Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month I’m chatting with Ashlee Blackwell, founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters, a website dedicated to dispelling the myth that black women can’t be found in the horror genre. She also co-wrote and produced the amazing documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, and has bylines in Fangoria, Rue Morgue, and a bunch of other horror outlets.
Anyone who follows Blackwell knows she’s a huge Wes Craven fan, so it’s no surprise that her pick this month would be something from his filmography. But I had no idea the bonkers antics I was in for when she chose his 1988 return to the slasher genre, Shocker.
In Shocker, Craven leaves Freddy Krueger behind and introduces us to Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), a brutal killer caught by local college student Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) after Pinker murdered his foster family and girlfriend, Alison (Camille Cooper). Alas, it turns out that Pinker’s proficiency in the dark arts makes it so that his trip to the electric chair imbues him with the ability to transform into electric energy, which, logically, allows him to possess other people and torment Jonathan through those closest to him. As the body count continues to rise, Jonathan has to try to find a way to stop Pinker with help from his best friend, Rhino (Richard Brooks), and Alison’s ghost (I told you it was bonkers).
While I’m certainly a fan of Craven’s, I don’t hold a candle to Blackwell’s knowledge of his work. Considering Shocker didn’t land well with audiences when it was released (although it certainly has since developed a cult following), I was interested to know why Blackwell jumped at an opportunity to discuss it with me.
I fell in love with horror because it's fun, imaginative, and creative. And Shocker was one of those popcorn movies that I always loved and appreciated. I think it kind of started when I was an undergrad at University of the Arts. An assignment for one of our film classes was to pick a director to do an informal presentation. We kind of sat in a circle and talked about different directors who we really admired, and I picked up Wes Craven. Then I picked up a book about him called Screams and Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven by Brian Robb. I was reading about Shocker and about how this was in the late ’80s and Craven sold Freddy and Elm Street, so he's like, “I'm not making any money off of that, let me try to not recreate Freddy, but create another series that I can keep as my property in kind of another mythology around a serial killer.” So that's how Shocker kind of came about. I found it so fascinating that I saw the movie, and I found it very dark, but also very silly and also very fun. I was invested in these characters... and also at the time I had a crush on Mitch Pileggi, so I knew I was gonna watch that movie a lot.
As a self-professed “Freddy girl,” Shocker certainly wasn’t Blackwell’s first introduction to Craven’s work.
If I was to guess [my first Craven film was] The Serpent and the Rainbow… The big ones for me were Vampire in Brooklyn [writer’s note: a severely underrated film] and The People Under the Stairs. Even thinking about Shocker, when I was watching it recently again, interestingly enough Wes Craven... put black and brown people in his movies, which I appreciate. [In Shocker] he had the black best friend and also the coach, who were solid characters, and I liked seeing that they were a part of this universe. I just always appreciated him for doing that.
Having seen Shocker not long after watching Horror Noire, I couldn’t help but notice that Jonathan’s friend Rhino fit the trope of the black character primarily existing to serve the narrative for the white main character. But Blackwell notes that Shocker isn’t nearly as egregious in this regard as other movies that have come before and after it.
What I like about these conversations is that it's not black and white, no pun intended. And what I liked about Rhino, it’s true [that he supports the white character], but what’s also true is that this serial killer is terrorizing the entire town. So it's not just about [Jonathan], it's not just about saving his life. It's also saving his own life, the family of football players. You can also think about it as kind of a communal thing. It's about his own self-preservation as it is about his white friend.
That idea of Pinker as a large-scale threat is one of the elements that makes Shocker so interesting. Where other serial killer movies are generally small in scope with the threat focused on a handful of people, Pinker’s “connectivity” gives him a worldwide smorgasbord of potential victims. Craven also seems to take what seems like a fairly simple premise (bad guy turns into electricity) and incorporates so many different elements to it, including clairvoyance, possession, hauntings, and teleportation, that I wondered to Blackwell if including all of these disparate concepts may have lost the audience.
I kind of compare it to what Jordan Peele did with Us. These are two very thoughtful filmmakers who have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they put a lot of ideas into one movie. I think that works for some people, but it doesn't work for a lot of other people. If you listen to Wes Craven talk about his films, his ideas, and his approach, he comes from this wealth of knowledge of literature. And we also have his religious hang-ups from growing up as a kid. So when I think about Shocker and I think about the electricity angle, he adds that the serial killer was involved in the dark arts. What you're seeing literally is this person being reborn through this electricity because I think the idea, the religious and spiritual angle, is that these are just bodies, but what we really are is energy. And I think with Horace Pinker, he’s mastering the godless approach to being an energy form, saying, “I'm not beholden to a god. I am my own god, and I'm going to take my afterlife destiny into my own hands (and continue to be this piece of shit). But, I’ll have more power because I'm no longer flesh.” I imagine that's the kind of idea that Craven was playing with—it’s more spiritual, good and evil in biblical terms with biblical elements.
