‘Shocker’: Insanely Stupid Yet Extremely Fun Craven Classic


No more Mr. Nice Guy

The Plot:

After a promising high school quarterback’s family is brutally murdered except for him and his foster father Don, Jonathan Parker gets entangled in a game of cat and mouse with a madman who carries a mysterious limp and a knack for television repair. But when the crazed killer is caught and put to death by way of electrocution, the psychopath is somehow given the ability to move through electricity, in and out of wall sockets, and eerily body jump from person to person. Now, with the insane repairman man getting closer with every electrical outlet, Jonathan can’t tell where the killer is or who is being inhabited by the insane presence of Horace Pinker. As time continues, and with his loved ones quickly expiring, Johnathon must overcome his worst fears if he has any luck of not being last in line and saving what little people he has left. Fighting a madman with a taste for blood was already hard enough, now the game has gone high voltage. Welcome to Shocker.

The Review:

Growing up, Craven was one of my go-to filmmakers. While not one of my top favorites of the late master, I loved 1989’s Shocker and its hybrid tale of murder, voodoo, and television sets. I originally found the film when I was five or so recorded on a random VHS, those old black boxes that often held so many magical adventures and hours of randomness, and the film was always in the back of my mind due to its insanely confident absurdity. Years later, I would discover that Shocker was a little seen Craven cult favorite and I figured now would be a great time to revisit the film with the tragic passing of its legendary creator. And my findings may shock you, Deadites. So let’s all hop into that electric chair, do a little channel hoping, and become good friends with an electrical outlet as I review the 1989 heavy-metal mash, Wes Craven’s Shocker.

The Direction:

The late Wes Craven directs Shocker with true vision and artistry. Honestly, the picture is one of the filmmaker’s most accomplished films in terms of direction. While I’d seen Shocker 15 times or so prior, I put films under the microscope when I review. I must put a film to task, because filmmaking, when the medium truly works, is breathtakingly magical. The best ones take us away to a place we never dreamed, bad films keep us on the couch. Luckily for us, Craven is a true magician, using his camera like a wand from Hogwarts.

The News!-Horace Pinker

Whereas the film isn’t the sharpest I’ve seen in terms of composition, the picture is well executed in the camerawork department. A few examples include two almost identical in concept shots, shown minutes apart that open on a scene prop. The camera slowly pans left to reveal the principal actor: Parker in one and his girlfriend in the other. There’s also the shot that opens on a zoom of Parker’s face (a scene where Johnathan sees his worst nightmare out of frame that pulls back to reveal what he’s looking at without cutting), a ceiling shot that opens on Parker’s bed then slowly lowers and tilts until it’s on an even plane with his mistress, and a beautifully long swift rotation shot when the electric chair is introduced. No joke, the chair scene is brilliant. I spilled a beer, and burned about 20 minutes rewinding it over and over.

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On top of the amazing camera execution, the film is in your face and feels like you should be experiencing it at a Metallica concert instead of your living room. Aided by one of the best soundtracks in the history of horror, Shocker’s tone is so fun, energetic, and song driven that it’s impossible not to check your pockets for a concert ticket halfway through the picture. I love the film’s tone so much that I’m very forgiving of the film’s many flaws. I’m much fonder of Shocker than I would be given the otherwise outlandish ideas of the film.

The Script:

Wes Craven’s Shocker script is shocking indeed; the film houses so many insanely ridicules elements it’s mind-blowing that mega studio Universal ever signed off to produce the thing. Originally, Universal only tasked Craven with creating for them what he had done for Bob Shaye’s mini-major New Line Cinema. Everybody wanted a horror franchise in the 1980s. Shocker even opens in an almost identical way to Craven’s masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the villain in his most comfortable environment. Made in a time when horror was bigger than Stay Puft’s waistline, Shocker was set to be Universal’s cash cow. Unfortunately for the company, who is currently enjoying one of their best fiscal years to date, that wasn’t destined to be the case. There are a lot of reasons for that destiny.

