I’m going to say a potentially incendiary thing: Mario Bava is the best underrated director of all time. The Italian cinematographer turned director was one of the most prolific in his era. Though he directed movies in all kinds of genres, his forte was horror, creating some of the most visually interesting, creepiest films in the canon. Despite all of this, Bava was never appreciated during his time, looked over for young upstarts like Dario Argento. With his final film as a director, Bava’s Shock certainly bears some of the hallmarks of Argento’s brand of horror. But thanks to Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray presentation, we can appreciate an unsetting, surreal swansong from a true artist.
I remember seeing Shock maybe a decade or more ago on Netflix. I don’t remember thinking all that highly of it, despite a few effective scares. Over the years, I’ve become a massive fan of Mario Bava and his innovative filmmaking techniques and understated exploration of scarred psyches. Almost all of his movies have made their way to Blu-ray, and Shock represents the last of his major works to arrive. Even later than some of Bava’s offbeat non-horror output.
Shock is both a ghost story and a murder mystery, combining both of Bava’s most beloved styles, the Gothic and the giallo. Many balk at calling it one of the director’s best, owing to a number of outside factors. It was a deliberate attempt by the producers to ape the success of Argento. Prog rock band Libra provided the score, doing their best Goblin impression. It stars Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s romantic and creative partner, right after the dissolution of both relationships. And, chiefly, only a reported 75% of the movie was actually Mario Bava’s work. The rest was the work of Mario’s son and longtime assistant, Lamberto Bava. It was Mario’s subtle effort to give the younger man the push to feature directing he needed.
All of that setup out of the way, let’s talk about what’s actually in the movie. The story follows Dora Baldini (Nicolodi) and her young son Marco (David Colin Jr.) who move in to a very large, somewhat dilapidated house with Dora’s new airline pilot husband Bruno (John Steiner). The house is where Dora used to live with her first husband, Carlo (Nicola Salerno), Marco’s father, prior to his death.
Right from the get-go things seem off. Marco has an imaginary friend who we quickly learn is Carlo’s ghost. Dora has strange and upsetting hallucinations of a putrefied hand brandishing a boxcutter that she doesn’t quite understand. Bruno believes it’s just the stress of moving coupled with the buried trauma about Carlo’s death. However, it’s clear there’s more going on, both corporeal and supernatural. The truth surrounding Carlo and his apparently haunting/possession of Marco leads to horrifying truths and Dora’s ever-fracturing mind.
While Shock doesn’t bear many of the visual hallmarks of a Mario Bava horror film (most notably the lack of expressionistic colorful lighting), it does share much in common with his earlier ghost stories. The ghosts in Bava’s films are usually representations of the lead character’s scarred and depraved psyches. Bava’s 1963 film The Whip and the Body features a woman who continues a sadomasochistic relationship with her cruel suitor even after his death. The taunting image of the killer’s dead wife haunts him in the 1971 film Hatchet for the Honeymoon. And in 1966’s Kill, Baby, Kill, the little ghost girl holding a town in panic is acting out the anger of her vindictive mother.
The ghost in Shock may just be Dora’s hallucination, but that doesn’t quite explain Marco’s truly disturbing behavior, who seems to relate to his mother both with hatred and lust. Which only even partially makes sense if it’s Carlo acting through him. In this way, Shock bears more than a passing resemblance to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, except instead of governess and charge, it’s mother and son. One of the movie’s standout sequences finds Dora alone in her bed, experiencing some kind of orgasmic supernatural pleasure achieved by tying Nicolodi to the bed facing a fixed camera and rotating the entire rig so her hair moves as though floating.
Nicolodi gives a truly outstanding performance in Shock, perfectly encapsulating a woman on the edge of sanity. In truth, Nicolodi wasn’t far off from this herself. As I learned from Bava biographer Tim Lucas’s wonderful audio commentary and a video essay from critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Nicolodi had developed anorexia as a result of the stress and anguish stemming from her breakup with Argento. She’s incredibly frail in the movie, and seemingly channels all of her trauma into the role. By the actress’s own accounts in later years, Bava’s warmth and professionalism on set helped her during that exceedingly tough time.
While Shock is often criticized for its sparse plot and odd atmosphere, the Bavas cannot draw criticism for their effective and eerie in-camera effects. The movie is a surreal triumph and nearly every one of the scariest moments comes from a piece of design or nifty camera trick. Most famously, a terrifying moment where Marco runs toward his mother and becomes Carlo’s ghost in the same shot. It’s a very simple idea that, if done improperly, would have completely failed. The camera move needed to be absolutely precise to achieve the proper impact. Judge for yourself if it did.
Mario Bava made a number of classic and indelible movies during his long career, and it’s a shame that Shock is rarely listed among them. The performances are wonderful, and the story expects the audience to infer more than learn directly. This adds to the overall unease and growing tension. It’s exactly what I like from a ghost story and the filmmaker’s work in general. Shock is due for a reappraisal and thanks to Arrow, I hope it becomes the minor classic it ought to be.
The Blu-ray presentation is gorgeous, with a complete 2K restoration from the original 35mm film. The extras are wonderful, in keeping with Arrow’s usual high standards. It’s worth buying Blu-rays of any kind just for a commentary track by Tim Lucas. His tracks are thoroughly researched and always entertaining. When the movie in question is a Bava film, of whom Lucas is the world recognized authority, it’s all the better.
Heller-Nicholas’s video essay offers an in-depth examination of the movie’s visual symbols, most notably the large sculpture of a hand which is omnipresent and ties directly into the ghostly hand of Carlo, pulling the strings of the plot, as it were. Additional extras include interviews with Lamberto Bava, co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, and critic and genre expert Stephen Thrower. If you’re a scholar of genre cinema or would even just like to know more about a movie you’ve just seen, you truly cannot do better than Arrow’s extras, and these specifically.
I love Mario Bava, and all of his movies deserve a deeper analysis. But Shock represents a master craftsman working at the end of his career under atypical circumstances who managed to turn in a thoughtful, creepy movie in an age of bombastic set pieces and excessive gore. Give Shock a chance and it will reward you.
Shock arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video on January 18.