[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
By the late 1980s, Master of Horror Wes Craven had found himself fully distanced from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, so he set his sights on bringing a new genre icon to life with Shocker, and created the brutally sadistic villain Horace Pinker (played by Mitch Pileggi), who can not only shift through bodies, but also utilizes the TV airwaves as a means for transport. There’s no denying that during his decades-spanning career, Craven has provided genre fans with countless hours of entertainment, but many have declared Shocker as one of Craven’s “lesser” films, which to me, could not be further from the truth.
In fact, Shocker is far more thoughtful, ambitious, and audacious than it ever gets credit for, and it’s still one of my top five Craven films that doesn’t involve a certain dream-stalking boogeyman that haunts the kids of Elm Street. A philosophically driven fever dream also contemplates the film's emotionally driven themes of grief, guilt, fate, and with nature versus nurture underneath its gritty, slashertastic veneer, Shocker proves that in 1989, Craven was declaring to his fans, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
Shocker opens similarly to Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, where we watch as the villainous Horace Pinker toils away in his grungy hideout, filled with clutter and television sets, making odious plans for future victims. Horace isn’t your run-of-the-mill serial killer, either—his barbaric and savage tendencies have left the community of Maryville, Ohio (I wonder how close it is to Springwood?) on high alert as he’s slaughtered 30 different people in the area, and the police haven’t been able to stop him.
The only reason Horace’s murder spree initially comes to an end is because Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg), a college football superstar who seems to have the perfect life, happens to have a nightmare about Pinker killing several members of his adoptive family, and follows a series of clues from his dream that leads Jonathan and his adoptive dad, Lieutenant Don Parker (Michael Murphy), to Horace’s hideaway, where the psychotic killer is eventually captured, but the crafty cutthroat killer doesn’t go down without a fight, taking with him several police officers along the way.
Pinker is eventually sentenced to death by electrocution, which seems like that’s where Shocker’s story would end, but that’s not the case at all. Prior to being strapped in the chair, Horace performs a voodoo ritual in his cell (I’m not sure why prison rules are so lax around a guy whose rap sheet is absolutely dripping in blood, but who am I to judge?), and as Jonathan and his dad pay witness to Pinker’s electrifying death, things go horribly awry. We learn that death is only the beginning for the Maryville Murderer, whose ceremonial act was his way of continuing to exist on another plane via electricity, giving him the ability to hop between bodies via a simple touch. With a seemingly unstoppable Horace on the loose, it’s up to Jonathan to figure out a way to put a stop to Pinker’s reign of terror before it destroys everyone the co-ed cares about most in this world.
While it might be a little rough around the edges, I’ve always had a deep-seated love for the heavy metal mayhem of Shocker, as it was one of the few films of that era in horror that managed to get under my skin in ways not many genre films were doing at the time. I won’t do anything as bold as declare Shocker a perfect film or anything like that, because it does have its flaws, but just because a movie isn’t flawless doesn’t mean it can’t still be entertaining as all hell, and every single time I rewatch Shocker (a huge thanks to Scream Factory for its stellar Blu a few years back), I still find myself totally enthralled by this often unflinching, yet sometimes comedic, amalgamation of Craven’s ingenuity from start to finish.
What undoubtedly helps stoke the fires of my fondness for Shocker is the fact that as a movie fan, I absolutely love body swapping stories—they are like cinematic catnip to me, which is probably why I enjoy Jason Goes to Hell as much as I do. And while Shocker’s channel-hopping finale is the sequence that people tend to talk about the most (and yes, it is totally awesome), I adore the sequences in the film where Horace is running amok inside other people’s bodies, especially the gnarly little girl in the park. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I still cackle in delight when the toe-headed tot gets possessed by Horace and transforms into the foul-mouthed killer, complete with his trademark limp and snarl plastered across her cherubic visage. And then Jonathan must contend with the dilemma of beating the crap out of a kid, or letting Pinker get away.
But those humorous beats don’t take anything away from barbarous realities at play in Shocker, either, as Craven sometimes utilizes them to ratchet up the movie’s tension, especially as Jonathan struggles with trying to figure out just who he can and cannot trust while trying to stop Horace’s vicious attacks once and for all.
