I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Shocker

tn_shockerAfter the massive success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984, you’d think Wes Craven would’ve been sitting comfortably atop the horror director pyramid. Yet his directational followups were just the ’85 TV movie CHILLER, the ’86 silly robot movie DEADLY FRIEND, and a couple episodes of the new Twilight Zone. It wasn’t until ’88 that he did something he seemed passionate about, the pretty respected voodoo thriller THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. By ’89, only five years after the birth of Freddy, he was already at that sad “time to come up with the next Freddy” stage you’d expect him to go through eventually.

If there was any question about whether SHOCKER would try to mimic the ELM STREET formula, Craven ditched it from frame one, intentionally reflecting his own opening credits sequence:

still_shockercredits

ELM STREET opens with closeups on the hands of Freddy Krueger in a dark, messy workshop somewhere, creating his trademark bladed glove. SHOCKER opens with the hands of Horace Pinker (same amount of syllables, you notice), and he’s repairing a TV, using a hunting knife as a screwdriver. His weapon is a TV.

mp_shockerPinker is played by Mitch Pileggi, who would later play Skinner on the X-Files. Like Freddy he is a hateful, scratchy-voiced serial killer who is caught and killed but returns from the dead through supernatural means to kill more people while occasionally yelling out terrible one-liners. His are mostly just random idioms, not puns (“No more Mr. Nice Guy!” for example), but there is one part where he says “Come on boy, let’s take a ride in my Volts-wagen!” before shocking his victim. And I realize as I’m writing it that that sounds like a joke one I would make up, but trust me, that’s a real line from the movie.

Freddy’s killing spree was in the past, and we only hear about it as a story from the protagonists’ parents (and in flashbacks in sequels, and in an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, and in a terrible remake). SHOCKER is not a multi-generational story, so it shows us Pinker’s reign of terror for the first half hour of the movie. Rather than a Final Girl like Nancy we get Jonathan Parker (BATTLESHIP director Peter Berg, kinda looking like Ethan Hawke) as a kid whose family was killed by Pinker, except for his dad (Michael Murphy, the Vice President from WHITE HOUSE DOWN), who is the police lieutenant trying to catch Pinker. Jonathan dreams about the killings in detail before they happen, so he’s able to help identify and catch the killer and be there when he’s executed (see poster).

Oh, here’s the thing though. Pinker is involved in black magic and shit. It is mentioned on one of the many John Tesh narrated news reports we hear throughout the movie. Just before they bring him to the electric chair they find him in the cell with a bunch of candles and wires performing an electro-magick ritual on a reconfigured TV. “Come on, give it to me!” he yells. “You got it, baby!” say the animated lips that protrude from the screen. If you are wondering “Do you understand this part at all, Vern?” the answer is no, I do not understand this part at all.

still_shocker2

But actually it’s kind of similar to a flashback scene they later did in the Craven-less FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE where wormy, stop motion “Dream Demons” gave Freddy his nightmare-haunting abilities.

Somehow those floating TV lips give Pinker magic powers, so after he’s electrocuted his body turns into electricity which also is his soul or something and that body-electricity-soul can take over another body. (There’s a good joke where Lieutenant Dad sees the body disappear, leaving the clothes behind Jedi style, and thinks he just disintegrated. “Jesus,” he says. “That chair really kicks ass!”)

But Jonathan knows that Pinker is still alive and coming after him, and then the bastard kills his lovely girlfriend Alison (Cami Cooper, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON). So he’s got to stop him, etc.

For some reason in the late ’80s there was this belief that a killer jumping from body to body was a cool idea for a movie. JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY, THE FIRST POWER and SHOCKER all prove otherwise. In SHOCKER it primarily happens in a long sequence in the park where Jonathan is pursued by Pinker in the body of a cop, then a jogger, then a little girl, then the little girl’s mom, etc. I at least give them points for the kid, because it’s funny to watch a little blond girl in a pink sweater cursing and recklessly driving a bulldozer. And then he grabs the girl in front of her Mom and it makes him look like some pervert kidnapper or psycho. ORPHAN did this better though, with Vera Farmiga straight up punching a little girl in public, without the witnesses understanding that the little girl is evil. (Also it’s kind of a cop out that Pinker jumps right to the mother so that there are no consequences to the hero’s public child-grabbing.)

So Horace Pinker can jump from body to body. Sometimes if the body dies or gets weak or something his spirit floats out, and it has scan lines on it like a TV screen. Because also he can go into a TV and come out another TV. But also he is electricity, so he can go into a wall outlet. But also weird things keep happening to Jonathan that will turn out to be a dream, and blood-covered Alison comes and talks to him and gives him back the heart necklace he gave her when she was alive, and then when he wakes up he still has it in his hand, Freddy’s hat style, and she said it could defeat Pinker because it represents love.

