Wes Craven's Shocker (1989)
Rating: *** out of 4
Rating: *** out of 4
“That’s right. I was beatin’ you real good when your mama
tried to stop me with that gun she brought into our happy home. You must’ve remembered it boy. Don’t you remember the way she screamed? And how clever you were picking up that gun
and shootin’ me right through the knee, you fuckin’ peckerhead! Oh, such a big gun, just blastin’ at your
dear old dad with murder in your eyes. Like father, like son, huh?” – Horace Pinker
Cast: Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, Cami Cooper, Mitch Pileggi and Richard Brooks.
Writer: Wes Craven
Director: Wes Craven
In the late 1980’s a producer by the name of Shep Gordon who was fed up with the Hollywood Studio system decided to upstart his own production company that would aim for theatrical releases but would be intended to explode the home video market. He noticed that the horror genre ruled home video rental sales so he enlisted the two greatest living masters of modern horror of the era; John Carpenter and Wes Craven.
The deal he set up with the auteurs was to allow them free reign to make a movie 100% their own. He offered them a budget and wanted to know nothing of the project they planned on working on. He didn’t want to know plots or even titles. He just wanted to allow two masters of their field to design, hone and craft a film that was entirely their own; free from the trappings of the studio system with the sole caveat that they must attach their name ahead of the title of the picture. Each filmmaker made two films. While Carpenter would go on to make Prince of Darkness and They Live, Craven made Shocker and The People Under the Stairs.
Shocker is a film that often gets sharply criticized for being a mere retread of Craven’s masterwork A Nightmare on Elm Street, a criticism that holds a certain level of validity, yet I feel the film was intended to be more of a companion piece than a flat out retread. Both films feature a protagonist who is intricately connected to the film’s villain, the hero’s father is a police officer who is hiding the truth of the villain’s true past from the main character, a villain who spiritually arises from the dead to seek vengeance on those he believes wronged him, and nightmares guide large aspects of the plot and bring about the conclusion. Structurally, yeah, these films are pretty similar and an argument could be made that Craven was just looking to reclaim Freddy (which he had lost the rights to New Line upon getting the first film green lit) by reinventing him as Horace Pinker. But condemning the film for sharing many a likeness to one of his previous works is selling this film short. There is quite more here than meets the eye and when one looks to what the film has to say it is easy to see a strong film, laced with ideas and commentary on our society.
The base story has a young high school superstar named Jonathan Parker having precognitive nightmares that link him to a serial killer who is tearing through their small suburban town. His help is used to capture the killer identified by Parker as Horace Pinker and upon his execution via electric chair, Parker discovered that he may in fact be Pinker’s biological son, a secret kept hidden by his adoptive father, the chief lieutenant responsible for capturing Pinker. And when the electric current fails to destroy Piker’s soul, Pinker begins hopping from body to body to reap vengeance all the while Jonathan is struggling to cope with the loss of his beloved girlfriend Allison who Pinker murdered.
The film preys heavily at Jonathan’s heart; the fear that he will turn out like Pinker himself. That he is nothing more than a murderous time bomb for it is his lineage and he believes it inescapable. Craven described this film as an exorcism of his own father issues, going so far as to name the main character after his own son. He says on the film’s commentary; “I suppose there is a certain irony that I’m using the name of my own son in this movie about the struggles between fathers and sons, and I think, in some way, it was strangely on my mind…Trying to think of the possibility of myself being, you know, a better father to my son than, perhaps, my father was to me.” Nearly all of Craven’s previous works featured a dark father figure and rarely, if ever, do we get to see a father that is not shrouded in some form of darkness. This film was his catharsis.
