31 Days of Horror: Day 24 – Shock (1977)

I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.

If I were to go to the trouble of making the long list of genre directors whose work I admire, Mario Bava would be near the top. Through the ‘60s and part of the ‘70s, he had an astonishing run of great films: Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace, Knives of the Avenger, Danger: Diabolik, Bay of Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil, 5 Dolls for an August Moon, Rabid Dogs, and Planet of the Vampires all in the space of fifteen years. But for some reason that I am not capable of explaining, I had never seen Shock, his final film. Maybe I was concerned that his final film would find his skills declining, but as it turns out, that shouldn’t have been a concern.

The film opens with Dora (Daria Nicolodi), her husband Bruno (John Steiner), and her son Marco (David Colin Jr.) moving into a new house. But as we quickly learn, it’s not exactly a “new” house. Dora used to live there with her previous husband Carlo, who is Marco’s father. It seems that Carlo was insane and a heroin addict. Those two things don’t go together well, so it was no surprise to anyone when he committed suicide. In the aftermath of his death, Dora suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be committed to an asylum for six months.

When Dora and Bruno decide to take make the house their home, several years have elapsed since this tragedy. Marco never even knew Carlo and sees Bruno as his father. Of course, after moving in, strange things start to happen. Marco begins acting up—the normally happy little boy becomes hyperactive and aggressive toward Dora. Dora fears this change in his behavior and the strange noises throughout the house. She slowly becomes convinced that Carlo is haunting the house and possibly trying to possess Marco. But are these things actually happening or is Dora having another breakdown? And just why is Bruno acting so suspicious? Is he hiding something or is it just that he’s the obvious red herring?

In many ways, Shock doesn’t feel like a Bava film. A director who excelled at pumping his horror and mystery films full of intense gothic atmosphere, here he draws back and largely lets the actors tell the story through surprisingly natural (for a ‘70s Italian genre film) performances. Even the camera work (often done by an uncredited Bava) and lighting is more classical and less showy than his more famous work. But that’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s simply different than I expected. This feels a bit like a director evolving his style to keep pace with younger genre filmmakers.

But even with the changing of his style, Bava remains a master of creating suspense. From the simple in-camera effects to the creepy takes of Marco looking at his mother possibly through the eyes of his dead father, a lot of dread is created out of not much. When the story in the third act becomes a breathless string of revealed secrets and Dora finally losing control, Bava frees up his visual style. A flashback is filmed like a hallucination, the camera moves frantically and zooms in ominously on potentially deadly objects, and the editing snaps the film forward to an ending that feels almost inevitable.

As a swan song for a great director, Shock works better than most films. The second act feels a little too much like it’s stalling before the third act fireworks, but the cast is quite good and their performances carry the film over the rough spots. While it may not rank with the best of Bava’s films, it is a solid, entertaining piece of horror filmmaking.

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