My issue with them is that, conventionally, I’m not all that frightened by the usual visual trickery. A door creeping open by itself or a chair sliding across the floor by unseen forces is interesting to watch, but these scenes do very little to draw me into the meat of the story. Scare tactics – while fun – pull me out of the experience instead of drawing me inside the world. What I appreciate more are character moments properly balanced with the ghostly tinkering of poltergeists. These are moments that make me think about the veil between worlds, how and why it gets tugged away, and those tickle my fancy in ways I can’t describe. Suffice it to say, the best spectral shenanigans are those that shock me awake, not those that make me jump in my seat.
That’s a big bill, and it doesn’t happen all that often.
Mario Bava’s Shock gets it right more often than it fails. The story is peppered with a few all-too-predictable cliches – the bad seed child, the doting mother trying to understand, the house with obvious secrets within its walls – and, as a result, the first half feels more derivative than it does original. While the work is good, it’s set-up is all too familiar to generate any real steam. However, the film takes a welcome turn in the second half that raises the stakes while cleverly tightening the narrative around a single character – Dora, the mother – and then the film becomes something pretty special.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Dora moves back into her old family home with her husband, Bruno, and Marco, her son from her previous marriage. But domestic bliss proves elusive as numerous strange and disturbing occurrences transpire, while Dora is haunted by a series of nightmares and hallucinations, many of them involving her dead former husband. Is the house itself possessed? Or does Dora’s increasingly fragile grip on reality originate from somewhere far closer to home?”
We’ve all heard something in the darkness that’s made us question whether or not we’re alone, and Dora (played by the lovely Daria Nicolodi) is no different. But her situation might be considerably worse: her first husband committed suicide and left her widowed with an infant. Struggling to bring peace to her world brought on a nervous breakdown (of sorts). Years later, she’s finally found peace – and a new love – and, together, this new family has returned to house where it all came crashing down. As they’re all about to learn, nothing left behind is quite as peaceful as it would seem.
Any reasonable person might question why Dora would return to a place that caused her such heartache – I know I found it a bit confusing – and, if you’re patient, you’ll have that answer all in good time. Bava directs the script from his son, Lamberto Bava, and screenwriters Gianfranco Barberi and Alessandro Parenzo; and the trick to truly appreciating what the group accomplishes here is patience … all will be revealed when the time is right. The laconic tempo of the first half does viewers no favors; the real meat of this meal is a main course fit for a king, and that comes in the second half.
And that’s the genius of a tautly constructed tale: we’re all allowed to think what we may with Bava’s presentation. He reminds us just often enough that Dora’s mind was broken and rebuilt by therapy and drugs. (She’s secretly being medicated by Bruno, her new husband, and could those drugs be the secret source of these illusions?) Giving her character the benefit of the doubt, she might be telling us the truth as we see much of what transpires through her eyes, or she might be misdirecting us through the skills of a learned director. A handful of scenes are handled with a nebulousness that might even have audiences questioning a secondary character or two; just about the time you think you know what’s happened you realize Bava and company went right when you turned left, and none’s the wiser for it.
Still, keep watching until the very last scene. Otherwise, you might miss what really happened. If we ever really know at all …
Also, as creepy kids go, young David does a pretty masterful job handling the highs and lows of the emotionally and spiritually disturbed Marco. Is he of his own mind, or has someone taken control? He vacillates between moments of childlike wholesomeness and the possibly villainously-possessed the way he should. While he never quite conveys a sense of pure evil, it becomes clear that he’s calculating what to do next with a fair amount of guidance. But how many of his dark deeds were at a spirit’s request? Did he climb on top of his mother on the lawn because of someone else’s sexual yearnings, or was it his own misguided hormones? Did he spy her naked body in the shower at a spirit’s urging, or was that his secret wish? Did he disfigure mom’s underwear because a ghost encouraged him to do it, or was that his idea? The film toys with eroticism perhaps the way a young boy would – part taboo, part innocence – thus amping up the audience’s curiosity with what really is going on in the home’s darkest corners.
You never quite know – Bava never passes judgment – and this element of uncertainty definitely puts Shock a cut above other haunts I’ve enjoyed.
Shock (1977) was produced by Laser Films. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by the reliable Arrow Video. As for the technical specifications? The packaging reports that this is a brand new 2K restoration, and it looks and sounds spectacular. As for the special features? Arrow never disappoints, and the Blu-ray includes an all-new audio commentary, visual essays, some interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and an internal collector’s booklet with a critical essay exploring Bava’s storied career.
Highly recommended. Shock is a very slow burn. In fact, I didn’t much care for it around its midpoint. However, as the second half unspooled, I began to realize that there was far more going on here than director Mario Bava let on initially. (A tightening up on the first half – even if only trimming a few minutes – would make for greater balance.) As the story wore on, I realized I had more and more questions about Dora’s background, intentions, and motivations … so much so that I kept guessing all the way until the last scene to know with certainty what I had just watched. And yes … you won’t know until the very last scene.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Shock (1977) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.