Shocker (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-09-07 17:40

Written and Directed by: Wes Craven

Starring: Peter Berg, Cami Cooper, and Mitch Pileggi

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"Special bulletin, huh? I'll give you a show."

Wes Craven’s films tend to leave an impression. So many of his films are inexorably tied to the memory of my first encounter with them: A Nightmare Elm Street takes me back to cowering on a couch in my childhood living room, spooked beyond belief yet craving more. Craven’s return with New Nightmare was my first trip to Elm Street in a theater, an experience that left me baffled but with a newfound appreciation for what filmmakers do (Craven—along with John Carpenter—was likely the first director I could ever recognize).

A few years later, Scream unfolded on a ratty, 13-inch TV with a distorted picture tube in my old bedroom, where the less-than-ideal conditions did little to dilute the sense that someone had made a horror film for me, the weird kid who grew up watching this stuff (that it caught on with everyone else was just a bonus). A year later would find my friends and I celebrating my 14th birthday with Scream 2, a feat that still astounds me to this day since we somehow skirted the R-rating. Twin landmarks Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes arrived to me in my late teens, when I fashioned myself a seasoned gorehound who could stomach even the most notorious of films. By the time Sandra Peabody’s blood-and-dirt-caked body staggered back to her home, I knew I was wrong.

Even memories of his later, less-heralded, and confounding efforts endure: there’s the total bewilderment of watching Cursed finally unspool and flame out on a theater screen after months of delays. There’s the way I perked up when the trailer for Red Eye turned on a dime from a clichéd rom-com to the latest dispatch from a master of horror. There’s the thrill of realizing Craven still had it once the film’s Hitchcockian thrills actually began to unravel. Five years later, I was back to questioning if he’d lost it again after trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on in My Soul to Take, a film so bad that I have considered revisiting it just to be sure it exists.

With Scream 4, Craven provided a final reassurance and another memory: despite having to work the next day, I took in a midnight showing and then barely slept because my mind was still buzzing. I will be the first to admit to Craven’s spotty track record during his career, but few filmmakers have proven to be this indelible. Wes Craven didn’t just open my gateway into horror—he kept the damn thing propped open for three decades.

This brings us to Shocker, a tale that begins in the mom-and-pop video store that practically doubled as my home on some weekends. If the place were still standing today, I could more or less point you to where I first came across the VHS box that proudly proclaimed it was from “The Director of A Nightmare on Elm Street” and featured a hulking psycho strapped to an electric chair. Even at 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t even have to see the film to know it was an attempt to recreate the success of Freddy Krueger. Naturally, knowing this only hastened its arrival to my VCR, and, as it turns out, that’s the perfect age to first experience Shocker, a hyperactive slasher bounding from one mode to the next until it finally settles on going full Looney Tunes.

Approaching it years later leaves one fumbling at where to begin. After all, Shocker is the horror genre (if not Craven himself) as a snake eating its own tail: having just reinvigorated the slasher genre five years earlier with Nightmare, the director returned with this turbo-charged riff on the late-80s pop horror culture he unwittingly helped to usher to the screen. Craven famously never directed any of the proper Elm Street sequels, but Shocker perhaps offers a glimpse into what it might have been. Like those later sequels, it isn’t particularly interested in delivering actual horror as much as it just wants to deliver something—anything—for its audience, and it does so at a breakneck pace that leaves them wondering just how in the hell they zigged and zagged from point A to point Z.

From the outset, it’s patently obvious that Craven appears to be ruthlessly committed to recreating Freddy Krueger, going so far as to essentially replicate the opening scene of the first Nightmare. Set amongst a junk heap of television sets and grisly newscast voiceovers, we watch another unseen maniac tinker in a workshop—only, this time, it’s set to screeching metal riffs rather than Charles Bernstein’s ethereal, dreamy strains. The mystery surrounding Krueger is similarly discarded, as it doesn’t take long for local college football star Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) to discover the identity of the psychopath slashing his way through Los Angeles via a (what else?) precognizant nightmare. Dreaming about his mother and sister’s murder is not enough to stop the actual act, though, so his only recourse is to have his cop dad (Michael Murphy) attempt to ambush Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi).

