Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Shock (aka Beyond the Door II)

“Death is a part of life, and we must learn from it”

That line is uttered by Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi), a tormented mother , to her son Marco (Davin Colin Jr.) about the mysterious death of her abusive husband, Marco’s father. This line echoes throughout Mario Bava’s Shock, and sticks in our mind until the film’s devastating denouement. Death is indeed a daily part of Dora’s life as it makes it presence known in every scene; it is also the driving force behind Shock’s primary theme, which is much more focused on despair and anguish than many of his films from the 1970s.  Even though Shock was peddled to American audiences as a sequel to the cheap Exorcist ripoff Beyond the Door, it is so much more than that — laying claim to some of Bava’s best moments (especially regarding the late-era Bava of Five Dolls for an August Moon and Lisa and the Devil) — as it has nothing to do with Beyond the Door (aside from having Davin Colin Jr. play a character that interacts with ghosts), nor is it merely a Suspiria clone as its detractors claim. Shock is one of my favorite Mario Bava films. Yes, it gets a little repetitive at times, but the final sequence, and its buildup, is one of the best things Bava ever filmed.

Shock’s story centers around newlyweds Dora and Bruno (John Steiner) and Dora’s son, Marco, as they move back into Dora's former home. Dora is returning from a stay at a mental institution (the aforementioned mysterious death of her first husband drove her there) where she received electroshock therapy. Immediately, on the day of the move, Dora is getting bad vibes from the house, which Bruno disregards as silliness, and that once she’s been in the house for awhile, her bad vibes will go away. However, Bruno isn’t there for long stretches since his job, a commercial airline pilot, keeps him away from his wife and her otherworldly inklings. So, with Bruno gone for long stretches, Dora is left alone with Marco in the house that is a constant reminder of death. It isn’t long before Dora freaks the hell out and begins to slowly piece together the events of her husband’s death (clouded by the electroshock therapy, no doubt).

Haunted by these visions (filmed with a filter to suggest the subjective point of view of an LSD user), Dora’s insanity only grows (there is a moment where a dresser opens and a disembodied hand gives her a box cutter that is one hell of a scene), and the longer she is left alone in the house with her son, the more and more she is convinced that Marco is possessed by the spirit of her dead husband. This all eventually leads to Dora finding out the truth behind her husband’s death, why Bruno seems so flippant towards her ever-growing fears, just what in the hell those visions are all about, and whether or not Marco really is conversing with the spirit of her dead husband (or is it all in her head?). I dare not reveal more (I am assuming this is one of the lesser scene Bava films), for the buildup — and payoff (I love that final shot!) — to the final sequence is so damn good I dare not even hint at it.

Before I get too effusive with my praise, let me be clear: there are weaknesses in the film. Particularly in the repetitive nature of the screenplay. Sometimes the monotony of the script works in its favor in a “lull you into a false sense of security” kind of way; other times, it’s maddening. For example, there is a pretty noticeable cycle of events throughout the film where, to some effect, you have the following occur: Dora gets an odd feeling, we get a flashback, we cut to Marco who does something odd and then runs away from his mother, Dora searches for Marco when something weird happens, cue Dora telling Bruno, cue Bruno’s disregard for such silly things, Dora has a strange vision, she wakes up screaming from a nightmare, repeat. This is no doubt the part of the film Bava dedicated the least amount of attention to; however, it’s not a lethal detriment as the film’s final 30 minutes (save for one effect that just doesn’t quite work) are some of the finest to grace a 1970’s Bava film.

The reason for the repetitive screenplay, though, and Bava’s seemingly disinterested approach in his narrative, is because a lot of Shock was a collaboration with Mario’s son, Lamberto, who actually co-wrote the film (and co-directed, albeit in an uncredited manner, just as Riccardo Freda gave Bava the chance to co-direct I Vampiri). So it’s pretty apparent that even though the aesthetics remind us of Mario, the screenplay is certainly atypical for a Mario Bava film.

(From this point on, to avoid confusion, I'll refer to the Bava's by first name)

The story goes that Lamberto wrote the screenplay for his father in hopes of giving him a project that had a little bit more of a contemporary feel to it (Lamberto and co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti were heavily influenced by Stephen King’s The Shining). Mario also wanted to give his son a shot at learning how to direct, so Mario would sketch out the shots and lay out the scenes in the morning, work with the actors and crew, and then leave for the day in order to allow Lamberto to execute Papa’s vision. It’s probably why some of Shock doesn’t really feel like a classic Mario Bava film (there are certain moments where it looks more like an 1970's American horror film rather than an Italian horror film directed by the great Mario Bava).

