Before John Badham became the iconic director behind Saturday Night Fever (1977) and War Games (1982), he cut his teeth on the small screen. Badham worked mostly in episodic television and Isn’t it Shocking? was his 2nd made for TV movie, released in 1973 (his first film No Place to Run aired the year before). Shocking was broadcast on October 2nd under the popular ABC Movie of the Week moniker and, according to Michael Carol’s excellent and aptly titled book, The ABC Movie the Week Companion, it is considered to be one of the first horror-comedy hybrids (although I might argue that Carol has never seen the 1927 film The Cat and the Canary). Even without that tidbit, Shocking stands for an interesting time in the tele-film as it began to grow in popularity, enticing bigger named, respectable stars and genre-friendly stories.
Case in point, Alan Alda, who was then America’s Sweetheart on M*A*S*H (or at least our neo-Groucho Marx) plays Dan Barnes, the bored and somewhat unproductive sheriff of a little idyllic community called Mount Angel. His odd secretary Blanche (Louise Lasser from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame) keeps his days interesting, but he’s looking for more exciting pastures over the hill in Horse Creek. Dan wants a younger crowd, the folks at Mount Angel are mostly elderly and he feels stagnated in a town that is just moving too slow. However, the pace picks up quickly when a madman starts killing off several of the over-sixty crowd.
Shocking is shocking simply because of the dark subject matter. Considering the brutal deaths (well, brutal by television standards) and revenge motif, in some ways the film meets the criteria of a proto-slasher. It also plays on other slasher tropes with the set-pieces and excellent music score by David Shore, who heightens the tension with creepy strings thrusting through the airwaves. And it’s got an incredibly inventive piece of weaponry – the killer uses a heart attack machine! Basically a primitive defibrillator, and the killer literally shocks his victims to death. But there’s one thing that slashers – and most horror films in general – have shied away from and that is focusing on the death of elderly characters. While there are no overt shots of violence, the murder scenes are intense merely because of who the victims are.
We are given very little information about most of the victims, but Jessie (Lloyd Nolan in a terrific role) who is one of Dan’s co-workers also falls prey to the murderer’s incredible killing machine. He is allowed just enough screen time to allow his character to embody a sense of humor and vulnerability, which amplifies the tragedy of the rest of the murders. His death is particularly gripping because you get a real sense of the father-son relationship he had with Dan. Unlike the victims of slasher films who can often feel like caricatures, we understand the murder victims in Shocking have sons, daughters, husbands and wives.
The old timers in Mount Angel are also shown as vibrant and vital members of their community. In a montage we see the town is brimming with busy merchants and farmers. Even the crazy cat lady (played by the wonderful Ruth Gordon from Harold and Maude) is doing chores (in fact, I think she’s churning butter)! In a world where so much weight is placed on superficial beauty, Shocking is a time capsule of when real people populated films, and it is refreshing. And if we’re going to stick with slasher tropes, Ruth Gordon must be the oldest Final Girl in horror film history!
Filmed around Salem, Oregon, Shocking has a lot going for it. Aside from the thrills and laughs, there is an amazing edge-of-your-seat car chase that ends with the killer decimating Dan’s police vehicle! Television movies never really got their just dues for camera work, and admittedly many films are static, thanks to low budgets and shorten shooting schedules. Cinematographer Jack Woolf does a fine job capturing the more tense moments, but he works best by just letting the actors interact with each other. Shocking is about the characters and there are several medium shots featuring two actors which is often framed with one person closer to the camera and the other a few steps back, sometimes obscured by shadows, allowing for more focus on the emotions. Also, the shadowing becomes symbolic of a dark town secret.
Alan Alda was perfectly cast. He proved his ability to mix comedy and drama on M*A*S*H and while he is more befuddled and less prone to snarky one liners, Alda captures a real sense of frustration, often comical and sometimes tragic, in his performance. While Louise Lasser never became a household name, she was a familiar presence in film and television and this is one of her best roles (horror fans will recognize her from Blood Rage aka Nightmare at Shadow Woods and Frankenhooker). She’s infuriating with her oddball sense of humor and style, yet uniquely adorable in those Mary Hartman braids! Together, Alda and Lasser have chemistry to spare, and the scene that solidifies their attraction for each other is saved for the hysterical last moments, as the credits roll, making a nice break from the bleak murders.
Screenwriter Lane Smith wisely separates the humor from the violence and manages to imbue an eccentric ambiance through the town. This was Smith’s television debut (his first film, a theatrical, was the interesting but flat 1972 James Garner mystery They Only Kill Their Masters) and he would later adopt a more serious approach, penning far less humorous small screen thrillers throughout his career (including the excellent Strange and Deadly Occurrence, which also twists an ideal life in the country into something terrifying).
By today’s standards, Shocking probably seems earnest and tame, perhaps even a bit timid, but that was the struggle of television when they first made their foray into motion pictures. Badham concentrates on the characters but he doesn’t build his thrills traditionally. For a horror film on television, he doesn’t pull any punches with his subject matter and while he opts for less-is-more with the visuals I can’t imagine handling this type of film any other way.
I’ve seen Shocking a few times and always love it a little more with each viewing. Aside from its original airing and a few re-runs, this movie has all but disappeared from the minds of television viewers. It’s interesting that such a high caliber actor like Alda could have a film this obscure, but it symbolizes the eternal purgatory most TV movies find themselves in. Every time I watch it I am drawn to the characters and the budding romance between Dan and Blanche. I pity and fear the killer and I wish I could go back to the day after this movie aired in 1973 and find the nearest water cooler and discuss this wonderful little gem of a film.