Despite his pronounced limp and his motor mouth, Pinker somehow eludes the police force and begins to personally terrorize Jonathan and his girlfriend Allison (Cami Cooper), a development that doubles as a hint that Shocker doesn't intend to exactly settle down. Just when it seems to be a typical “maniac –slasher-on-the-loose” premise, it introduces premonitions and cryptic dialogue, the latter of which doesn’t remain much of a mystery for very long once the police (and Jonathan, who is allowed to accompany them, which I assume is not protocol) finally apprehend Pinker and put him on the path to the electric chair. Because the film clearly operates in fantasy land, Horace is tried and sentenced to death in the blink of an eye (seriously, maybe a few months pass), but not before he manages to perform a Charles Lee Ray-esque séance with his television set, rip out a guard’s tongue, and laugh his way through execution. When Pinker’s charred, electrified corpse is finally left a smoking husk, it’s exhausting and astounding since over half the movie somehow remains.

Maybe you’ve never seen Shocker. Maybe you’re reading this scatterbrained synopsis, parsing it to find some semblance of logic or coherence. Maybe you’re struggling. Maybe you’re realizing that Shocker sounds like it’s making it up as it goes along. Maybe you’re thinking this is one of those occasions where Craven misfired. Maybe it’s easy to write off Shocker as a desperate attempt to rebottle the magic of A Nightmare on Elm Street via duct tape and jumper cables. I don’t know that you’d be all that wrong about any of this, but I would argue that Shocker is an undeniable experience that commands attention by completely assaulting one’s attentive faculties. Craven stuffs enough ideas for about a half-dozen movies in 109 minutes here, with each proving to be a more bewildering turn than the last. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Pinker’s ability to possess from beyond the grave, Johnathan’s spectral girlfriend and her magical necklace, or even the dark secret that really connects the psycho to his victim.

There’s a lot to process here, so much so that Shocker causes something like whiplash with its jagged rhythms. This is Craven cutting completely loose with little regard for pace or tone—one minute, he has Pinker savagely attacking Allison, the next he’s scoring Pinker’s impending execution with a cover of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” Watching Shocker is akin to skimming through six different horror movies playing simultaneously on cable, a feeling that’s literalized with a channel-surfing climax where Pinker and Jonathan battle over satellite airwaves like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Even at their most polished, Craven’s efforts often maintain a certain roughness, and Shocker is no exception—it may be far removed from the grimy, grittiness of his 70s efforts, but you can still sense him attempting to articulate something amidst this chaos of jumbled moments.

In this case, the moments tend to overwhelm the articulation. You almost have to wonder if Craven didn’t survey the landscape, throw his hands up, and deliver the sort of brain-dead, ADD-addled pop entertainment expected of the late-80s. Shocker is Craven at his most blockbuster-minded in its preoccupation with set-pieces and effects over coherence—it’s a collection of scenes breezing by one after the next, a sort of cinematic equivalent of an appetizer sampler. If this dish doesn’t work for you, maybe the next will. The climax—which is the only point where Craven embraces his “the killer resides in the television” hook—is an obvious highlight but is far from the only campy pleasures, especially once Pinker starts hopping from body to another. Craven’s dialogue for Pinker is silly enough when Pileggi grunts it; when his vulgar threats are suddenly spouted from a little girl (who’s trying to mow down Jonathan with a bulldozer), it’s downright riotous.

