Collins’ Crypt: Why SHOCKER Is My Go-To Wes Craven Film

BC rambles about his 25-year love of a not well-loved movie.

Not for nothing, but if Scream Factory had listened to me sooner their Shocker Blu-ray wouldn't exist in such a melancholy state. I've been bugging them for years to put the film out on their label, and when they finally took my advice I thought its release would be the happiest day of my life. But alas, Wes Craven's sudden passing last week made its copious bonus features practically gut-wrenching to watch and listen to, as just about every person interviewed says how they would jump at the chance to work with him again. Mitch Pileggi even relates how he was in a recent film that Wes produced (The Girl in the Photographs), and how the Master was still planning on producing a remake of Shocker, as he had done to great success with two of his older films (Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left). This wasn't a guy who died long after retirement - he was actively working on projects that will never come to fruition.

But he obviously leaves many genuine classics behind; it's been pointed out numerous times that he made huge impacts in the horror genre in three different decades, with Last House in the '70s, Nightmare on Elm Street in the '80s, and Scream in the '90s, but those are hardly the only films that make up his legacy. Hills Have Eyes, People Under the Stairs and The Serpent and the Rainbow can comfortably share breath with those films, and then he's got New Nightmare, Scream 2 and Red Eye for good measure. But in my house, the name "Wes Craven" is and always will be synonymous with Shocker, his 1989 attempt to create a new Freddy Krueger in Horace Pinker (Pileggi), a serial killer who returned from the grave with the ability to possess bodies and travel through electricity and television signals. The film has been erroneously referred to as a failure because there was never a Shocker 2, but that is far from accurate - it grossed nearly 4x its production budget and outgrossed that year's Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels (not Nightmare 5, natch), yet those movies didn't end their series. In fact, if you look at boxofficemojo, it's pretty clear that the movie was doing well for a horror film, with minimal drops from week to week (horror films tend to plummet on their second weekend, but it only dropped one position - even beating Freddy himself in Phantom of the Opera). That only happens if audiences are coming back (and not telling all their friends to stay away), and the film's box office held on well even after Halloween had passed, so I suspect the aborted Shocker 2 was more a victim of the general moving away from the slasher sub-genre than its actual performance within it.

Sadly, I wasn't one of those ticket buyers. In 1989, I was still not allowed to go see R-rated movies in theaters (that would change the following year with Die Hard 2), but in fact I actually never even heard of the movie until my friend showed me the soundtrack album. I guess it's fitting that the soundtrack would be my introduction to the film, as it has played a huge part of its enduring legacy*, and also because my friends are just as fond of mocking my taste in music as they are of mocking my love of this particular film. At ten years old, I wasn't really into any particular kind of music beyond a few soundtracks (I had the Little Shop of Horrors album, I know that much) and the occasional song I'd hear in my parents' car that struck my fancy. So it's safe to say I had never heard anything like Megadeth (or even Alice Cooper, whose song they were covering), Iggy Pop or Dangerous Toys, to the point where it almost felt like I was getting away with something by listening to it. Indeed, my dad DID confiscate my own copy of the soundtrack a year or two later, after hearing and taking offense to the "satanic" lyrical twist of the Lord's Prayer in "Shockdance" ("In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, this unholy ghost, has only just begun!"), leaving my Walkman Dudes of Wrath-free for a while. Luckily, my dad was an all right guy (or just lazy) so he didn't even throw the tape away - he just put it in a drawer, so it didn't take long for me to get it back (I think I just grabbed the tape and put a blank in its case, master of deception that I am).

It wasn't long after my friend introduced me to the album that we rented the movie for a sleepover, rewinding the TV-channel climax at LEAST 20x that night and laughing hysterically every single time at "Who the hell is that guy?" (when they run through a war movie). Needless to say I was a fan, and we would rent the movie a few more times over the following couple years before I finally bought a real copy of it (a used VHS copy that I still have in my possession).  At the time I thought it was one of the goriest movies I had ever seen, though as an adult I recognize that they were able to get more blood on-screen by showing it in aftermath - the blood-covered bathroom where Pinker kills the hero's girlfriend, or dripping down the corpse of the cop whose throat he had slit. There really isn't much on-screen violence of note in the film, but when you're ten you don't think about stuff like that - only that there were a lot of bodies and a LOT of blood, an element that was excised from the other newer horror films I was watching like Jason Takes Manhattan.

