Shock (1977)

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AKA: Beyond the Door II

Dora, her son Marco and her new husband Bruno move into the home that the woman once shared with her late husband. Dora’s first husband, Carlo, was an abusive drug addict who abandoned Dora and baby Marco before tragically committing suicide at sea, his adrift boat being the closest anyone came to discovering his body. Dora had a breakdown after his death, and was forced to go into psychiatric care. But now, seven years later and sporting a new husband and clean bill of health, Dora has reluctantly returned to her old home to reclaim her life. But Bruno is a commercial airline pilot and is often away from the home, leaving Dora and Marco alone in a house full of bad memories. And when seven-year-old Marco begins behaving strangely, it doesn’t take an already fragile Dora long to start believing that the ghosts of the past may be more than just a figment of her imagination.

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Shock is a gothic, haunted house film from 1977, and the last feature film by famed Italian horror director Mario Bava before his unexpected death three years later. Bava’s directorial style influenced many well known modern day directors, including John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton. But Bava’s shy nature prevented him from gaining much international fame during his lifetime, and the perceived rejection of his last two films pulled him into a bit of a depression before his son Lamberto brought him Shock’s Steven King inspired script. Bava was said to be in failing health during production, so the movie feels like it didn’t get quite the attention from the director that his previous projects received (and in fact, Lamberto was given the chance to direct several of the film’s scenes himself), but despite that, and a couple other drawbacks, the movie still feels distinctly ‘Bava’.

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First off, if you come into Shock expecting a shocking (heh) plot then you are going to be disappointed. A character with a troubled past moves into a house they don’t particularly want to be in, strange things start happening, people’s behavior begins to noticeably change and the main character seems to be the only one to notice, revelations are made, and ultimately bad things happen. If you’ve ever seen any kind of haunted house story, then there’s really nothing here you haven’t seen before. What changes the story is the way Bava tells it. Shock may be comprised of the standard gothic premise involving ghosts and secrets, but instead of taking place in a dark, dingy manor, the entire plot has been placed in a contemporary (well, 1970’s contemporary) setting. On top of that, the movie, much like several of King’s works which the plot of Shock was partially inspired by, focuses most of its sense of horror less on the ghost aspect, and more on the destruction of the familial unit. At a time when divorce rates were beginning to rise, the film fits in commentary regarding jealous ex-spouses and how children are affected by split homes, even if their current situation is much better off. One of the more frightening aspects of the film is how quickly young Marco takes to Carlo. By all accounts, Bruno treats Marco as if he were his own son, and the two of them seem to have a caring relationship, and as far as we know Marco never even met Carlo. Yet Marco seems to be more than willing to take the word of a nameless ghost he’s just met over that of the two loving adults who have raised him since infancy. Add in the many, many sexual implications involved with a deceased grown man taking over the body of his own seven-year-old son (an idea the film does not shy away from) and you have the ultimate recipe for familial dysfunction.

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And that’s not even taking into account the stalking and death threats.

Another place the film shines is in the disconnect between reality and fiction. There are several ‘dream’ sequences in the film and each one is executed so flawlessly that it’s often hard to tell whether what we’re seeing is in fact a dream, a figment of Dora’s troubled psyche, or if it is in some way due to Ghost-Carlo. Bava is considered by many to be a master of the cheap, but effective, special effect, and it’s in these scenes where his skill really shines. One of the film’s best moments involves Marco running towards his mother and then instantaneously turning into Carlo. It’s such a simple trick that anyone could have pulled it off, but that doesn’t make the moment any less powerful or effective.

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Of course, such scenes wouldn’t work nearly as well without a talented cast, and the acting here may be some of the best I’ve seen come out of an Italian horror picture. Daria Nicolodi and John Steiner shine as the increasingly dysfunctional couple. Nicolodi in particular puts on a truly excellent performance. She starts out as calm, and happy, and maybe a bit timid, but as the movie wears on you realize that the secrets she’s keeping are so heavy that she’s really just an exposed nerve waiting to snap at any moment. The inevitable outliner is David Colin Jr. as Marco, but as far as child performances go he still does a pretty stand-up job, especially when the possession aspect really starts to kick in.

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The film’s one downside, which isn’t really much of a downside at all, is that it doesn’t have the same artistic visual flair as some of Bava’s better known works. The movie still looks great, don’t get me wrong. Colors are crisp, with red used to highlight certain important elements, shadows are deep and effective but not overpowering, and you can tell careful attention to detail was given for every scene and every edit. But with the exception of a few notable moments, it just doesn’t have the same visual pizzaz or vibrancy that one goes in expecting with a film with Mario Bava’s name attached.

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Shock is a fun and entertaining ghost tale with more to say than just “beware of angry spirits.” It has a wonderful cast, an effective soundtrack, and some truly impressive effects. But at the same time you can tell that the director’s own personal struggles, plus the restricted budget and new filming techniques, make the film suffer a bit. That said, it’s still a good haunted house movie. It may not be Bava’s best, and it’s a poor introduction to his larger filmography, but it’s still an effective horror flick that deserves more attention than it has received. If you like contemporary ghost stories then feel free to give this one a go. 

Shock is available on a variety of streaming platforms, including free of Tubi TV.

It is also available on DVD.

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Michi

One thought on “Shock (1977)

  1. I’m really looking forward to this based on your review. Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, Blood & Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and Kill, Baby, Kill! are some of my all-time favorite horror films, and I have both this and Planet of the Vampires on my watch list this October. I think some of Bava’s later work suffers a bit in comparison to the genius of his earlier features, and I am happy to read that this is, at least, pretty good.

    Like

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