Another re-emergent plot thread in many of his films is generational misunderstandings where youth seeks truth or tries to break free from past wrongs. This film handles the subject matter in a stronger way than ever before. On the commentary Craven spoke to the importance of this lingering theme in his works:
“Beginning with Nightmare, I was very interested in finding ways to break patterns that were between generations. Certainly between the generation of older people who could, you know, condone Vietnam and the young generation that could not. And also between Pinker and his son; whether or not the son could indeed sort of break the genetic chain and go a different way in his life. In my mind, that is one of the most important questions for human beings in general is whether or not we can stop doing what we’ve been doing for so long in the area of destruction and murder and mayhem and, you know, go in a different direction. That question seemed to me one of the ultimate questions. If you don’t believe that’s possible, then, well, I think a lot of the darkness and rage of modern art is justified.”
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Craven is speaking to the core of his filmic body of work, but what is unique here is that he offers his answer and that answer being exactly what Jonathan does at the end of this picture. Jonathan refuses to become Pinker. He effectively turns his back on him, similar to how Nancy (this time literally) turns her back on Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. His resolution to violence is to not participate in it. All of the world’s many flaws (which this film shows constantly throughout its run time on all the television sets), the wars, the violence could stop if people just opted to lay down the sword, in a manner of speaking. Averting your eyes from real world violence, delve into this film to see where he goes with this idea. It is very pointed that the film’s villain continues his bloodlust after he is executed through capital punishment. The violence is cyclical. Pinker was a murderer, who gets sentenced to death and lives on to murder some more. This is commonplace when one turns to Craven’s other works. Freddy, a child murdering rapist, is killed via vigilante justice and lives on to kill some more speaking to the allegory of the haunted pasts of victimized youth. Both Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes touch on this as well and make firm statements that the violence that the “good guys” participated in made them just as evil as the people they were skewering. They say that vengeance is a dish best served cold, but Craven’s works argue that vengeance may be a dish best never served at all.
Craven did another interesting thing with the film’s formula. First off, it is typical in a horror film to have a last standing, virginal Final Girl, but here he does a gender swap. The youth we follow in this film is a typical all-American jock but is still the virginal final girl (or boy) that come standard with the genre. Following this formula, the hero character must endure the loss of their significant other, which happens in this film with the character of Allison. This is where it starts to veer from the norm of genre constrictions. All too often in these films, you have a villain who is larger than life and seemingly all powerful but there is no antithesis to them. Sure Freddy had Nancy (or a handful of other disposable characters that oppose him in the Nightmare movies), Michael Meyers had Laurie Strode, and Jason has Tommy (I guess), but never have they a spiritual equal. The power of evil is whole and mighty, and those that are good merely are there to stand in the way. Shocker changes this. Allison has more screen time after her death than she does before offering herself as spiritual guide to Jonathan. In a scene that defined the film, her spirit goes up against Pinker’s and takes him out solely with the power of her goodness. She also inspires other characters who have been possessed by Pinker to eject the evil within them. This plot element came as both a surprise and fully elevated the film. It is simply never done and her use in the film is easily the film’s shining success!
Besides its similarities to Nightmare, the film’s only real flaw is Pinker himself. While a solid big bad, Freddy he is not. Though he is menacing and Mitch Pileggi plays him well, he isn’t really frightening and simply doesn’t fill you with fear which kinda hinders any horror movie. Ultimately, you watch this movie for the good guys. It offers a really fun, and inventive final showdown between Pinker and Jonathan and has some strong statements about violence. As I stated before, the film shows constant news reel loops of real world violence, which I feel Craven stuck in as a reminder to his critics as a way of saying, “sure you criticize the depravity of my movies but look to the world around you and tell me that my work is half as sinister as the real thing.” This is summated early on with a great little quote where he speaks directly to his critics when Jonathan says to someone complaining about the violent footage, “If you don’t like what you see on the news, Doreen, change the channel.” Shocker offered Craven a platform to come out and say things he toyed with in the past, but here his voice rings clear. He had great admiration for this film for that reason. It was the first time he was allowed full autonomy and he had it entered into his contracts moving forward after this film that each film he made after would be his own and not a studio bastardization. To that point, the film even with all its failings, offered Craven a huge success.