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SHOCK (1977)

[aka Al 33 Di Via Orologio Fa Sempre Freddo aka Shock Transfert Suspence Hypnos aka Suspense aka Beyond The Door II]

"Mum – I have to kill you…."

Director:   Mario Bava and Lamberto Bava (uncredited)

Starring:  Daria Nicolodi, David Colin Jr, John Steiner, Ivan Rassimov, Nicola Salerno

Screenplay:  Lamberto Bava, Francesco Barbieri, Paolo Brigenti, Dardarno Sacchetti

Synopsis:  A woman, Dora (Daria Nicolodi), her young son, Marco (David Colin Jr), and her second husband, Bruno (John Steiner), move into their new home. Dora is tense and edgy, as the house is where she lived with her first husband until his suicide. While tidying the house, Dora is disturbed to find a large porcelain hand pushed down under the cushions of her couch. She jumps at hearing Bruno in the next room, and confesses to him that she thought she felt the presence of Carlo (Nicola Salerno), her first husband. Bruno sooths her fears. That night, after sending Marco to bed, Dora and Bruno make love on the couch. Nearby, the porcelain hand moves, and in his room, Marco suddenly sits up, hissing, "Pigs!" The next day, after Bruno, who is a pilot, has left, Dora and Marco play in the yard. Dora is disturbed by Marco’s embrace of her, which all at once seems to suggest something sexual. Marco asks why his father never comes to see him, and Dora must tell him that his father is dead. That night, Marco asks if he can sleep with his mother, which Dora permits. As his mother sleeps, Marco climbs out of bed, watching his swing in the backyard, which seems to move by itself. Marco returns to bed, stroking his mother’s hair and face. In her sleep, Dora responds to the touch, and suddenly the hand caressing her becomes decayed and putrefying…. Dora and Bruno hold a dinner-party for their old friends. One of the guests is Dr Aldo Morasi (Ivan Rassimov), a psychiatrist who treated Dora after Carlo’s death. One of the other guests makes a cruel remark about Dora driving Carlo to suicide and, when Aldo objects, adds unfeelingly that Dora knew that Carlo was a drug addict when she married him. As Dora and Bruno kiss, Dora sees Marco looking at them with hatred. Later, Marco abruptly tells his mother that he will have to kill her. Dora tells Bruno about the incident, but he dismisses it. When Dora showers, Marco spies upon her, and steals a pair of her panties from a drawer. Hearing Marco calling for her, Dora is shocked to find him in the cellar, pressed against a brick wall and shivering with fever. She carries the boy to his room and, while searching for a thermometer, finds her missing panties, which have been torn to shreds. Marco suddenly recovers and runs out into the yard. Dora pursues him, and trips over a rake that Marco has left in her path. As she reaches for her injured ankle, Dora sees a decaying hand clutching at her, and starts to scream….

Comments:  Shock, Mario Bava’s last cinematic release, is a strangely schizophrenic work. On one hand, it is a hodge-podge of themes lifted from most of the major horror films of the preceding ten or fifteen years: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen are all clearly amongst its sources. On the other hand, the film is uniquely, unmistakably Bava. From the very opening shots, with the camera prowling about a normal yet oddly spooky house, the guiding hand behind Shock is quite apparent. Thematically, too, the film sits securely in the director’s oeuvre. Hints of necrophilia and unnatural family relationships, and the inexorable linking of sex with death and decay, tie Shock to Bava’s masterpiece, La Maschera Del Demonio, as well as to works such as La Frusta E Il Corpo and Lisa E Il Diavolo. However, it differs from most of its immediate predecessors in that the acting is stronger, the plot is clearer, and the film as a whole relies more upon psychological terrors and expertly executed hallucinatory sequences than upon gross-out scenes. There are a couple of nasty episodes, but for an Italian horror film of the mid-Seventies, Shock is remarkably restrained in the bloodletting department. In fact, some of the most disquieting moments are entirely bloodless: the finding of the ceramic hand; the mutilation of a doll; Daria Nicolodi’s hair writhing like Medusa’s snakes; and surely only Mario Bava could make a slinky so disturbing. The film’s recurrent hand imagery is brilliantly used, and is as fascinating at is it repulsive.

Bava also plays cleverly with audience expectations, as when what looks like a tacky "ghost" effect turns out to be a light shone through a photograph from which Marco has ruthlessly excised his stepfather. David Colin Jr gives a striking performance as Marco. His shifts from "normal child" to "possessed child" and back again are convincing, and the expression he assumes while watching Dora and Bruno kissing is totally unnerving. Bava’s filming of the boy is also remarkable, turning an ordinary if vaguely creepy little kid into something monstrous. There is one unforgettable shot of Marco, upside-down, and surrounded by his Disney sheet-set. Somehow, having this child framed by Mickey, Minnie and Goofy adds the final touch of horror to the characterisation.

By the time the film was made, the motif of the demonic child had become yawningly familiar, but Shock takes the theme further than any contemporary American or British horror film would have dared. The incestuous overtones are blunt and troubling. The tenor of the scenes in which Marco spies upon his naked mother is balanced neatly between childish curiosity and adult perversion. However, after the playful wrestling of Marco and Dora has turned into something else entirely, the boy’s natural scared-kid request to share his mother’s bed becomes utterly grotesque.

As Dora, Italian horror mainstay Daria Nicolodi gives an excellent performance. Her portrayal of a woman undergoing a breakdown as her past literally comes back to haunt her is quite unsettling. The strength and independence of the actress’s character in Argento’s Profondo Rosso, the film Nicolodi made immediately prior to this, seems to hover over her role in Shock, giving an added edge to Dora’s battle to hang on to her crumbling sanity. Good as her acting is, Nicolodi is helped enormously by Bava’s clever visuals, as Dora begins to suffer not just nightmares, but nightmares within nightmares (notably when she finds that the brick wall in the cellar has taken up residence in her bedroom). There is also a beautiful moment when what Dora thinks is spilled blood coalesces into fallen rose petals.

What is particularly disturbing, however, is Shock’s lack of compassion for its beleaguered heroine. Italian horror films are not exactly famous for their feminist sympathies; and this one clearly feels that Dora is getting what she deserves. Given the story’s denouement, I suppose some viewers might choose to agree with the film’s sentiments. However, by the time the backstory of Dora’s two marriages had been filled in (including her junkie first husband’s attempts to hook her as well, and Bruno’s role in her initial trauma), I found it impossible not to feel that she’d been punished enough. This made the film’s conclusion doubly upsetting – which I suppose in horror film terms means a job well done.

Much as there is to praise about Shock, the film also has some unfortunate shortcomings. Along with the scary visuals are a few too many lazy "falling object" shock effects (although I must confess that nothing in the film made me jump as much as Bruno’s razor falling off a shelf. Afterwards, I couldn’t help contemplating the significance of Bruno choosing an electric shaver!). The music is a mixture of classical-inspired piano, which works, and the inevitable electronic rock score, which more often than not disrupts the mood. It is also disappointing that Bava chose to spell out the reality of his story’s supernatural events, particularly since this is done through resorting to cheap tactics such as the overused "contact lens" effect. I feel that a more subtle and ambiguous handling of Shock’s is-it-real/is-it-not aspects would have made for a much stronger work. Still, the film is a big improvement over its immediate predecessor, Gli Orrori Del Castello Di Norimberga, and overall makes quite a suitable coda to Mario Bava’s horror film career.

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