So, in summary, he used black magic and TV repair to make his soul transfer from body to body, but his soul is also a TV signal but also it’s electricity but also dreams are real and ghosts and he is the opposite of love. See, this one doesn’t have the same elegance as “if you die in your dream you die for real.” This is a precursor to the record-breaking convolutedness of MY SOUL TO TAKE.

Craven is a thoughtful director, loading movies like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS with interesting subtext. So I think it makes sense to try to decode this one. If Horace is the Freddy of the late ’80s, does that mean that TV had replaced our dreams? The movie itself seems to mix up the powers of TV and dreams with its muddled mythology.

There aren’t many signals that it would be a criticism of TV-watching. Only during the climax is there a cartoonish depiction of a family of obese people who won’t leave the couch. Before that there is never any indication that Craven is going after a TV-obsessed culture. The heroes don’t sit around watching TV, they go out and play football and stuff, and though the coverage of the Horace Pinker crimes is non-stop it’s not shown to be as exploitative or inaccurate as the usual movie depictions of TV news (for example in Craven’s own SCREAM).

On the other hand, there are visual cues that Craven is in a NATURAL BORN KILLERS type mindset of showing how TV turns our world’s worst horrors into little visual thrills inside a box. When the police come to arrest Pinker at his creepy TV repair shop, they’re confronted with walls of identical TV screens showing loops of Klan rallies, Vietnam bombing runs and piles of skulls. Some of these same images flashed through the opening credits and reappear during the silly climax where, in the tradition of Nancy going into the dream world and pulling Freddy out at a certain time, Jonathan goes into the TV channels and pulls Pinker out at a certain time in order to get him on live TV and trap him in a… I don’t know, but also the power goes off at a certain time, so… whatever.

Anyway, Jonathan and Pinker chase each other through war footage, the Hindenburg explosion, riots, a boxing match, Leave It To Beaver, FRANKENSTEIN, a John Tesh news report, etc. You know, like STAY TUNED or whatever. But scary. (?)

Man, there really is nothing good on, is there? I gotta watch that Vietnam footage again?

still_shocker4

The image of a fuzzy Horace Pinker climbing out of a television THE RING style to grab a sleeping Jonathan is pretty loaded, as if to say that The Media or Hollywood or TV is coming for our children. Craven being a major horror director and somewhat of a lefty I feel safe in assuming that he would not mean that literally, only as a parody of this sort of paranoia. And yet he keeps filling screens with real world violence like the war footage, which maybe could mean that TV is feeding us this stuff or desensitizing us or– shit, I don’t know. I am prepared to admit that I can’t make sense of the mythology or the subtext of this one.

It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s not without its appeal. I like the overall gloomy mood and the overcast look. Alot of it is reminiscent of ELM STREET and its sequels, but not in a bad way.

still_shocker

There are some strange moments that are maybe silly but that I appreciate for being things I haven’t seen before. You know how killers like to leave threatening messages written in blood? Pinker does that, but then Jonathan’s dead girlfriend leaves him a more positive one:

still_shocker3

Look at that nice, neat cursive! I would’ve liked to see a heart, star or smiley face on there, but the handwriting is good enough.

At this time I would like to take a moment to acknowledge what can only be called the “Scary Chairy” scene.

scarychairy

I guess I don’t really have to say anything. The images speak for themselves.

A better horror moment is when the death row screws find Pinker already electrocuted in his cell and are worried it’s gonna be their ass if they can’t bring him to get officially electrocuted. Not knowing what else to do one of them starts giving him mouth-to-mouth, when suddenly Pinker bites him on the lower lip and yanks it like a dog playing tug of war. It’s one of those really effective sympathy pain moments you get sometimes in horror movies. You can almost feel it.

Since Jonathan is a jock he is physically capable, and has an actual chase scene with Pinker when he’s still alive. The highlight is when he does a beautiful WWF style flying drop kick to Pinker’s back. (That said, he’s not a superman, as evidenced by the funny opening where he runs straight into the goal post while showboating at practice.)

That is one interesting switch from the ELM STREET paradigm. In the original, Nancy and her friends knew about Krueger killing them in their dreams, but no adults believed them, and they were on their own. Nancy could only count on her boyfriend, and then he got turned into a blood geyser. In SHOCKER, Jonathan has similar trouble convincing his dad about Pinker, but no trouble at all convincing everybody else, because “We’re friends, right? And we’re a team, right?” in the words of his best friend Rhino (Richard Brooks, who recently played Frederick Douglass in the PBS series The Abolitionists). Rhino, along with Student Assistant Coach Boyd “Pac-Man” Stewart (Theodore Raimi) and even adult, seemingly reasonable Coach Cooper (Sam Scarber, DEAD BANG) immediately believe everything he tells them about Pinker still being alive and having magic powers.