While I really enjoy the film as a whole, Craven’s script is truly insane and arguably just plain stupid. The film features story elements that include, but aren’t limited to: an unexplained dream connection between Johnathan and Pinker (smells like Kruger spirit), voodoo that allows Pinker to travel from person to person in his search for Parker, more voodoo trickery that gives Pinker the ability to travel within both electrical lines and television sets (he’s also takes the form of an electrically powered recliner. I’m not making this up, Deadites), the ghost of a character that Parker can see and easily communicate with, the use of a love locket as a primary weapon that Parker also randomly used to jump into a camera (Huey Lewis wasn’t playing about the power of love), and a virtual channel-hopping fist fight between Parker and Pinker. These are just a few examples.

The script has stupidity and insanity written all over it, but it’s also mixed with an amazing air of confidence. It’s as if Universal told Craven to “make us a Freddy” and then let him do whatever he wanted. The filmmaker ran with the freedom almost to the point of mocking the studio. The result is a tale that is so bizarre yet told as if it’s The Godfather. Craven seemingly had no insecurities about his story and tells it with a strong sense of brazen well-earned authority.

On top of the script’s confidence is the pacing of the narrative itself. Though a lot of the situations are peculiar to say the least, Craven’s story of man vs evil electro breaks out of the gate like a horse on Derby day. The plot points and narrative momentum in the film come at a breakneck pace and even those still reluctant to buy into Craven’s crazy concepts will find themselves drawn to the sheer speed of the proceedings. The film does more in the first 30 minutes than some do in their entire running time. I enjoyed the pacing immensely.

The Acting:

The acting in Shocker is fairly decent across the electricity board. While some performers are sharper than others, the insane tone of the film makes the duller performers seems less stilted and more narratively cooperative.

The first up to add a little energy to Shocker is lead Peter Berg, playing lead Johnathan Parker. Berg, who later became a director in his own right with hits such as 2008’s Hancock and 2013’s Lone Survivor, does a great job with a lot of the emotional extremes the role required. While Berg isn’t the best actor to ever grace the screen, arguably coming off wooden in some scenes, he’s obviously at home in the shoes of the orphan with a gold throwing arm. A great example of the actor’s abilities shows in a scene where he’s trying to track Pinker and ends up on the roof of a city building. The actor really brings the goods at the tail-end of the scene and definitely earns his pay.

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Then there is Mitch Pileggi, stepping into the sadistic skin of madman Horce Pinker. The role, which is one of Craven’s most insane creations, really tests the actor. Luckily for us, the actor destroys each scene with his gleeful take of an inhumane murder gifted with superpowers. Easily the actor giving the best performance, I was in awe of his free nature and risk-taking sense of performing. Pileggi, who has had roles in the lesser know 1987 gem 3 O’clock High, the popular biker drama Sons of Anarchy (2008-2013), and of couse, The X-Files (1993-2002), really makes use of his much-given screen time. The execution scene is one of many that stand out in this regard.

Last is Michael Murphy, playing foster father and police Lt. Don Parker. Honestly, Murphy is mostly over-acting in Shocker, but it’s not as obvious due the film’s overall insanity. While there are moments where the actor is strong, the scene that stands out the most is one where he has an internal struggle with the Pinker’s spirt, the actor’s overall performance could have used more polish. He’s isn’t the worst ever, he’s just not the strongest performer I’ve ever seen.

The Verdict:

Wes Craven’s Shocker is one fantastically directed head trip of a film. The picture is by far one of the late filmmaker’s most bizarre films, if not in fact the craziest. Then again, maybe that was Craven’s point.. The soundtrack is rocking, the pacing fast, and the sum of these insane parts is a great time that fright fans are likely to gobble up. Just don’t take the film too seriously. I highly recommend the film to Craven fans, and to anyone looking for something that is truly different. Deadiites, you have been informed.

The Grade:  C+

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