No conversation about the fathers of Italian horror can be had without referencing the Maestro of the Macabre himself, Mario Bava. Though he had been working as a special effects artist and sometime cameraman since the late 1930s, it was not until Bava transitioned to the director’s chair in the late 1950s that the journeyman found his niche as one of cinema’s masters of horror. Throughout the 1960s/1970s, Bava directed a selection of groundbreaking horror titles that are regarded today as peak examples of Gothic celluloid. Films such as Black Sunday, Kill, Baby, Kill, Black Sabbath, and Blood and Black Lace remain as delectably grim yet hauntingly beautiful today as they were 50 years ago.
Unfortunately, having found his calling somewhat late in life, Bava would pass away from a heart attack in 1980, leaving behind two decades of fine directorial work and fellow countrymen - such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci - to carry the blood-spattered straight razor into the dawning decade. Bava’s final directorial effort, Shock, is a psychological horror drama with perverse, supernatural undertones. The movie, which does not wholly reflect Bava’s typical directorial style, was produced as something of an ‘on-boarding’ process for his son, Lamberto, who himself would go on to helm his own iconic horror pictures throughout the 1980s.
Shock is the story of widowed mother Dora Baldini, (played by genre stalwart Daria Nicolodi, the then-wife of Dario Argento). Some years after having lost her husband, Carlo, and having also undergone intense psychological therapy, Dora and her son Marco (David Colin Jr) plan to relocate to Carlo’s rural Italian home, bringing with them Dora’s new lover, Bruno Baldini (John Steiner). However, it is not long before strange visions of the past begin to plague Dora’s mind, as Marco swiftly descends into dangerous, rebellious behaviour. While Dora believes something sinister and otherworldly is invading her home life, Bruno is convinced that Dora is hallucinating, her delirium driven by the aftermath of her PTSD. From this setup, Shock treads gently through Dora’s days and nights, as she finds herself besieged by both frightening apparitions and worryingly Oedipal ‘games’ played by her own child.
Bava's typically grand Gothic style is not readily apparent throughout Shock's entirety – The film is, ironically, more reminiscent of Argento’s work. Not to say that Shock isn’t wont to deliver a stunning visual setup, grisly special effect, or psychedelia-infused nightmare sequence. But, with its very deliberate pace and penchant for extended silence, Shock does not offer audiences extended terror, choosing instead an eerie quiet perforated with occasional stabs of panic. This creates an unnerving atmosphere of doom. We feel confident that the future is bleak for the crumbling Baldinis, we just want to know quite how bleak, simultaneously chasing and dreading the potential answers.
Shock’s ace, most assuredly, lies in its leading lady. For the film’s somewhat meandering pace, Daria Nicolodi gives a powerfully physical – almost violent – performance. As Dora’s mind unravels, Nicoldi’s actions become more and more unhinged. From her early signs of suspicion and paranoia to the lank-haired, wild-eyed wailing of a woman pushed beyond tangible reality, Nicolodi’s Dora is at once to be protected, pitied, and perhaps even feared by the audience. A broken woman, a broken mother, but one resolved to continue pushing for the truth. Any truth. Her truth. While Shock is certainly a flawed picture, Nicolodi’s commitment to the material - at its best and at its worst - cannot be denied.
Shock is a solid, if slow, psychological horror. And while it showcases a celebrated filmmaker’s struggle to transition into a new decade, it remains a fascinating swansong. Despite its simplistic story, there is much to unearth thematically, as Dora wrestles with grief, mental illness, the trials of parenthood, and gaslighting from almost every man in her life. Dora’s plight is the core force of Shock because, ultimately, this is Nicolodi’s show. And though handed a screenplay that might not seem out of place on an episode of Tales of the Unexpected, Daria still throws herself as passionately and as fiercely into the role as if it were Zulawski’s Possession or Polanski's Repulsion.
Arrow Video Blu-ray furnishes Shock with a crisp, clear print, accompanied by both the original English/Italian audio tracks, (though the English audio is noticeably muddier than its Italian counterpart), as well as optional English/Italian titles. A healthy extras package includes a commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas, as well as exclusive interviews with author Stephen Thrower, Shock co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, critic Alberto Farina, and Lamberto Bava. An excellent visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explores Shock’s obsession with puppet imagery, and the package is rounded out with a selection of trailers and vintage marketing materials - including a Japanese theatre program which, naturally, spoils the ending. Shock has taken many decades to reach these shores in respectable form, but Arrow Video’s typically proud release has made it worth the wait.
Shock is out now on Blu-ray. You can win a copy in our competition here.