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Fright Fest: Shock Waves (1977)

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Shock Waves (1977)

[85 minutes. PG. Director: Ken Wiederhorn]

(It’s 40 years old, but I’ll give a SPOILER WARNING anyway)

There are literal and figurative streams of consciousness at work in Shock Waves, Ken Wiederhorn’s most well-remembered film.

It’s not a great film – at least not as great as my childhood mind remembers – but makeup designer Alan Ormsby’s suggestion on the Blu-ray commentary track, that the film is possessed of a “dreamlike quality” is not inaccurate. And that’s arguably where it acquires its power.

It’s a film that takes place primarily on water, with the midsection set in an abandoned hotel on a desert island.

There are scenes where characters paddle toward escape – through narrow, knotted thickets; through shallow ocean waters on the way out to sea – and don’t say much. They don’t need to, really – they know their situation is inexplicable and absurd, so what’s the sense in fevered rationalizations? By the end, the lone survivor of the ordeal, Rose (Brooke Adams) has been rendered catatonic by what she’s seen, reduced to writing gibberish in a journal. 

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Perhaps the magic of Shock Waves is how Wiederhorn and co-writer John Harrison bring the premise to life. Beginning with authoritative voice-over narration as a black-and-white photograph of an anonymous SS Corp comes into focus, it alludes to the Third Reich’s experimentation with the occult, and leaves us with the question-mark of the whereabouts of fabled soldiers that “fought with their bare hands.”

Fade to black. Cue Richard Einhorn’s instantly chilling electronic score as a red swastika smacks itself dead center in the screen. It ain’t subtle, but still portends a sense of mystery at what’s to come.

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Shock Waves is a working-class horror film, where even the authority figures are riddled with doubt over their capabilities. This extends from ill-fated Captain Ben (the endearingly cantankerous John Carradine), the owner of a small, ramshackle cruise ship, to obnoxious used-car salesman Norman (Jack Davidson), to navigator Keith (Luke Halpin), to the self-exiled SS Commander (Peter Cushing) who inhabits the forsaken isle. Those in positions of power have difficulty leading, to the point where the prospect of doing so carries a sense of wearisome shellshock.

Along with the film’s dreamy, don’t-question-it-too-hard logic, these self-doubting folks ground the story in a strange sense of reality. The actors do a fair job of selling the premise without veering into grating types we can’t wait to see die.

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There are some classic lines: when Rose asks Keith, “Where are we?” Keith responds, defeated, “I don’t know” (and this exchange occurs early on). Or when Keith encounters the SS Commander, who cryptically intones, “There is danger here. Danger in the water.” Or the Commander’s monologue about the origin of the evil – a corps of Nazi zombies capable of existing underwater – that’s imbued with Cushing’s typical effortless class. When he speaks of “sending a ship and its ‘cargo’ to the bottom of the sea,” and “the war being lost,” it’s chilling indeed.

There are interesting questions to be raised, such as how the Commander is sustaining an existence on the island, as the hotel’s walk-in refrigerator is empty. Then again, Cushing possesses the look of an emaciated, malnourished man who’s seen the ravages of time. Despite the fact that his character has no name (though apparently “Scar” was his nom de plume at one point), his few scenes contain a show-stopping quality that makes his plight perhaps too relatable (I mean, he’s a fucking Nazi, after all).

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Something else about Shock Waves is its approach to on-screen death. The PG rating is limiting, but Wiederhorn gets good mileage out of his suspense-over-gore approach. Characters often stumble across their drowned ship-mates, yet possess a notable lack of emotion over these developments. For instance, Beverly (D.J. Sidney) seems nonplussed when she discovers her dead husband (the aforementioned used-car salesman). Ultimately, Rose is the only character allowed to let out full-throated screams in the face of all this bizarre horror.

It’s almost as if the characters are unable to acknowledge what they’re experiencing as real.

In addition to the “death corps” – who are a marvel of costuming and practical makeup effects – the setting (off the Florida coast) plays a big part in Shock Waves’ enduring appeal. As with Deliverance and Southern Comfort, the filmmakers turn nature into an oppositional character unto itself. The foliage is so overwhelming that it threatens to swallow the characters before the zombies ever get a chance. Water is photographed with a duality that extends to the literal (Adams takes a dip in a reflective pond) and the figurative (one of our first glimpses of the zombies has them fixed in the shallows, just beneath the surface, like statues in a museum display case).

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Shock Waves may be too deliberate in its pacing, but it chugs along – like a broken-down-yet-efficient tub – on atmosphere and mood, which it creates with minimal effort. Location goes a long way, and Wiederhorn is very cognizant of the intimidation of vast spaces in a desperate situation. It was one of the earliest horror films I remembered watching, one that could easily serve as a gateway drug for youngsters who aren’t quite ready for the R-rated Freddy and Jason leagues.

Jonny Numb’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Jon Weidler, aka Jonny Numb, is no stranger here on Machine Mean. He has contributed reviews on Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955), Slither, AND Clean, Shaven. Mr. Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions website and Loud Green Bird website. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd). You can read his review of A&C Meet Mummy here.

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2 responses

  1. I watched this the other night. Not extremely bad, I have definitely seen worse.

    October 17, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    • My love for Peter Cushing makes this movie. not the worst cheesy z-flick, and surprisingly PG rated.

      October 19, 2017 at 4:16 pm

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