Mario’s work had become a little stale in the ‘70s, and even though his detached and darkly comic Twitch of the Death Nerve is an Italian horror classic (and paved the way for what would be the Dead Teenager slasher film), I don’t find it nearly as interesting (both aesthetically and in the performances) as Shock. The ‘70s, for Mario, brought with it a lot of films with studio interference (most notably Lisa and the Devil and Kidnapped), but that wasn’t the case with Shock — what we see is what Mario wanted us to see. And even though he knocked off work early and had his son film the majority of the scenes, it still looks very much like classic Mario Bava, with it’s roaming camera and all. The only thing that is un-Mario like is that the film primarily takes place during the day — which is a bummer because, c’mon, Mario Bava and the dark go hand-in-hand, but I’m a sucker for horror films that don’t feel they have to rely on the dark to be scary, so I was okay with the broad daylight horror scenes.

About that camera: Just as Mario did in his best films of the ‘60s (and Lamberto employed in his early films Macabre and A Blade in the Dark), he moves the camera throughout Shock brilliantly and effortlessly through Dora’s house so that every little nook seems ominous. We hear things creaking and cracking, and instead of keeping the camera static — so as to give one the feeling of Dora’s claustrophobic terror — and relying on close-ups to heighten the state of insanity, Mario keeps his camera at medium shot for a lot of the film (there is a brilliant shot in a hallway that looks so normal and unassuming, but when a character ducks out of frame, it turns into one of the film’s best scares), but when he decides to get that camera moving, it's as if it simply wafts through the large house; it’s not obtrusive or showy in the way it moves, which sets us on edge even more than had the camera banged around from extreme close-up and loud noise to the next .

No, we’re not on edge because we’re thrust via close-ups right into the mind of a woman who seems to be losing it (although Mario does employ some masking/distorting techniques to suggest this); we’re on edge because the camera allows us, the viewer, to feel as if we’re roaming through the large haunted house peaking around corners and peering through obstructed views, afraid of what we’ll hear or see.

And it should be noted that Shock is just as impressive aurally as it is visually. The sound throughout, especially the final 30 minutes, is really something else. Taking a cue from Argento, Mario here uses a rock group, I Libra (a band that featured former Goblin drummer Walter Martino), to score the picture. Their pulsing and effective faux-Goblin soundtrack, which alternates between piano music and electronic passages (at times it sounds like an arcade game with its bleeps and blips, which is oddly unsettling at the end), is one of the best things about the film (however, it still falls in a tier below Goblin or Fabio Frizzi’s work). I believe it’s also the same theme Umberto Lenzi ripped off (his version sounds more like carnival music) for his awful Ghosthouse.

As previously mentioned, the denouement is so brilliant, and the buildup is one of the best things Mario (and Lamberto, for that matter) has done; it was a worthy final chapter to his amazing career. The sheer lunacy and intensity of those final moments — brilliantly played by Nicolodi, who is just fantastic throughout — is simultaneously unnerving and poignant as we see the unraveling of our protagonist’s psyche. It’s all punctuated with a final moment that is a bit cheeky, sure, but I can’t think of a better note for Shock to go out on — and it makes those words that Dora utter (quoted at the beginning of this piece) resonate even more deeply.

Shock is a must see for horror fans, Italian horror fans, and especially for Mario Bava fans. I don’t care that some say (mainly the film’s detractors) it isn’t technically a Mario Bava film. It has his aesthetic stamp on it throughout (or at least I feel like Lamberto was able to execute what his father laid out for him) while feeling different enough to standout from a lot of the similar and safe films he was making in the ‘70s. Certainly there are better Mario Bava films than this (I don’t think it’s even debatable that most of his horror films from the ‘60s are better than anything he produced in the ‘70s); however, I find myself admiring Shock the more I watch it (I’ve seen it three times now, and I find something new with each viewing) and the more I think about it (goddamn that ending is good). It’s the best horror film Mario made in the ‘70s, and it’s absolutely one of my five favorite Mario Bava films.

Note: The only trailer I could find was in Italian. There is a TV ad for the film under its American title Beyond the Door II, but it gives away one of the best scenes of the movie, so I won’t be providing that for you here. Anyway, enjoy the Italian trailer.


  1. A superlative review as always Kevin :) This is one of my own favourite Bava movies and like yourself, I find more to love with every re-watch. And I'll also be looking at the movie myself when I get to the third and final part of my moviethon write-up tomorrow... this film forms the first part of what is perhaps my favourite Italian horror double bill, which is what said post will be covering... though I'll say no more for now.

    1. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on this. Nice to know others love this movie as much as I do.

  2. "there is a moment where a dresser opens and a disembodied hand gives her a box cutter"

    Okay, it's on the Netflix queue.

    (I must confess, I stopped reading at that point. Clearly, some movies need to be enjoyed blind).

  3. Excellent review - the most underrated film in Bava's catalog (and one of my favorites !). For anyone on the fence about this you can pick up The Blue Underground DVD for really cheap these days.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Indeed it is the most underrated in Bava's catalog. Twitch of the Death Nerve gets all the credit for being his best work of the '70s, but I think Shock is the better film. Thanks for the heads up on the Blue Underground DVD!

  4. I have been trying to see it for years but it proved to be a really hard movie to acquire in my country: probably I will have to buy it from amazon but I have a lot more of bava's movies i want in my collection before... anyway, thanks for your words on this movie, looks something worth checking out.