Dardano Sacchetti (story by Lamberto Bava, Francesca Barbieri, Alessandro Parenzo & Dardano Sacchetti).
starring: Daria Nicolodi, John Steiner, Ivan Rassimov & David Colin Jr.