Shocker (1989)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #369

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: 27 October 1989 (USA)
Sub-Genre: Supernatural/Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 109 minutes
Budget: $5,000,000
Box Office: $16,554,699 (USA)
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Warren Chadwick, Wes Craven, Bob Engelman, Peter Foster, Shep Gordon, Barin Kumar, Marianne Maddalena
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Special Effects: Robert Phillips, David L. Hewitt, Larry Fioritto
Cinematography: Jacques Haitkin
Score: Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper, William Goldstein
Editing: Andy Blumenthal
Studios: Alive Films, Carolco Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, Cami Cooper, Mitch Pileggi, Sam Scarber, Ted Raimi, Keith Anthony-Lubow-Bellamy, Heather Langenkamp, Virginia Morris, John Tesh, Jessica Craven, Emily Samuel, Richard Brooks

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Suggested Audio Candy

Megadeth “No More Mr. Nice Guy”

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By the late eighties, Wes Craven had relinquished the reins on the once cherished Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and Freddy Krueger had become castrated by a slew of increasingly inane sequels. With The Dream Child already in the works and not destined to buck the trend, Craven knew he had to think on his feet if he wished to maintain the controlling stake in modern-day horror so he attempted to emulate his own success with a character every bit as nefarious, equally pervasive, and able to match the dream weaver stride for stride when it came to skulduggery. Horace Pinker was born and had every intention of retiring Krueger, although nothing worked out quite how Wes initially hoped.

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Shocker was greeted with indifference by horror aficionados and largely lambasted by critics thus, despite turning a modest profit on his investment, Craven decided against continuing to fund Pinker’s exploits and the film ended up consigned to bargain bins. While it saddens Keeper to watch promise go unfulfilled, it has to be said, that he made a rod for his own back when failing to capitalize on a sound premise. If the director was looking to wrestle the limelight from Freddy, then his set-up allowed him a similar degree of freedom to operate. Americans had already conceded that sleep was a necessary evil and the cantankerous cable guy preyed on insecurities once more, this time maneuvering by way of transmitted television signal. This afforded him similarly malleable boundaries and it could have been so much different with a little more percolation.

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If I have a complaint with Craven, and bearing in mind he has churned out many decent movies during his tenure, then it would be that he fails to extend his reach on occasion. Shocker is a prime example of that and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was somewhat herded onto the marketplace before certain issues could be ironed out. The MPAA halted its arrival and, thirteen submissions later and after numerous cuts, finally granted its R rating. Wes wasted no time in setting the marketing machine in motion and his initial promise of a character to blind side us to Krueger’s indiscretions was never realized. The reason for this is no slight against Shocker as a spectacle, it’s never less than thoroughly enjoyable and has plentiful moments to savor courtesy of the demented Pinker. However, audiences found him a little one-dimensional, ironic seeing as his madness was facilitated via all three.

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Personally, I think there is much to love about Mitch Pileggi’s role as televisual tormentor. Granted, he is decidedly one-note and only driven by a lust for blood, but that need not be a negative as bloated back story is superfluous to requirements here. We are never required to learn what truly drives his insatiable appetite for destruction, simply to be present when he wrecks his unfussy havoc on anyone foolhardy enough to populate his path. His prefered method of travel is an audacious concept as his murderous bidding is encouraged by the fact that every home in America is now in possession of a television set. This provides an infinite sandbox and he is playful, while remaining inimitable and largely inevitable throughout. Pileggi gives his all and it shows.

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Where Shocker falls short of greatness is its staid script and an uninspiring turn by Peter Berg as Pinker’s chosen playmate, aspiring college jock football prospect Jonathan Parker. He struggles to emote and this is largely due to the lack of thought and necessitated investment in his character by Craven’s occasionally insipid screenplay. Parker travels directly to hell, then back, and the cycle perpetuates itself over the course of 109 minutes as his nearest and dearest are put to task in all manner of grisly ways by his opposite number and his attitude is a tad too devil-may-care to pray for his safe passage although you can’t fault his college try enthusiasm. Any tertiary characters are rendered largely superfluous other than to gift us another thrilling set-piece and elaborate dispatch and, as a result, this renders the whole affair vaguely muted despite Pinker’s ability to make plenty of noise.

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Where I disagree with the lion’s share of this film’s multitude of adversaries is that Craven knows precisely what is required to do just enough. He hides his foibles well beneath a glossy coat of grue and a lightning fast pace which makes a mockery of its protracted runtime. The use of dream logic affords him the opportunity of crafting some typically nightmare scenarios and we’re never at a loss for a talking point, which primes Shocker rather well for repeat viewing. Despite the tenuous links with Elm Street in terms of the overall flavor of his dish, James Isaac’s slightly superior The Horror Show from the same year is possibly its closest cousin. Both our antagonists fall foul to the electric chair although Jenke takes the volts straight to the dick whereas Pinker’s plight isn’t aided by his bald head. In addition, they travel the same circles, with television playing its part in both movies. Jenke 1 Pinker 0 then, although only by the tip of Brion James’ elongated hooter.

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I have heard a lot of vitriolic bile being spewed in Craven’s direction for missing the beat with Shocker and I have to say that I’m in two minds. The facts speak for themselves, Horace never realized his dream to lure us away from the leafy suburbs of Elm Street, in favor of another set of similarly leafy suburbs but he did provide us with a rollicking soundtrack featuring the likes of Alice Cooper and Megadeth amongst others, wasn’t afraid to exhibit meanness of spirit, and even gift wrapped with a hefty bloody bow. In many respects it is akin to that third favorite Christmas gift. You thank your folks, have your fun with it for short burst periods, then consign it to the closet for a rainy day. While that may seem like a slight against its character, there are far worse weapons to have in your arsenal once the cloud bursts.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: If there’s one thing that I took from Shocker it was never to plant a kiss on the lips of my cable guy when he finally sorted my wayward tracking. Horace Pinker is feeling mean and Megadeth’s anthemic No More Mr. Nice Guy speaks volumes for his indifference towards being rehabilitated. The special effects are direct and ably implemented as you would expect from a Craven picture. Pinkies are chewed off (then spat back out in the uncensored cut), hands stabbed, heads turned a full three sixty, and the aftermath of Jonathan’s family’s decimated bloodline is a particularly distressing highlight. Meanwhile, the channel hopping conclusion evidently influenced Peter Hyams’ marvellous satire Stay Tuned three years later and offers a fitting showdown.

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Read The Horror Show Appraisal

Read A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Appraisal

Read Trick or Treat (1986) Appraisal

Read Prison Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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