Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: January 18th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By the end of his career, Mario Bava was inarguably one of the biggest influences on the horror genre to ever lurk behind a camera. For two decades, he’d been at the forefront of the genre, guiding it through its shifting phases as both hitchhiker and trendsetter. Whether he was riding the creature feature coattails of the 50s, inspiring a gothic horror revival in the 60s, or innovating splatter slaughter into the 70s, Bava had done a little bit of everything. It’s one of the defining characteristics of his career: no matter how successful or innovative Bava’s films might have been, he rarely returned to the scene of his crimes, preferring instead to move on and riff on something else, bringing a new flavor even to familiar stories. This held true all the way through Shock, his final feature film before his death in 1980. On the surface, it seems like old hat for Bava, who’d tiptoed through his share of haunted houses at this point; however, this one was a decidedly different take from earlier efforts like Kill, Baby, Kill and Lisa and the Devil. Enterprising schlock-maven Edward Montoro even tried to evoke the latter by rebranding Shock as Beyond the Door II, a move that only highlights what a stark departure it is from the gothic trappings and Satanic panic of those previous films.
More in the vein of the contemporary hauntings of the era, Shock is a slow-burn possession film that takes a crooked path in terrorizing its besieged family. When Dora (Daria Nicolodi, giving a tremendous, full-bodied performance) moves back into her old home with new husband Bruno (John Steiner) and her young son Marco (David Colin Jr.), it’s meant to be an act of catharsis after being institutionalized following her husband’s death. While the house still harbors traumatic memories of this past life, which began to unravel when her first husband died at sea, she hopes to move forward. The past, however, won’t allow her to do so: soon after moving in, Marco begins to act strangely. Not only is he mysteriously drawn to the basement, but he’s also caught doing weird shit, like shredding his mom’s underwear and leaving her flowers addressed from his dead dad. An assortment of other supernatural events—levitating drawings, a piano playing on its own—hint that something supernatural is afoot, leading Dora to suspect her dead husband has completely moved on.
Shock might seem familiar within the context of the 70s haunted house and possession cycles, where there was no shortage of disturbed kids and supernatural shenanigans. It’s the length and breadth of its depravity, though, that sets this one part. Basically, Shock is one big batch of fucked up shit happening all at once. It’s one thing for Satan or his demonic minions to target a child—that’s their whole deal, after all, the corruption of innocence and whatnot. But for the spirit of a dead father to haunt his son, acting as both a demented playmate and a malevolent entity hijacking his body for nefarious purposes? Completely, utterly wrong in that screwy but delightful Eurohorror kind of way, and that’s what makes all the difference here, as Shock features the pseudo-incestral overtures and bizarre tonal shifts that are practically customary with this scene.
Bava further accents the typical schlock with more idiosyncratic embellishments, like razorblades manifesting between piano keys and sordid reveals about the house’s décor. In one of the film’s more unsettling moments, Marco’s swing becomes a voodoo totem that comes perilously close to crashing a plane. And, of course, there’s the film’s iconic jolt during the climax that confirms Dora’s suspicions when father and son become one in one of the most unsettling fashions imaginable. It’s a familiar jump scare, if only because it’s been so imitated; however, what those imitators rarely manage to recapture is the sheer, unhinged imagination that allows it to linger long after the jolt. There’s something impressive about how vital it all feels, despite coming so late in Bava’s career (and, as it would turn out, his life). Far from going through the motions or retracing old steps, the master makes a spirited effort here, mining dread and schlock alike from a story that spirals into total mania.
In this respect, Shock feels like a culmination of Bava’s career, particularly the way he gracefully stitches it all together into a genuinely compelling climax. There’s all the schlock, yes, but it acts as purposeful grace notes to an otherwise tense, mostly restrained movie that creeps along with insidious intent before its dizzying descent into a mind-bending maelstrom. The playful haunted house parlor tricks and oppressive atmosphere of his earlier, gothic efforts weave into the outlandish violence and hallucinogenic hysterics that defined his later work, forming a valedictory tapestry of sorts. In Shock, you can see the filmmaker Bava once was and the one he became, making it a fitting end to one of the genre’s most storied and consistently interesting careers.
Remarkably, Shock has been a long time coming on Blu-ray. Originally released on DVD by Anchor Bay over 20 years ago (and reissued by Blue Underground in 2016), it finally makes the leap thanks to Arrow Video’s latest deluxe offering. Featuring a newly struck 2K transfer and remastered soundtracks, Shock has never looked or sounded better than it does here. Bava’s photography has a soft quality to it that’s nicely captured here, complete with a faint grain structure that’s true to the filmic source. Both the English and Italian soundtracks are available in DTS-HD MA mono mixes, and nothing seemed out of sorts to my ears when listening to the latter.
Arrow has also provided an abundance of supplements to make up for the relatively bare bones DVD releases, which sported an interview with Lamberto Bava, trailers, and static talent bios (remember when those things felt like “special” features?”). The younger Bava appears here too in a newly recorded interview that reveals his involvement as the film’s uncredited co-director. He traces the roots to the project back to the late-60s, when he and his co-writers first hatched it under the title It’s Always Cold at 33 Block Street. At the time, the elder Bava tabled it in favor of other projects until finally returning to it nearly a decade later, at which point he was already looking to hand the reins over to his son. Lamberto provides plenty of insight into the eventual production and release, tackling everything from nuts-and-bolts bits to anecdotes involving Dario Argento. One of his co-writers, the legendary Dardano Sacchetti, appears in a separate interview to recount his contributions before praising the elder Bava’s filmmaking prowess. In one of the more heartfelt moments, he laments how the filmmaker fell into relative “oblivion” upon his death and insists his works should be taught in all film schools.
On the scholarly side of things, the always insightful Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines the film’s puppetry motifs in a 20-minute visual essay that reveals the incredible attention to visual detail Bava and company put into the film. The essay particularly seizes on the recurring image of the Buddha statue hand that plays a pivotal role in Shock, revealing new depths between the film’s mise en scene and its thematic concerns. Stephen Thrower then lays down the gauntlet in one of his patented sit-downs, as he places Shock within the larger context of Bava’s career (which he sees as spanning two distinct eras, with Hatchet for the Honeymoon marking the turning point) before digging into the movie itself. These interviews with Thrower are always impressive, and this one is no different, as he lectures for 50 minutes, all of them compelling and insightful. Some of the more interesting bits have him speculating about the influence of contemporary horror on the film, citing the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and even Jaws as unlikely influences on Shock. Features like this and Heller-Nicholas’s essay are what often separate Arrow’s releases from their peers, as these academic takes do what all effective criticism should: instill a newfound or deeper appreciation of a work.
As for the rest of the features, Arrow also includes a brief audio interview with critic Alberto Farina, who discusses a picture Bava drew for Daria Nicolodi on the set of Shock. It’s one of the more eccentric featurettes I’ve ever seen, and it’s joined by the usual array of trailers and image galleries. All of it comes housed in Arrow’s customary sturdy packaging, complete with a booklet and a nice slip-cover. It should be noted that Arrow is also selling an alternate, limited edition release featuring a Beyond the Door II slip-cover to commemorate the exploitative U.S. alternate title. If Montoro is still alive out there somewhere, I like to think he'd appreciate that. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: