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By 1977, the nature of the horror film had already changed significantly. Instead of the Gothic mood pieces of previous decades, the genre had become more dynamic, seeking shocks rather than heady atmosphere. Italian horror auteur Mario Bava's final theatrical film reflects this change. Partially directed by his son, Lamberto Bava, who trained under such directors as Ruggero Deodato and Mario Lanfranchi, Shock is inconsistent, pairing the trademark style of the senior Bava with the new sensibilities of the junior. Jumbled and mildly disappointing, Shock still boasts some singularly breathtaking and unnerving moments, courtesy of both father and son.
Shock's main plot isn't terribly original or inspired. Dora and her family (a second husband, Bruno, and a young son, Marco) return the house she once lived in with her ex-husband, who died by his own hand nearly a decade ago. Upon arriving, Dora becomes slightly distressed, presumably because she is facing the long-buried memories of her second husband. However, as their stay lengthens, Marco begins to act strangely, behaving both threateningly and sexually towards his mother. Is Dora imagining it, driven mad by the haunting memories of her past, or is there something more supernatural at work in the old house?
The story goes that, prior to directing Shock, Mario Bava had been out of work for two years, depressed and isolated without a project to labor over. His son, Lamberto, out of concern, created Shock so that his father would have something to do and, hopefully, raise his spirits. During production, Mario Bava would often say that he didn't feel well, that he could not continue and instruct his son to finish the day’s shooting, presumably to give Lamberto directorial experience. As a result, Shock, while attributed to Mario Bava, is a really a joint creation, directed by both Mario and Lamberto, from a script co-written by Lamberto Bava (to avoid confusion between the Bavas, we’ll refer to Mario Bava as “Bava” and Lamberto Bava as “Lamberto” from this point forward).
The base theme of Shock is nothing new; the effects of guilt on the psyche having already been explored in Bava’s own Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body. However, unlike these other two productions, Shock brings a whole new element to table: the undeniable presence of the supernatural. The ambiguity of the supernatural is common in Bava's previous works; he often used subjective camera angles to show that there is always the possibility that the bizarre is simply imagined. As such, Bava’s films rely instead on atmosphere and the instability of perceived reality to induce terror. Shock, however, is a vast departure from this. There is no doubt that something unnatural is happening with Marco. By pinning Bruno's picture to a swing, he causes an airplane miles away to nearly crash. Also, during the climax, Marco is lying on his bed, his eyes white and cloudy as if possessed. In both of these instances, we are not seeing the events through a character’s eyes, but through an objective camera. There is no doubt that these supernatural events are happening as presented, and, by the end of the film, the only explanation that can explain the film is ghostly activity.
While, in and of itself, the blatant presence of the supernatural isn't a problem, it is when much of the directing is done in a style reflective of suggestive, subjective paranormal activity. For the first half the film, it is difficult to really get a bead on what is going on. The film oscillates between subjective shocks of Marco's behavior, seen through the disturbed eyes of his mother, which are then reinforced by other characters expressing their concern for her mental well-being. Initially, there is a sense of mystery about the events. However, when Bruno and Dora are passionately engaged on the living room couch, the camera cuts back to Marco, up in his room, alone. He awakens, looking dazed and distant, and yells “PIGS!” over and over, obviously angered by the lovers' activities below. This certainly counts as continued bizarre behavior, but unlike previous instances, Marco is alone. We are privy to what is actually happening, not what others may perceive. However, rather than using this as a transition state, the film continues as it has, with Marco's strange behavior being brushed off and treated as possibly ambiguous. The effect is frustrating, as everyone in the films seems unsure or oblivious about behavior that we, the now-omniscient audience, know to be unnatural.
The failure to blend old and new styles of horror extends beyond the theme, continuing its inconsistency into the direction. On the one hand, you have many scenes in the film that are typical Mario Bava. In the love scene described above, when Bruno and Dora are entangled on the couch, the camera pans back, so we see them across a shelf, a giant porcelain hand at the very corner of the frame. As the scene continues, the camera begins to change angles, moving around the lovers in such a way that the hand seems to crawl up their naked bodies, finally enveloping them in its cold, ceramic grip. The shot is brilliantly done -- subtle and unnerving, it’s filled with discomfiture and unease. On the other hand, you have shots that are reminiscent of modern directors like Dario Argento. The one that stands out the most, for which Lamberto takes full credit, is during the final climax. Dora, now driven almost completely mad, turns a corner and sees her son running towards her. We watch him as he approaches and, because of the camera angle and his height, drops out of the frame just as he reaches his mother. A split second later, he is replaced by Dora's dead husband, who violently gropes at her. The effect is shocking, so much that, when I saw it for the first time, I yelped and jumped back from the screen. Like the scene with the porcelain hand, it is again a moment of brilliance, just in a more blatant, more visceral manner.
Rather than blending these two styles together and creating a film with consistently good direction, however, there are few instances in which the two styles really mesh. In fact, the only time I can think that it is carried off successfully is when Dora breaks mentally, and we see the world around her start to flicker and change, becoming a warped reality in which pianos laugh or a rose petal becomes a pool of accusatory blood. If you're wondering which Bava is responsible for that scene, I couldn't tell you, as it carries trademarks of both styles. However, despite this one success, most other scenes between the moments of horror, which are either distinctly Bava or distinctly Lamberto stylistically, are bland. The camera remains stationary, the lighting natural and unobtrusive. The effect is to create a film that consists almost entirely of mediocre direction, punctuated by brilliant, breathtaking scenes. Unfortunately for Shock, there is a lot more boring than there is breathtaking, and, because little effort is made to successfully blend the disparate directorial styles of Bava and his son, watching the film is jarring and disorienting, rather than intriguing.
This conflict between old and new styles is again reflected in the acting, particularly that of Daria Nicolodi. As Dora, her performance fluctuates between captivating and forced, and, almost always, it depends on which type of scene she is involved in at the time. During the more modern scenes, such as when she trips on a rake and sees a corpses hand holding on to her ankle, her panic is almost palpable. She flails, she screams, she scrambles – and never once does she waver. The performance is heart-stoppingly convincing, letting never doubt its reality. Therefore, it is all the more disappointing when Nicolodi offers a lackluster, forced performance in scenes with a more psychological approach. When she should be wary and ill-at-ease, she is instead actressy and noticeably dramatic. It almost seems as if the concept of subtlety escapes her. Given that Nicolodi had previously performed in many of her then-boyfriend Dario Argento's films, her adeptness during the modern horror sequences bespeaks her familiarity with the style. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to be equipped to adapt to ambiguity, and her line delivery and posturing seem fake and unconvincing.
Finally, we come to the soundtrack, which, frankly, I found inappropriate. Shock was scored by I Libra, a Goblin off-shoot whose style is reflective of its origins. However, while the Goblin soundtracks may benefit and complement the work of Argento, the modern rock feel in a film that is half suggestion and subtlety is completely misplaced. It's really hard to be unnerved and uneasy with hard rock and electronic instruments pounding away in the background. The only moments when the music truly compliments the film is when music is part of the film itself, rather than the background score. The creepy, chilling piano pieces pervading the house, the sound of children's songs emanating from the basement – all of them are examples of diegetic sound that complement the happenings of the film far better than the score ever does.
The final result is a film that doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it a psychological horror film about the maddening effects of guilt, or is it a supernatural thriller filled with shocks and otherworldly ghouls? Unfortunately, since it can't make up its mind, Shock is neither. It's an inconsistent film that loses its audience in its shifting focus, causing disorientation rather than disquiet, impatience rather than intrigue. When one has learned to expect great things associated with the name Bava, Shock comes as a terrible disappointment.
This review is part of Mario Bava Week, the last of four celebrations of master horror directors done for our Shocktober 2007 event.