Another thing that made the film stand out to me was the fact that the hero was a guy. Tommy Jarvis aside (who always had a living female with him), even at ten I was accustomed to seeing a girl fight the slasher killer at the end of the movie, and I distinctly recall being kind of shocked that Alison dies 20 minutes or so into the movie (she lives on as a ghost). Obviously Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg, nine years away from directing his first film) was a lot older than me, but it was still exciting to see someone I could kind of identify with as the hero of a cool horror movie with a bitching soundtrack and lots of blood. It was a formative movie, is what I'm saying, and while I recognize that Wes' more acclaimed works are better films, Shocker is my favorite of the bunch. Call it nostalgia blindness or whatever, I don't care - I've seen it far more times than anything else he's made, have had the one-sheet up on my wall for well over a decade, own multiple copies of the soundtrack (tape, CD, vinyl, plus the score), the novelization... hell, the cover of the upcoming (I promise!) Horror Movie A Day book is a parody of the film's poster.  When I went to the premiere of the Hills Have Eyes remake and knew I'd get the chance to have Wes sign something, there was no question of what item from my collection I would get immortalized with his scribble:

So it may surprise anyone who knows me that I am actually sad that a Shocker remake will likely never come to pass (if so, it would obviously be without Wes' involvement, and we know how remakes of his movies made without his participation turn out). Soundtrack aside, I know all too well that the film has some problems - it's just unfortunate that I only really learned of them when I hosted a screening of it at the New Beverly (with Wes and three of the actors in attendance**). It was a dream come true for me to even SEE the movie theatrically, let alone host it and get to talk to its creator beforehand, but after about 20-25 minutes I started to finally understand, 20 years later, why some people didn't like the movie. When you're at home (and usually watching alone) some things just don't register, but on a big screen, at 1 am (it was a midnight screening and the Q&A was BEFORE the movie so Wes could leave if he wanted to. For the record, he didn't), and when you're responsible for bringing 150 people there, you start to notice things.

Things like the fact that the movie takes way too long to get to the fun part. Ask anyone what Shocker is about and they will likely say something like "the killer who's in the TV, right?", but that part is only the film's third act. And even if they bring up the body swapping part, that's actually only act two - and at 110 minutes it's not exactly a short film (the Elm Street films it was often compared to all hovered around 90 minutes). It takes 40 minutes just for Pinker to get caught and sentenced to death (thank Christ he seems to be sent to the chair a week after his arrest; a trial sequence could have put this thing over two hours), and I could feel the crowd getting restless. The FX, never the movie's strong suit, also looked that much worse when seeing it 40x as big as I ever had before, but thankfully the bulk of those dodgy shots come in near the end, once the movie had won the audience back with foul-mouthed children, more of Pinker's one-liners ("Kick his ass!") and more selections from the soundtrack. Surely a remake would speed things up to get to that stuff sooner, but without Wes being the one to make that call, I have zero interest in finding out how they handle it.

(Video courtesy of Marc Pilvinsky)

As I mentioned, it was tough to listen to the new commentary (Wes' track is an older one from a European release, available in Region 1 for the first time) and the interviews, because everyone is talking about Wes in the present tense and how much they'd love to work with him again. I got the disc weeks ago, but real life prevented me from really diving into it until a few days after he had passed away. But fittingly, it found a way to make a permanent mark; I actually DID put the disc on the day it came in the mail, but as I was trying to watch the bonus feature about the film's soundtrack (!) my baby son opted to try walking for the first time. A video camera was grabbed in time to catch a few of those first steps (and subsequent tumbles), and while I was no longer paying attention to the screen those videos all have snippets of "Sword and Stone" or "Demon Bell" in the background. A longtime fan of Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" ("Planes to catch, and bills to pay/He learned to walk while I was away"), I had been fearing that I would miss that big moment - it's all too fitting that the proof that I hadn't has a bit of Shocker built into it.

I think everyone has that one questionable movie among their favorites, one that even people who enjoy things of that nature (in this case, '80s slasher horror movies) might raise an eyebrow when they hear it's among someone's top 20 favorite films of all time.  As long as you recognize that it's just got that je ne sais quoi and plays to your sensibilities, there's no need to be ashamed about it. I'm proud to be a Shocker fan. I'm proud that my pestering of Scream Factory finally paid off.  And even if he had long forgotten about it, I'm even more proud that I got the chance to prove my love in person with the man who created it.

RIP, Wes. And thanks.

(Possibly my first ever "selfie," taken as Wes walked away after signing the book.  At the time, long before I wrote for any websites, I assumed it was the only time I'd ever get to meet him. Glad I was wrong.)

 

* I once interviewed Wes and the topic of the remake came up, and he explained some of his reasons for wanting to update it. I asked him if he could retain the soundtrack, and he quickly grinned and sang "Shocker!" in the tune of the film's theme song. It was the best thing.

** One of the actors, I won't say who, is the reason this video isn't on the Blu-ray, which was planned and would have made my entire life worthwhile. But this actor didn't sign the release (even Wes, who was apparently battling brain cancer, managed to do that), so they couldn't use it. Sigh.

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