Friday, September 11, 2015

Census Bloodbath: The Lame Street Electrical Parade

For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 1989
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Michael Murphy, Mitch Pileggi, Peter Berg
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1989 was not a good year for slashers. Time and again, we’ve run through the mind-bogglingly long list of nails in the subgenre’s coffin that were released in theaters that year, but we’re about to alight upon one of the most storied and baffling of them all: Wes Craven’s Shocker.

Conceived as an answer to A Nightmare on Elm Street (on which Craven was pretty much cheated out of profit participation), Shocker was an attempt to kick-start a new franchise, done right this time. That patently failed to happen, and Shocker ended up a funhouse mirror vision of Nightmare, wanly trudging through the exact same story beats to lesser effect, both thematically and entertainingly.

Though, admittedly, Shocker has it over Nightmare in the “wall-to-wall Alice Cooper songs” category.

Shocker tells of the exploits of TV repairman Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), who moonlights as a serial killer with a predilection for offing entire families in their homes. When he quite rudely annihilates the family of the detective on his tail, Lt. Don Parker (Michael Murphy of Strange Behavior), Parker’s foster son Jonathan (Peter Berg) gets dragged into the mix as he begins to have dreams conveniently highlighting Pinker’s whereabouts. Pinker is subsequently caught and sentenced to the electric chair, but not before performing a Satanic curse that will transfer his soul INTO the body of a doll an electrical current, allowing him to possess other people’s bodies in his pursuit of Jonathan.

…Wes Craven was a humanities professor, not an engineer. Horace pursues Johnny in a variety of bodies before remembering hat an electrical killer is actually an OK concept as long as it’s serving a satire of how reliant Americans are on their gadgets. After about 80 minutes of meandering (this is an astoundingly long film – civilizations have fallen in less time than it takes for Pinker to get to the chair), he converts entirely into an electrical current and travels into his victims’ homes via TV. Now it’s up to Jonathan to save his life, avenge his murdered girlfriend Alison (Camille Cooper), and stop the killing spree once and for all.

He needs to hurry too, before the FX budget gets too high.

Look, Shocker is not an outright terrible film. Wes Craven has certainly made some clunkers in his career, but when he’s behind the wheel of the script, you can be certain he’s at least attempting to engage with an idea. The biggest problem with the film is that it’s crammed into the Nightmare beaker, they aren’t quite soluble, leaving half-worked chunks floating around, knocking into one another.

Luckily, these problems don’t really arise until the halfway point, when Pinker makes his transition to wisecracking electricity demon. Again, this doesn’t speak well of Shocker’s flabby run time, but that leaves us with a good 45 minutes to spend with the human Horace, who is unpredictable, raw, and more than a little unsettling. Mitch Pileggi’s live-wire performance is riveting, thoroughly committed stuff, crackling with restless energy and minute tics while he dishes out the gore like a demented close-up magician.

The first act is really where Shocker’s personality shines strongest, because it hasn’t yet glommed onto its obligatory supernatural Krueger-lite framework. In addition to Pileggi carving the place up and getting a chance to have some blood (a throat-slashing and a lip-biting in particular are choice cuts of gooey mayhem), the ever-present silly humor is more character-driven and less reliant on quips that would make Carrot Top blush. Unfortunately, Shocker makes a dramatic shift hallway through, dumping a pile of deus ex machina, nonsense setpieces, and an excruciating abundance of dream sequences onto the already overloaded film’s back.

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to rock.

Not only are we saddled with the burden of attempting to comprehend the eternally shifting tapestry of rules that govern Pinker’s powers and Jonathan’s dreams, we are also forced to face a magical love necklace, a laser beam of pure virginity, and Alison’s ghost, who so frequently reappears in Johnny’s life that her death loses every ounce of impact. She shuffles off and back on the mortal coil without breaking  a sweat like she’s doing cosmic aerobics. Because death is clearly only a mild nuisance in this universe, the stakes are lowered into oblivion. The entire third act is like this, driven almost exclusively by deus ex MacGuffins. It’s nonsensical and scattershot, but worst of all, it’s boring.

This atmosphere of the second half is hardly helped by a severe lack of gore. Now that Pinker is… whatever he is, he finds less and less use for his trusty knife and the effects crew turns their attention from quality gore making sure that he looks as good as possible.

SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t.

What we’re left with is Peter Berg doddering through a cavalcade of silly setpieces (including an evil Barcalounger – just when you thought it was safe to relax…), acting louding at whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Admittedly, the climactic battle inside the world of TV is a brilliantly edited effects extravaganze (that precedes the same tricks used in Forrest Gump by several years – suck on that, Hanks!), but this shallow, goofy, half-Jason Goes to Hell, half-Dream Warriors state-of-the-art slasher loses its bearings (and its marbles) long before its strong close.

There’s nuggets of intent buried throughout the film. At any given moment, Shocker threatens to become a satire of American TV culture, an indictment of middle class violent tendencies, and even a campy horror-comedy with a gleam of gritty despair. But as opposed to having too many cooks, Shocker has just one cook with too many ingredients. It’s a fun, scary, incisive movie but only in brief spurts. Mainly it collapses in on itself like an unattended cake in the oven, It’s a must-see fr Cravenites looking to understand the man’s feverishly artistic mind, but otherwise give this one a pass.

Killer: Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi)
Final Girl: Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg)
Best Kill: A cop’s head is twisted all the way around. He’ll never watch The Exorcist the same way again.
Sign of the Times: You’re not allowed to listen to this title track if your hair is under 12 inches long.

Scariest Moment: Alison is murdered while Jonathan heads off to practice.
Weirdest Moment: Jonathan somehow lives in an apartment even though he’s close with his family and is still in high school.
Champion Dialogue: “Pinker is dead, John. Go home and get drunk or something.”
Body Count: 17; not including several entire families that get murdered offscreen.
  1. Bobby is stabbed to death.
  2. Diane is stabbed to death.
  3. Sally is stabbed to death.
  4. Sarge’s throat is slit.
  5. Cop #1 is stabbed in the gut.
  6. Cop #2 has his throat slashed.
  7. Cop #3 is strangled with a radio cord.
  8. Alison is stabbed to death.
  9. Cop #4 has his head twisted backward.
  10. Medical Examiner dies in a car explosion.
  11. Jogger is shot in the back.
  12. Pastori dies when Pinker leaves his body.
  13. Amanda dissolves.
  14. Amanda’s Mom dies probably.
  15. Pac-Man is stabbed to death.
  16. Coach Cooper is stabbed in the chest.
  17. Horace Pinker is killed by a power outage.

TL;DR: Shocker is massively creative film with a woefully short attention span.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1241


  1. Man, if I was ever curious to see what Manhunter would be like if Tom Noonan turned into a electricity-powered supervillain, now I know what to watch. And I kind of want to.

  2. I watched this recently and I thought it had to be Craven's worst movie. But I'll take your word for it if it was not.
    Crazy concept, but in a bad way. The movie lost me in the execution scene, I think, but it's not like I was loving it before that. I agree with all the flaws you point out, but I don't care for any of the positives you see (good for you though).

    1. Look, I love Wes Craven but this is CERTAINLY not his worst movie. When he hits he hits hard, and when he misses... oof.