The ELM STREET sequels, especially part 3, were about misfits and outcasts of society. Though Jonathan kinda starts out seeming like ELM STREET 1’s Rod (greasy angry boyfriend mischaracterized as murderer) he’s a popular kid, and has that to fall back on. The whole football team breaks into and sabotages the power plant on his behalf.

The football player hero is kind of a weird match with the several heavy metal songs on the soundtrack (including a title song and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” a tagline song). I don’t know if that means Craven didn’t understand the divisions between young people of the time, or if it means the once rebellious subcultural music had by that point been absorbed by the popular kids. One disadvantage I have over some people for watching this era of horror is that I just got no love for the heavy metal music at all. I mean I can appreciate the first two Black Sabbath albums, and that’s about as deep as it goes. I have neither sincere or ironic nostalgia for any of those ’80s metals bands or their sound or their aesthetic. I mean, maybe Twisted Sister. But otherwise none. I never liked it then and it has not held up well or come back around to seeming cool again, and probly never will as far as I’m concerned. So to me it’s not a selling point that there’s a Megadeth song on it, but I can get through it. (Other bands on the soundtrack with less recognizable names: Bonfire, The Dudes of Wrath, Dangerous Toys, Dead On).

Well, sorry Mr. Craven, this is not the new Freddy. You missed the mark on that one. This is a stupid movie. But it was kind of fun to watch. Maybe I’ll do it again in another 24 years.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 28th, 2013 at 1:34 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

28 Responses to “Shocker”

  1. for some reason I’ve been meaning to see this movie for years, something about a movie from the year of my birth about Skinner from the X-Files as a ghost made out of electricity (or whatever he’s supposed to be) sounds oddly appealing to me

    and I definitely think the movie as a whole is supposed to be a “take that” put down of TV, I mean wasn’t that a thing in the late 80’s/early 90’s? TV being really popular what with the start of the FOX Network and a common target for satire

    if only people back then knew how stupid TV had still yet to get

  2. I know that there has been some internet backlash over the past few years, but it doesn’t seem as if the internet as a source of entertainment has become quite the cultural punching bag that television was back in the day. I kind of wonder why that is?

  3. I guess because the internet isn’t controlled by major corporations the way TV networks are, it’s something everyone can participate in

    or maybe it’s just because the internet is just so damn vast, how can you satirize “the internet” when “the internet” can mean a million different things

  4. And don’t forget, if you satirize Honey Boo Boo or Fox NEws, nothing happens. They can sue, but usually this leads to nothing (because parody is unsueable by American law). But once you make fun of, I don’t know…4Chan or the Cheeseburger network, some guys with Guy Fawkes masks in their avatar will post some very angry comments for at least 1 week on your Facebook page, before they move on to another target!

  5. Are you talking from experience, CJ?

  6. It’s more an observation than personal experience.

  7. Ah, SHOCKER. The very first grown-up horror movie Lil Majestyk ever watched. I assure you that it makes a lot more sense when you’re 11. The fact that Detective John Shocker had all these vague, nebulous powers seemed perfectly in line with all the half-assed afternoon cartoons I watched in the 80s. Although the scene where the hero’s girlfriend is splattered all over the bathroom was definitely way more hardcore than anything I’d experienced to that point, the fact that the movie wasn’t actually scary at all gave me the courage to explore more horror, and a lifelong addiction was begun. So I’ll always have a soft spot for SHOCKER. Its central concept holds no water at all and none of its satirical jabs even come close to landing (or even knowing what target they’re trying to hit) but it was a good starter horror movie. Certainly set the bar low enough.

  8. I remember as a kid, this movie and The Horror Show being the first time I had ever noticed the Hollywood trend of releasing multiple movies in the same year which have extremely similar plots, at least on the surface level (White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen being an example of this trend from this year). The fact that this one still pops up on movie channels from time to time while The Horror Show has been largely forgotten means that The Horror Show is likely much worse than I remember (and I remember it being bad). I guess the whole guy-returns-from-capital-punishment concept wasn’t quite the gold mine somebody thought it would be.

  9. I thought DEADLY FRIEND was a pretty good teen-revenge-back-from-the-dead B movie, no great shakes but effective in getting the viewer’s sympathy for Kristy Swanson’s character. As I remember, the TV movie NIGHT VISION was well done too, likewise with Loryn Locklin engaging as the female lead.

