2.5 out of 5 stars

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!


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Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation. This really is the best it’s ever looked with a brand new 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative by Arrow Films and some very sympathetic colour and tonal grading throughout.
  • Original Italian and English front and end titles and insert shots.
  • Restored original lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks. The score and sound design plays an important part in creating the mood and building suspense, so nice to have it clear with almost no noise so the breathy ‘ghost’ effects come across subtly, as intended.
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack. 
  • New audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. One can’t go wrong with a Tim Lucas commentary, and he really is the definitive authority when it comes to all things Bava. His knowledge of the production is encyclopaedic, but he’s not averse to discussing his personal responses and entertaining conjecture whilst spinning off on some fascinating tangents. He does his best to unpick which key scenes are directed by Mario—approximately three-quarters of the movie—and which were overseen by Lamberto. He reminds us that Dario Argento was a classmate of Lamberto’s and that he often visited the location to support Nicolodi, despite their recent separation. Lucas summarises the long pre-production and swift shooting of the project and even provides a potted summary of the novel that provided the initial inspiration, so we can appreciate the themes that survive in the final cut. He points-out imagery quoted form previous Bava classics, such as the swing motif that also features in Kill, Baby… Kill!, Four Times that Night, and Five Dolls for an August Moon, which he suggests as a metaphor of oscillation between two modes of reality or realms of existence. He guides us through the delirious montage sequences and explains some of the simple, yet ingenious, tricks-of-the trade used to create some of the disconcerting visuals. He also offers alternative readings of some core elements of the narrative, implying that things aren’t quite as simple as either a straightforward haunting or possession… He does a solid job of placing the work in the context of both the Italian film industry of the time and within the filmographies of principle players, key crew members and both Bavas. With Lucas, one doesn’t get the usual film school’ analysis and biographical ‘clippings’. He’s interviewed many of those involved, first-hand whilst researching his tome on Bava, and then specifically sought-out a few to clarify details about this particular production for this comprehensive commentary which he dedicates to the late Daria Nicolodi.
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  • ‘A Ghost in the House’—a new 30-minute video interview with co-director and co-writer Lamberto Bava. In which he talks openly about his relationship with his father and details the production from its first inklings in 1960 and his initial idea to write a story that used mainly objects and unseen characters to tell an eerie tale. He also clarifies the input of each of the four credited writers, whilst pretty much claiming responsibility for the entirety of the final screenplay as we see it. An enlightening interview that would serve as an alternative audio commentary.
  • ‘Via Dell’Orologio 33’—a new 34-minute video interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. . In which he describes what it was like to be an in-demand young writer during the golden age of Italian Pulp Cinema. He’s contributed bonus material to several Arrow releases and is always eloquent and revelatory. Listening to him discuss the writing process is still an education for any aspiring scriptwriter, or director, hoping to effectively transcribe text to screen. He talks about the development of the story when it was known as It’s Always Cold at 33 Clock Street and guides us through the plot, pointing out similarities and vast difference between that version and what became Shock. He recalls falling-out with Dario Argento after co-writing The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and then meeting Mario Bava for whom he wrote A Bay of Blood (1971) the same year. He sings the praises of both Bavas, but emphasises that Mario’s “cinematic grammar is perfect,” and goes on to track the legacy of Shock, still evident in many horror and suspense movies since, noting the recent homages in John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle (2014).
  • ‘The Devil Pulls the Strings’—a new 21-minute video essay by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. In which she interprets the visual literacy of Bava and makes much of the ceramic hand ornament that features at key moments. She poetically links the hand with that of the unseen puppeteer, the ghost, the spirit, the psyche, the director. She draws comparison with the many hands sculpted by Italian Master Bernini in expressive white dolomite marble and how he managed to carve hard stone into a semblance of supple flesh, making the hard, dead material seem soft and alive. A nice meditative piece that invites the viewer to explore the motifs of Shock from a viewpoint overlapping film-theory, dream-logic, and psychoanalysis.
  • ‘Shock! Horror! The Stylistic Diversity of Mario Bava’—a new 52-minute video appreciation by author and critic Stephen Thrower – who begins with a discussion of Gothic Horror and how Shock is a rare example of what was an entirely contemporary horror film in which the incursion of the past disrupts the equilibrium of the present. He goes on to analyse Mario Bava’s past films and compare them with this collaboration with Lamberto Bava. It’s as if the father represents past with the son being the present… He postulates that Shock is perhaps the least revered of Mario’s works simply because it does not fit the dark gothic template established by the maestro’s other horror films. He makes the perceptive observation that, whilst it is ostensibly a haunted house story, instead of a crumbling mansion, it’s the human mind that hides private ghosts in the psychological labyrinth of personal memories. Thrower’s evident enthusiasm for Shock is infectious and encourages repeat viewing and revaluation. Fascinating for any serious aficionado of Italian Genre.
  • ‘The Most Atrocious Tortur(e)’—a new 4-minute interview with critic Alberto Farina. In which he reminisces about interviewing Daria Nicolodi and a drawing she shared with him that Mario Bava had gifted to her after Shock had wrapped. Bava had drawn it as an apology for the distributors decision to re-dub her dialogue and it’s an accomplished cartoon illustrating all the terrible things that happen to her character.
  • Italian theatrical trailer. 
  • 4 US ‘Beyond the Door II’ TV spots. 
  • Image gallery. 
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Christopher Shy.
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Troy Howarth, author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava.
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Cast & Crew

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.