No matter how desperately Craven wanted him to be, Horace Pinker is obviously no Freddy Krueger. If anything, Pinker is what Freddy may have become under Craven’s watch in the sequels: an uncouth mixture of goofball and obscene madman (never forget that Craven had Freddy threaten to shit on Nancy Thompson’s corpse in his Dream Warriors draft). He veers more to the former as he spits out bad jokes (“Let’s go for a ride in my Volts Wagon” is something even Freddy may have been aghast to say), which is weirdly at odds with Pileggi’s veiny, wild-eyed face- but the actor at least knows as much and hurdles straight over the top in his performance. His adversary is likewise no Nancy (hell, he’s no Jesse Walsh), but Berg’s Jonathan Parker is charming in his own dopey, Valley Boy sort of way. Performing with a thick accent of nebulous origin, Berg finds himself drawn into Pileggi’s orbit and tries to match his intensity and in doing so drags everyone else along, including his dad, coaches, and football teammates. Just about everyone in Shocker is appropriately jacked up to 11 in an effort to keep up with the ludicrous script.

Somewhere—buried deep beneath the one-liners, overdone gore, and Jonathan’s delirious plan to enlist his teammates to destroy a power plant—is the sense that Craven is at least fascinated with crafting another modern boogeyman. If Freddy Krueger is the manifestation of repressed, suburban trauma, then Horace Pinker is a demon for an MTV generation that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “repressed.” It’s not our dreams that can kill us—it’s the airwaves that provide a constant source of distraction in a world oversaturated by media (the long-threatened Shocker remake Craven spoke about would have been even more relevant amidst 21st century social media). Horace Pinker eventually becomes the anti-god in the machine that can only be destroyed by blowing up the entire system (with your buds, of course).

Pinker also sees Craven doubling back in more ways than one. Dismissing Shocker as a mere attempt to recreate Freddy is reductive since it almost feels like an attempt to comment on the Springwood Slasher’s ascendance to pop culture icon. For a brief moment, Pinker is a legitimately terrifying, little-seen threat who can count Nancy herself among his victims (Heather Langenkamp cameos as a corpse during the opening credits); before long, however, he’s more a buffoon than a monster and becomes less chilling with every new development (by the time he’s performance black magic in front of a television, the jig is up). It always feels like Craven’s hand is hovering just above the fast-forward button, waiting to speed ahead to the point where Pinker is a joke.

It’s hardly a coincidence that this monstrous home invader winds up a cartoon character on TV, appearing alongside Wally, the Beav, and John Tesh, much like Freddy himself became a harmless television staple. Craven would more properly explore this notion of overexposure and dilution of horror in New Nightmare, but this feels like the first mush-mouthed attempt at reckoning with Freddy Krueger’s fate. He almost feels like Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, enduring his own twisted form of déjà vu in recapturing his beloved but watching helplessly as he loses control. Eventually, it has to end with someone taking a tumble; in this case, Horace Pinker slips away from him just as Freddy Krueger once did, though this, at least may be purposeful.

Shocker finds Craven weirdly behind and ahead of the curve all at once. He’s retreading his own steps and annotating them, however faintly, perhaps in preparation for his more overtly meta efforts of the 90s. Arguing that Shocker is an intelligent exploration of, well, anything, is tough, but’s equally tough to believe that Craven wasn’t guided by some sort of desire to find his way in the late 80s horror landscape. Over 25 years later, the film has at least qualified for the Scream Factory canon, as the cult label has prepped a Collector’s Edition loaded with new and vintage extras, including a commentary from Craven himself and a separate track with DP Jacques Haitkin, producer Robert Engelman, and composer William Goldstein. About an hour’s worth of interviews with the cast and crew (including Cooper, Pileggi, and producer Shep Gordon) provide more information along with the usual assortment of trailers, TV spots, galleries, and other vintage EPK material.

The timing of the release is of course bittersweet in light of Craven’s recent passing, but it’s also a fine reminder that Craven often had bursts of inspiration even in his lesser films (after all, this is a man who gave us a dog having a flashback in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2). Can Shocker really be considered a misfire if it manages to leave some type of impression, even if that impression is of a brain that feels like it’s been thoroughly pummeled? One way or the other, it’s indelible filmmaking from an indelible director who will be missed.

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