Like a frenzied fever dream that’s fueled by the power of righteous heavy metal, Wes Craven’s Shocker is certainly one of the Master of Horror’s more oddball cult classics, an amalgam of Craven’s most ambitious ideas and a viciously wild visual style that’s far more innovative than most have given it credit for over the last 26 years since it was first released. While the name Horace Pinker may not necessarily be as marketable as, say, Freddy Krueger, what this cinematic killer does bring to the table in terms of savagery and a darkly comedic cruelty is legendary in his own right.
Shocker opens similarly to Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street where we see the film’s killer, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), working away in his grungy hideout, no doubt making nefarious plans for his future victims. We soon learn that Horace isn’t your run-of-the-mill killer by any means- he’s barbarically slaughtered several families in the Maryville, Ohio area and the only reason his murderous spree is put to end (at least temporarily) is because a young football star by the name of Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) just happens to have a nightmare about Pinker killing several members of his adoptive family.
And once Pinker is captured and eventually sentenced to death by electrocution, that’s only the beginning for the notorious butcher as it’s revealed that the ritual Horace was performing prior to his execution was his way of continuing to exist on another plane via electricity and the ability to body hop into anyone he happens to touch. It’s up to Jonathan to put a stop to his supernatural existence before it destroys everything he knows and everyone he cares about most.
While it may be a little rough around the edges, I’ve always had a deep love for Shocker. I can still remember the first time I saw it; I rented it on VHS for a sleepover and I remember that everyone else was so freaked out by Horace and all the TV stuff that they made me sleep closest to the television that night (which of course, then kind of freaked me out). The level of brutality we see from Horace is incredibly effective in making him such a powerhouse villain and at a time when studio films seemed to be shying away from that level of violence, it was nice to see Craven still wanting to provoke reactions from the viewers with that kind of strong and unforgiving material.
It’s been reported over the years that there is an even bloodier version of Shocker that exists (complete with Pinker spitting out a prison guard’s fingers) and that’s something I’d love to see, especially since Craven was truly always one of the best directors at that sort of approach. He may not always hit all the right notes but the Master of Horror was always interested in giving audiences an unflinching and thought-provoking examination of real, tangible horror and that’s truly admirable. What’s also interesting is that in his original Nightmare, we only get bits and pieces about Freddy’s origins, but with Shocker, we get to see Horace’s genesis story and the aftermath that follows, allowing Pinker to become a bit more fully realized than many of the other cinematic killers who were trying to slash their way into our hearts in the late 1980’s.
Many of Craven’s films dealt with the idea of the true power of dreams, with Nightmare being his most famous and most successful effort. That’s not to say that Shocker doesn’t have its own merits though. In the film, he expanded behind some of the themes we see in Nightmare (bringing something out of your dreams, the prescient nature of dreams, etc.) by evolving them- this time Jonathan dreams about Horace and his misdeeds, but there’s a reason that the two characters are psychically linked and it’s only Jonathan that can stop the merciless killer in the end. And yes, Jonathan does bring something out of one of his dreams (akin to Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street) but the item has a purpose and a power to it as well and plays a key role in Jonathan’s journey to becoming a hero.
Something else that Craven was also noteworthy for was his way of tackling various issues through film. With Shocker, it’s evident that society’s growing fascination with television and the media was clearly on his mind but I always saw Jonathan’s story as an exploration of the nature versus nurture argument as well. In some ways, Shocker was Craven’s own dissection of the fears surrounding adoption (from both the point of view of the adoptee and the adopter’s) because what if that precious kid you brought into your home years ago had a disturbing upbringing? And what if that upbringing ended up having tragic consequences on your family years later? Craven was smart to subtly prey on those fears, adding another level to his overall story.
Enough cannot be said for Pileggi’s performance in Shocker and his commitment in bringing the merciless killer to life is nothing short of astounding. I’ve always found Berg’s approach to the role Jonathan be perfectly fine, he’s likeable and very relatable, but the real reason to watch Shocker (for me) has and always will be for Pileggi’s batshit crazy awesome work in the film (and yes, the badass soundtrack featuring the likes of Alice Cooper, Megadeth and Iggy Pop never hurt the experience either). Even though Pileggi has gone on to become well-known by many as for his work on The X-Files as Walter Skinner, he’s always going to (also) be the snarling, menacing Horace Pinker to me.
A graphic yet oddly idyllic examination of the power of dreams and free will (in its many forms), Shocker feels like an almost hallucinatory trip into the world of fantastic, with Craven still walking the slasher line rather confidently. I wouldn’t call it one of the more polished efforts from the visionary director but it certainly is far more entertaining and enjoyable than many have given it credit for over the years. It’s a title I’ve longed for in HD for years and thankfully, Scream Factory has once again stepped up and shown Shocker the love it so rightly deserves.
The Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Shocker looks infinitely better than my DVD version of the film and the special features included are a lot of fun to watch if you’re a fan of the film. The sit-down with Pileggi is informative and so enjoyable (complete with a token “No More Mr. Nice Guy” from the actor to finish off the featurette) that my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer. The interview with Shocker co-star Cami Cooper (who plays Jonathan’s girlfriend Alison in the film) is also nicely done and I really enjoyed the mini doc on the music for the film too. There was some sadness watching the vintage behind-the-scenes videos and seeing Craven talking about his newest creation (at that time) as you could feel the passion in his voice about what he was hoping to achieve with Shocker.
As expected, this release from Scream Factory is absolutely a fitting tribute to one of Craven’s most underappreciated films. As a longtime fan, it’s nice to have companies like them around to carry the mantle for classic and modern cult genre films that often get overlooked by the studios that were originally behind them.
And in the words Horace Pinker, one could even say that this Shocker Blu is “Finger Licking Good!”
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5