Shocker also incorporated a key element from the Nightmare films in that dreams play a key role in the narrative, which may have on the surface led to audience members dismissing it as Craven knocking off his own work. But as Blackwell points out, dreams play a factor in a lot of his films.
This constant motif in Wes Craven's movies are these dream sequences. [They’re] not in all the movies, obviously, but in his earlier works what stands out is the dream stuff because Nightmare is the movie he’s most known for and he's really great at creating these dream sequences. And he does that again with Shocker because he’s got this main character and his ability where his dreams are the vehicle to stopping this carnage.
So really Craven has taken the dream motif from Nightmare on Elm Street and subverted it by putting the power of dreams into the hands of the protagonist. And although Craven seemingly made Shocker in the hopes of kicking off a franchise where he would be able to maintain ownership, another aspect of Craven’s films is that he tends to imbue them with a heavy dose of darkness, which may have been something that audiences weren’t ready for in the late ’80s, when slashers really leaned into humor and one-liners. While Shocker certainly has some fun elements, it’s also definitely Craven’s brand of dark, which is part of what Blackwell enjoys so much about it.
I appreciate that about him, too. Even his Nightmare 3 script was darker than what actually came out, and I actually think that was just a part of why I like Wes so much is because he's not afraid to be that dark. He's not afraid about what people think as far as that goes, and I think that darkness is very personal. I don't know, maybe that's why some people don't like horror so much, this idea that people are afraid, asking, “Why should we have to watch fictional darkness when the world itself is dark?” It's kind of like gangster rap. These filmmakers are just reflecting what's going on... It's the same difference for me. [I appreciate horror because] I can't watch the news, I'm not a news person. I'm good. Monitoring Google News and Twitter is enough for me. And I even glaze over most of that. I try to be informed, but I'm not watching the fucking news. I just can't do that. I know what's going on in the world, but horror for me just helps [me] personally grapple with it.
Maybe I'm being biased, but I think people who don't like horror are people who are afraid to confront their own darkness. I think Craven wasn’t afraid to confront his own darkness. I'm certainly not. There's a lot of things about me that I don't like, that I want to change. I come off as... I kind of do the Karen thing from Will and Grace, where I just kind of run away: “Oh no, I'm feeling feelings!” But at the same time, it's very important to feel all those feelings because if I keep them bottled up, I'm going to cut a bitch. And in order to not do that it's really important for me to be honest with myself, and sort of confront things so that I can become a better person to myself first and then be a better person to other people. And for me, that's what’s hard and I think why I’ve connected to Craven's work so much is that he does that, too. Even in this “silly” dark film he does that.
And to be sure, even the humor in this movie has a bite to it, as Craven’s often does. In the film’s climax, as Pinker and Jonathan fight through the cosmos of television (again... bonkers!), at one point they get zapped into a family’s living room as they’re watching the tube. Let’s just say that Craven’s depiction of an ignorant, heavyset family barely aware of the bizarre incident occurring in front of them hints at a less-than-favorable opinion of the average media consumer. Blackwell points to some aspects of Craven’s background that would jibe with that point of view.
He didn't grow up watching movies, but he started watching films and stuff when he got into college. So he probably has a very narrow idea of the kind of people who are heavy TV and media consumers. And also he grew up in the Midwest, so maybe that's his stereotype of certain Midwesterners who are consumed by television and who let their kids be consumed by television and popular culture.
What’s particularly interesting is that in interviews, Craven has a very kind, soft-spoken demeanor, but Craven the writer/director seems to be willing to vent his frustrations through his work, which we see in something of a literal sense in New Nightmare, where he makes some thinly veiled points about what the Nightmare franchise had become at that time.
That's a good point. I'm glad you brought up New Nightmare, because yeah, he's kind of a shady bitch [laughs].
Now that you mention it, just thinking about that scene [in Shocker] again with that family, it might have even been a commentary on the desensitization of the violence and carnage. Like, people just came out of your television! Yeah, he was totally making a jab.
Ultimately, that caustic sense of humor, that willingness to delve into the more unpleasant realms of our psyches, and that willingness to throw a lot of ideas to the wall to see what sticks is an approach that, while it may not have connected with the masses in the day, is one that resonates with Blackwell.
I don't think anything particularly profound aside from [what] we've been talking about up till this point. I just think it's a really fun movie. It gives you a little bit of insight into the kind of filmmaker he was. I think he's a little bit more eclectic than people gave him credit for. I feel like I'm an overthinker, and I feel like Wes Craven was an overthinker. I put a lot of overthinking into my writing and I think Wes Craven puts a lot of overthinking into his writing. If he's just left to his own devices, he's going to create something like Shocker.