Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1989)

12. Shocker

Remember when I said that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” loomed over the rest of Wes Craven’s career? I wasn’t kidding. Everyone of his proceeding films featured elements of that classic. “Shocker” took it to a new level, a blatant attempt to recreate Freddy’s success and spawn a similarly lucrative franchise. In a further attempt to mark the movie as the next big horror picture, Wes’ name was even stamped over the title, John Carpenter-style. But the movie underperformed. Horace Pinker didn’t become the next house-hold name in horror. Why did “Shocker” fail when “Elm Street” was such an influential hit?

The town of Berryville, California is terrified by a brutal serial killer, targeting whole families. College football star Jonathan Parker, after having a psychic dream about the killer and loosing his foster family to the murderer, leads the police, and his police chief foster dad, to Horace Pinker, television repair man and satanic serial killer. Before getting caught, Pinker murders Jonathan’s girlfriend as well. Once in jail, awaiting execution, Pinker apparently sells his soul to the devil, transforming himself into an entity made of electricity, able to possess human beings and live inside electronic devices. Realizing a familial connection to the killer, and aided by the ghost of his dead girlfriend, Jonathan attempts to track down Pinker and end his evil forever. Any of that sound familiar?

One presumes that, if “Shocker” was designed to compete with Freddy, it was intended to be a serious horror film. The first act seems to support this. An early nightmare sequence, of Jonathan walking home to find his family murdered, is almost eerie. Blood smeared on white walls, linoleum floors, or pooling out from under doors is a reoccurring image. A scene of the cops exploring Pinker’s repair shop, unaware that he’s watching them from behind a trap door, actually builds some suspense. Mitch Pileggi plays Pinker as effectively mean-spirit and the gut-stabbings and throat-slashings are well executed. The girlfriend’s murder is the movie’s most brutal moment, veering uncomfortably close to sexual assault. All of this is good, gruesome stuff. The rooftop chase where the villain is finally caught, featuring dramatic leaps between buildings and rough fist fighting, makes “Shocker” seem like a strong pulp thriller.

Once imprisoned, Pinker summons magical, talking lips from a television which grants his wish by saying “You got it, baby,” Audrey II-style. This is the first sign that “Shocker” is not what it appears to be. Pinker becomes a possessing spirit, slinging one liners while biting people’s fingers off and snapping necks. A chase through a day-lit park might have been thrilling. Our hero running between trees, bullets whizzing by, comes close to creating tension. But then Pinker possesses a little girl. Who then climbs into a front end loader, shouting profanity. The score blares on melodramatically but there’s no way this was meant to be taken seriously.

In the last act, the movie’s goofy streak goes into overdrive. A recliner grows eyes and attempts to strangle Jonathan. The killer delivers a real groaner about his “volts-wagon.” Hero and villain jump into a television, battling across different channels. Horace impersonates a fighter jet and a mushroom cloud. The Beaver, Frankenstein, Alice Cooper, John Tesh, and a white trash family telling terrible jokes make appearances. All of this is deeply campy and intentionally silly.  The tonal whiplash of “Deadly Friend” was probably unintentional but Wes wrote “Shocker.” What’s his excuse this time? Was the nuttiness of the ending supposes to contrast with the dark aspects of the beginning? Was Wes attempting to combine the tones of “Evil Dead” 1 and 2 into a single picture? Either way, it just leaves the viewer scratching their heads.

The cast is another problem. Peter Berg, future director of big budget action flicks like “Hancock” and “Battleship,” is never quite convincing as Jonathan. He sometimes goes over-the-top when acting traumatized or frightened. His facial expressions are frequently semi-comical. He’s most likable in the early scenes, playing an easily distracted football player. Berg is a palooka and Cami Cooper, as his girlfriend, is muted. The love between the two is supposed to be so deep that she returns from the grave to protect him. There’s a bit of chemistry between the actors but both performers' pure lack of talent makes them unable to sell the connection. It doesn’t help that the movie has Cooper shooting rays of light out of her chest in one scene.

Mitch Pileggi, whom Wes Craven had previously worked with on the hard-to-find TV movie “Night Visions,” is clearly meant to be the star of the show. Pileggi is adapt at gruff and mean-spirited turns. He too has trouble with the film’s tone. He berates Berg with a monologue that pushes between camp and truly sinister. Pileggi isn’t Robert Englund and can’t make bad one-liners and cheesy antics a guilty pleasure. Michael Murphy, as Jonathan’s police chef dad, probably does the best. I especially like the moment right after he pushes Pinker’s spirit out of his body.

The only smooth thing about the film is Craven’s direction. Craven has never been a particularly visual filmmaker but he brings his A-game here. He employs slow pans and long takes throughout. The electric chair is introduced in a very dynamic fashion, the camera circling around the room. I like a long shot of Jonathan walking through a house filled with white sheets. Pinker and Jonathan are visually connected when we see his reflection in the glass behind Pinker. There’s a rather atmospheric shot of fog rolling over a lake, surrounded by deep blue night. Craven even throws a reverse-dolly shot and an “Opera”-style look through a door’s peephole.

Universal clearly intended “Shocker” to be a big hit. The heavy metal soundtrack is given special attention, with superstar producer Desmond Child getting a special credit. Sometimes, the music provides some much needed energy, during a chase scene, or goes perfectly with the images on-screen, like the aforementioned electric chair introduction. Other times, it’s distracting like during a conversation between father and son. Heavy metal super-group Dudes of Wrath provide the title song while Megadeth contributes a tagline lending cover of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” How much you like any of this is a matter of taste, I suppose. The traditional score isn’t bad, though the heavy synth is sometimes distracting.

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All the focus on televised violence and TV-on-TV makes you wonder if Craven is slipping some social commentary in here. The ending features a whole town without television, stepping out to watch the stars. If this was the goal, there’s not much to go on. The movie has no clear opinion on the issue. “Shocker” could have been a decent, nasty thriller but decided to be a wacky comedy instead. Maybe that much discussed, still unmade remake would be better balanced. [Grade: C]

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