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{Blu-ray Review} Now What Game Shall We Play?: The Domestic Horror of Mario Bava’s Shock (1977)

“No one can arrest me because I’m a ghost!”

I was not a big fan of Shock – Mario Bava’s final film as director – when I saw it for the first time last year. My reasons, sadly enough, were many of the same ones that Troy Howarth gives for the flick’s lukewarm reception in his essay in the booklet that accompanies the new Arrow Video Blu. Simply put, I missed the colored gels and baroque atmosphere of Bava’s earlier films.

Which is not to say that Shock isn’t still every bit as gothic, in its way, as Black Sunday or Kill, Baby… Kill! While it may be set in a modern-day suburb of Rome, rather than a “dilapidated 19th century castle,” there is a terrible secret from the past that is haunting the present, and a literal dead body bricked up in the basement before all is said and done.

Courtesy Arrow Video

Indeed, Howarth argues in his essay that, while “Shock may appear to be Bava’s bid at making an Argento-style horror movie,” nevertheless “its thematic concerns, atmosphere, and psychological ambiguity are totally in step with the films he had been directing for nearly 20 years.” He also compares it favorably to one of Bava’s early gothics, The Whip and the Body from 1963 – a comparison that is difficult to dispute.

Where Bava’s touch is most apparent in Shock is probably in the film’s many ingenious in-camera effects. The most famous is a sequence that has been rendered immortal in the age of animated gifs, in which the lead’s young son runs toward her down a hallway, before transforming into a “ghostly man” just off-camera as he reaches her. It’s a brilliant bit of cinematic trickery all handled in one continuous shot, but it is by no means the only time Bava’s virtuoso filmmaking is on display.

Despite this, Bava isn’t the star of the show here. Shock is a small, intimate movie, with a cast list that barely goes above three, and Daria Nicolodi owns the picture. By the time she made Shock, Nicolodi’s relationship with then-husband Dario Argento was already on the rocks, according to Howarth’s notes, and it seems like she is only today finally getting the credit she deserves for her contributions to Argento’s filmography and to Italian horror in general.

“Thus, she came to Bava in a vulnerable state,” Howarth writes, “which arguably helped her to reach the emotional highs and lows called for by the material.” And reach them she does. Nicolodi is one of those actors who always elevates whatever she’s in, and Shock – which is practically a one-woman show for much of its running time – may be her best performance. As I wrote on Letterboxd, “Toni Collette in Hereditary has nothing on Daria Nicolodi in Shock.”

Yet for all of this, Shock still feels like relatively minor Bava, at least to me. I’ve come to appreciate it more on this re-watch than I did the first time, and even then it was impossible to deny the effectiveness of some of the beats and scenes, or of Nicolodi’s performance. Howarth calls it possibly “the single scariest film that Mario Bava ever made,” and that may also be true.

But there’s something missing, and it isn’t just the gel lights. In his earlier movies, Bava often felt like he was inventing the genre in which he worked – and in some cases, he actually was. With Shock, as ingenious and well-played as it often is, he seems like he’s in the same sandbox that was being occupied by lots of other horror movies by 1977.

This impression isn’t helped by Shock’s storied release history. When it first made its way across the pond, it was renamed Beyond the Door 2, in an attempt to cash in on the success of that film, which was itself an Italian clone of William Friedkin’s Exorcist that was so close to the original that it got into hot water with Warner Bros.

The tenuous connection between the two films is child actor David Colin Jr. The kid gets a lot of bad press in Shock, with plenty of viewers (especially of the English dub) declaring him “annoying.” And they’re not exactly wrong, but it’s also hard to fault the kid’s transition from normal little kid to creepy pervert, which is something he has to do many times over the course of the film.

Courtesy Arrow Video

All in all, while Shock may not have been the swan song some of us wanted for Mario Bava, one of the most important and influential directors in the history of the genre, it’s still a significant entry in his filmography, and one that deserves to be preserved. Fortunately, Arrow Video does their usually commendable job of doing just that, including both the English-language dub and the Italian original in a rich restoration on a features-packed disc.

Whether you’re a fan of Shock or simply a curious connoisseur of Bava’s varied filmography, it’s hard to ask for much more than that.