Saturday, November 28, 2015


In past reviews, I've referred to Shocker (1989) as one of Wes Craven's duds. The first time I saw it, I hated it, thinking it too transparent and cynical of an attempt to replicate Freddy Kruger. I went into it expecting a hardcore, intense  thriller but saw a tonally inconsistent movie that couldn't decide what it wanted to be about.

Still, Shocker is a movie I've thought about many times, and I remembered some of its sequences and visuals fondly. With Craven's recent passing, I decided to revisit the film. While many flaws remain, Shocker has just enough inspiration to make it worth checking out. Rather than a serious horror movie, Shocker works best as a zany, violent satire.

Shocker's boogeyman, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), is to television what Kruger is to the dream world. Instead of killing people in their dreams, Pinker invades their homes through TV sets. Just before he went to the electric chair, Pinker conducted a black magic ritual in his jail cell where he prayed to a television set. TV as the Devil? Not exactly subtle subtext, but a fun idea Craven exploits well. Television, filled with depictions of violence and mindless entertainment, deadens viewers, numbing them to the real world and leaving them vulnerable to Pinker. 

Unfortunately, that part only occurs in the last act. It's nearly forty minutes before Pinker winds up in the electric chair, and then, the movie becomes a precursor to Fallen as Pinker hops from body from body to get revenge against the college student, Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg), who caught him. It's kind of amusing as Pinker possesses people, from a bulky construction worker (played by Alice Cooper guitarist Kane Roberts) to a cute little girl, but this part goes on too long, and I don't know how it gels with Pinker's electrical abilities. Later, Pinker occupies an electric armchair, and it's like seeing Chairry from Pee-Wee's Playhouse on the rampage.

Pinker, despite a crazed and enjoyably over-the-top performance from Pileggi, is not scary. Kruger, despite becoming watered down and goofy as his series wore on, started out as a terrifying figure, and Craven wisely kept him in the shadows and his jokes to a minimum. By contrast, Pinker is out in the open and shown in color while saying things like "Let's take a ride on my volts wagon." He's not a badly burned boogeyman; he's Mr. Clean in an orange jumpsuit.

Craven throws in too many supernatural elements without bothering to explain them. I can accept a serial killer traveling through television because he made a deal with the devil, but the other stuff - Jonathan's ability to track Pinker through his dreams, the ghost of his girlfriend (Cami Cooper) coming to his aid, and the girlfriend's charm necklace repelling Pinker - feels hokey.

While Craven the writer is shaky, Craven the director is in top form and creates some memorable images. The film opens in Pinker's junky repair shop with dozens of TVs broadcasting death and destruction, and it's an ominous atmosphere on par with Freddy's boiler room lair. The special effects, most notably Pinker's blue, distorted image, like a distorted TV reception, are well done, and the final sequence - when Jonathan and Pinker chase each other across several TV channels - is an outstanding climax. It's also a nice touch that the hero is a football star, a jock, rather than the expected of virginal final girl the genre usually delivered at the time.

The film is more comedic than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Timothy Leary has a cameo as a televangelist, and during the final chase, Pinker and Jonathan wind up in a living room where a woman in hair curlers says "I've heard of interactive programming, but this is ridiculous." And keep your eyes open for Ted Raimi, proving once again that growing up as Sam Raimi's brother prepared him to be a good sport.

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