Like a lot of people, I always picture Vincent Price as an older man when his name comes up, as if he were air-dropped into the world as an already-established horror legend in the 50s or 60s. The truth is that Price toiled away as a workman character actor for decades before he was really set loose to chew the scenery in pictures like The Abominable Dr. Phibes & The Masque of the Red Death. One of the earliest glimpses of the Vincent Price that was to be came in the form of the 1940s tawdry noir thriller Shock. A subpar Hitchcock descendant that functions entirely within the rigid boundaries of its genre, Shock is a fairly standard sample of in-its-prime noir, one that might not be especially worth digging back up from its ancient cinematic grave if it weren’t for Price’s villainous performance. The babyfaced future-legend is a lot more measured here than he would become at the height of his onscreen treachery, but there’s enough mad scientist stirrings in this early performance to telegraph the weird, wonderful trajectory his career would eventually take. If you’re a fan of Price’s horror work, this early landmark should not be casually dismissed or overlooked.
A soldier returning from deployment in World War II discovers his wife is frozen in a state of stone-faced shock, despite seeming healthy over the phone mere hours before his arrival. Her doctor passes this catatonic state off as a symptom of stress due to her husband’s delayed return from the war. The truth is that the woman witnessed the doctor (played by Price) murder his own wife through a hotel window in a fit of rage. In order to cover his tracks the doctor holds the woman hostage in a mental institution, attempting to convince her & anyone who’ll listen that she’s crazy & the murder was a hallucination. With the doctor’s mistress whispering in his ear & the patient’s husband becoming increasingly skeptical of the diagnosis, the walls start to close in on the dastardly cretin and his cruelty grows in its self-preserving wickedness. Will his evildoing be exposed before his unnecessary shock treatment procedures forever destroy the mental stability of his victim/patient? Surely, if you’ve seen any thrillers from the era before you know the answer to that question, but the because this film is built on suspense instead of mystery, the fun is in the performances & the melodrama, not in guessing what happens next.
Hitchcock expertly, leisurely surfed the balance between trash & art and this knockoff certainly falls on the less prestigious side of that divide. Even 1940s audiences bristled at its tawdry insensitivity, especially miffed that it exploited shock treatment & PTSD, which were hot topics on the heels of WWII, for cheap dramatic weight. In a modern context these transgressions play more entertaining than they do offensive.The film’s mental health mumbo jumbo is quaintly (if not horrifyingly) out of date and it’s actually fairly easy to accept the way it sleazily turns real life issues like women wrongly committed to mental institutions & the real world practice of insulin shock therapy into tawdry thriller fodder, thanks to its distance in time. There’s actually an almost progressive, Rosemary’s Baby type criticism built into the story about the way women are manipulated & institutionalized by men who patronize & refuse to believe them (not that shrieking, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” helps at all in this particular case). There’s one specific moment when the victims’ soldier-husband confides to Price’s wicked doctor, “She’s out of her head. She’s got a crazy idea that she saw a murder. I don’t know what to do,” that had me screaming, “Well, did you try believing her?!” and I assume that was an intentional effect on the movie’s part. There’s plenty to pick at here, misogyny-wise, especially in the way that it’s only the women’s lives that are ever threatened & the fact that the doctor’s heartless mistress manipulating him with her womanly ways is largely to blame for the villainy, but Shock does have its surprising moments of feminist critique peaking through some of its thick noir sleaze.
Like I said, you’re not going to get much out of Shock that you couldn’t find in some other trashy thriller of the era, except if you look to Vincent Price’s performance as the wicked psychiatrist. There are a few moments of post-German Expressionism weirdness in the imagery, but they’re mostly relegated to a single dream sequence featuring the troubled protagonist running in a strange void & a passage of time montage steeped in calendar page-turning noir cliche. A young Vincent Price stands as the film’s sole beacon of distinctiveness, but he delivers in an uncharacteristically dialed back, measured performance that becomes increasingly ridiculous as his rash decisions reflect the walls closing in around him. The movie serves as a sort of bridge between two eras of the iconic actor’s career, starting with a dramatic stage play seriousness, but ultimately touching on some distinct mad scientist vibes by the time he attempts to erase the woman’s memory (and possibly her existence) through overdoses of insulin & hypnosis. Price’s performance makes Shock more than worthwhile as you watch the early formation of a distinct onscreen personality that fully blossomed in the decades that followed, but is rarely seen with such grounded dramatic weight & dead-serious delivery. The campy impulses in me might’ve wished that he went even more over-the-top with the role, but by toeing the line between those halves of his career, he delivered something much more special, something you can only find in Shock.