  10. Dtroyt: DESTROYER and PRISON were also part of that trend. When Renny Harlin and Viggo Mortensen can’t make it work, maybe it’s time to consider a premise untenable.

  11. RBatty/Griff: If you’re interested in something that exploits fears of the internet/modern technology in a really smart, knowledgeable way, check out Charlie Brooker’s TV anthology series BLACK MIRROR.

  12. is BLACK MIRROR available on dvd in the States?

  13. Oh Shit! Kirsty Swanson is in Deadly Friend? I totally forgot! Netflix here I come! Also, Happy Halloween everybody!

  14. Griff: Huh, apparently not. Bizarrely, nobody has picked up distribution rights in the US.

  15. Majestyk: I wasn’t even aware of those two. This may be unprecedented. 2 consecutive years which each featured 2 failed attempts at the same concept. Weird.

  16. I always thought the guard’s lip bite from Shocker was an influence on Kill Bill when Buck’s customer gets a very similar payoff.

  17. Majestyk is right. It Does seem to be the kind of film an 11 year old can watch without getting hung up on logic. I had the novelisation of the film and the only things I remember about it are that it starts off with a really way too nasty description of Pinker’s latest murder victim (details about nipples being cut off and placed in dead girl’s mouth, etc) in the first couple of pages, and later on, after Alison is murdered, Jonathan thinks back to her and it reads something like, “He couldn’t believe he would never get to kiss her again… Too bad she had pizza breath last night.” Not great writing by any stretch of the imagination.

    Incidentally, I quite liked Denzel’s later attempt at the Executed-killer-can-swap-bodies film, Fallen.

  18. Woah, was that novelization written by Garth Marengi?

  19. Marengi wasn’t a writer, he was a dream weaver.

  20. Fuclk it, I’ll stick my kneck out by saying I think the late 80s were right, and that killers moving from body to body *is* a cool idea. SHOCKER, HOUSE 3/THE HORROR SHOW, THE EXORCIST III and (to a lesser extent) THE FIRST POWER are all movies I have fond memories of, despite all being flawed to varying degrees. (And yes, before someone says, EXORCIST III the least flawed) THE HIDDEN is the high point of the genre. The much later (throwback?) FALLEN also pretty darn good. I don’t remember GHOST IN THE MACHINE too well but I know it produced a mild frisson of intrigue when I caught bits of it channel-surfing as a kid.

  21. Pacman: Good call on the Hidden. Loved that movie when I was a kid. Haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t say for sure that it holds up. But, now you’ve made me want to go revisit it. Thanks!

  22. You’re welcome, and I just popped back to add something about SHOCKER I forgot to mention; while it was probably true that Heavy Metal had moved from being almost a subculture to very mainstream (and watered down) MTV fodder by 89, Craven wasn’t trying to say anything like that as the soundtrack was something that he was forced to include at the behest of the producers. Not a big Metal guy myself, in Hair Metal form or any other, but I do think the title theme by THE DUDES OF WRATH (IIRC a supergroup with the two main guys from KISS, Tommy Lee and some others) is dumb fun in a way that suits the film.

  23. Pacman: It’s definitely a creepy concept in theory (“The killer could be ANYONE!”) but nine times out of ten it’s used solely as a budget-saving measure. ATTACK OF THE KILLER EXTRAS is a lot cheaper to pull off than creating a bunch of monsters and shit.

  24. And yes, that Dudes of Wrath song is the tits.

  25. GHOST IN THE MACHINE! I watched that movie a bunch of times in the mid 90s for whatever reason. The soul of a serial killer is transferred into the computer network during an electrical storm, and soon he’s doing decidedly non-computery stuff like blowing up appliances and turning hairdryers into blowtorches and shit. It definitely has that mid-90s “we’re not exactly sure what a computer network is but it sure terrifies us” feel to it.

  26. My brother was a football player who liked heavy metal, particularly Metallica. He was a little older, than this kid. He graduated high school in 1985. I don’t know if that means that my brother was cooler than your average football player, or just different, or if the idea of a football player not being into heavy metal is false. Just adding my two cents.

  27. Yeah I was so psyched to see this movie when i was a kid too, and when I finally rented it, I realized it was too stupid to be scary, but too serious to be a comedy. A total misfire but a fun one – not as hilarious as My Soul to Take but somewhere around Craven’s batshit Hills Have Eyes 2. Also, that scene where Peter Berg is trapped inside Leave it to Beaver running outside the car, and yelling “Beave! Beave!” was awesome.

  28. Griff: Yo, BLACK MIRROR is airing in the US now on DirecTV (whatever that is). You should at least watch the first episode, The Nation Anthem, in which a terrorist kidnaps a beloved Princess and demands the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live TV. It’s great.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>