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Film Essays

Terror in the Son: Mario Bava’s Shock

“The unusual and disquieting visuals of Bava’s films seem rooted in a conception of life as an uncomfortable union of illusion and reality.” – Alain Silver and James Ursini, “Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality”

Shock (Behind the Door II) is set in a beautiful house, adorned with Buddhist imagery, in an idyllic countryside. Wife Dora (Dario Argento regular Daria Nicolodi), husband Bruno (John Steiner) and son Marco are moving in. Despite its beautiful exterior, yard and living room, the house once served as the home of Dora and her dead junkie boyfriend (and father of her son) Carlo (David Colin Jr.). Its basement is filled with their old furniture, all dirty wood and cage-like, which stands in stark contrast to Bruno’s sleek modern-Buddhist living-room. The house itself begins to collapse in on Dora, as its connection to her son and seemingly animate desire to harm her drives her slowly insane. The film asks but never answers questions about Dora’s reliability as a protagonist—what is actually happening and what is merely guilt (or drug) induced hallucination? Shock begins primarily as a child-possessed story (a la The Omen) mingled with a haunted house set piece (a la Supsiria) but its masterful final act more closely recalls Polanski’s Repulsion. Somehow, Shock manages to be much bleaker, although not necessarily better, than any of these three blood relatives.

Shock

Shock was filmed jointly by father and son team Mario Bava and Lamberto Bava, reportedly as a distraction from the elder Bava’s listlessness and depression. The film truly feels the result of this pairing: it’s a wandering, unfocused piece with more to show than it has to say. It’s as if one Bava had a great idea for a movie about a haunted house and the other had a great idea about a woman having a nervous breakdown, and they just shot from both scripts at random. Still, to deny it any power at all would be to lie—the film is gorged with memorable images (and I believe powerful imagery should be a chief concern of film and the primary job of horror film). From the huge white hand that dominates the first scene as well as the physical living room, plucking and pinning Dora’s attention with a simple shift, to the final gleefully manic tea party, Shock delivers ample loads of unsettling moments.

Shock Hand

Among the most unsettling are the scenes of blatant eroticism. As seven-year old Marco’s connection to (possession by?) his father grows clearer, so does his desire for his mother’s sexuality. After playfully pulling him to the ground on top of her, Dora is disturbed as Marco begins grinding against her hips and grunting. During the night, Marco plucks hair from his mother’s head, stroking it lovingly. While Bruno and Dora make love in the living room one night, Marco sits up in bed and begins to hoarsely yell, “Pigs! Pigs!” Most disturbingly, while watching her shower, Marco steals some of his mother’s panties. She later finds them cut up in his dresser.

Watching Over

This aggressive perversion of innocent childhood sexual curiosity is played for creeps. Marco is a sweet kid, we like him, but his behavior in the film makes us profoundly uncomfortable. The transplantation of adult male desire into the body of a seven year old boy is its own sort of shock, and even when we are offered a sort of explanation for it– that Marco is channeling his deceased father– we find it threatening. It is, indeed, intended to be a threat. Second-husband Bruno is a largely impotent companion, unable to either fly his plane (influenced by a Voodoo-like spell cast by Marco) or protect his wife. Marco is usurping his territory. The connection between the child and his dead father is made explicit in one of the film’s great moments as Marco throws open his arms, running towards his mother with a smile, yelling, “Mommy!” before transforming into a vengeful, nude Carlo, who grabs Dora’s arms. Marco’s threatening sexuality comes full circle here as he instantaneously transforms from a needy child embracing his mother into a naked, long-dead junkie, grabbing a screaming Dora.

A Bloody Mess

Hair Sprawled on Bed

Dora’s own sexuality is on display, particularly towards the film’s final, hallucinogenic end. Her sheer outfits and panting screams emphasize that her beauty comes from her vulnerability. During one bizarre dream sequence, Dora’s hair flows over her face impossibly as she gazes at her lover slightly above the camera—is it Carlo? Is it Bruno? Us?

Shot through voyeuristic perspectives, as if the house itself was looming and stalking its inhabitants, Shock feels every tense minute of its claustrophobic journey. Its final act, a graceful flight of terror throughout the possessed house, is far and away the film’s most engaging moment. Much bleaker than most American horror films, Shock deals fleetingly with heroin abuse, guilt, and mental breakdown, even as it delivers its tightly-knit scares. Still, the film is not a complete whole. The story veers from genuinely supernatural occurrence to total hallucination in a way that’s irritating and unsettled. Acting is tough to judge when the dialogue is dubbed, but it ranges from down-right good to hammy. Despite its flaws, however, and because of its bleak sexuality and arresting imagery, Shock is a tense, eminently watchable Italian horror flick.

By Britta R. Moline  3/18/11

For more on cult horror: More Than Just a Great Set of Boobs: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

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