Even though the name Horace Pinker may not necessarily be as marketable as, say, Freddy Krueger, what Shocker’s cinematic killer is able to bring to the table, between his cunningly savage ways and the different measures of cruelty he utilizes to get under Jonathan’s skin (and inside his head) are memorable all the same. Especially when it comes to Jonathan’s girlfriend, Alison (portrayed by Cami Cooper), who Pinker slaughters at Jonathan’s home while he’s at football practice. The levels of ferocity we see from Horace is incredibly effective in making him a powerhouse force of evil, and at a time when studio films seemed to be shying away from heightened levels of aggression, it was nice to see Craven still wanting to provoke reactions from the viewers with that kind of strong and unforgiving material here.
What’s even more interesting about Shocker is that while the film has a good amount of gore and brutal moments peppered throughout it, it’s the off-screen viciousness to Pinker’s actions that end up landing the hardest, as the emotional toll of his misdeeds is firmly plastered all over Jonathan’s face throughout Shocker. Which brings us to Peter Berg. I will be totally honest and just go ahead and admit that the actor-turned-director is woefully (and I mean woefully) miscast in Shocker, which is probably why the movie gets as much grief as it does. And I get it. His performance doesn’t stand a chance against Pileggi’s completely batshit portrayal of an enigmatic lunatic who wants nothing more than to spread anarchy and spill a little blood along the way. And while it’s true that the movie probably would have benefitted by having someone else in the role of Jonathan, there’s still an earnestness to Berg’s performance that I find endearing, and it doesn’t nearly bother me as much now as it did back when the film originally came out (I think I’ve definitely softened as a fan over the years).
If you examine his directorial body of work, many of Craven’s films contemplated the power of dreams, with Nightmare being his most famous and most successful effort. Shocker expands on some of those ideas, though, as Jonathan is able to bring something out of his dreams (akin to Nancy with Freddy’s hat in the dream clinic), and the college student’s dreams are often prescient as well, allowing him to get a leg up on Pinker’s future transgressions. This time, there’s a very specific reason as to why Shocker’s hero and antagonist are linked on a metaphysical level, and it directly ties into the reasoning behind why it has to be Jonathan that stops Horace in the end.
Something else that Craven was also noteworthy for was his way of tackling various issues through film (like many other great genre contemporaries). In Shocker, it’s evident that society’s growing fascination with television and the media was clearly on Wes’ mind, especially since he cleverly uses the medium as the backdrop to the epic showdown between Horace and Jonathan, and the two find themselves in a battle for survival atop of a TV tower. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the media had begun to take a turn towards sensationalism (especially in the realm of daytime talk shows), and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Shocker’s finale comes about because of an interview with Jonathan where he promises to deliver up Horace Pinker to all the viewers watching at home in a sometimes zany sequence that feels like Craven just decided to go all-in on the film’s bizarre nature, and it works so well.
But beyond that, I always saw Berg’s character as the vehicle for Craven’s dissection of the age-old nature versus nurture argument, tapping into the fears of adoptees and the adopters alike. How would you feel if you found out that one of your birth parents is a monster? Are you fearful that those proclivities will get passed down genetically at all? And what do you do, as a parent, if this kid you brought into your home years ago had a disturbing upbringing that eventually brings about tragic consequences on your family years later? Those aren’t questions that are easily answered in Shocker, either, and Craven was smart to subtly prey on those familial fears here, adding yet another layer to the film’s overall story.
Even though it's missing the polish of many of Craven’s other filmic projects, I still find Shocker to be a helluva good time, and it deserves so much more love than it usually gets amongst horror fans. Not only did Craven dare to deliver up a bona fide slasher movie at a time when those types of films were going out of fashion, but he also found a way to make the art of dreaming truly scary once again via Shocker’s madcap villain and gave us one of the best headbanging soundtracks of its time to boot. Many may dismiss the merits of Shocker, and that’s fine because art is subjective. But to me, I still find Shocker (to quote Horace) “finger-licking good,” and one of Craven’s most interesting movies outside of the Nightmare franchise.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!