Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"S" is for Shocker

 Wes Craven's Shocker might not be the dumbest movie that I sat through during The ABCs of Movie Masochism, but it isn't for lack of effort.

 Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) is Horace Pinker, a serial killer (?) who brutally murders families. He can also apparently escape unseen, even when pursued by the police, despite his noticeable limp. Meanwhile, college football wide receiver Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg, who went on to direct The Rundown*, Friday Night Lights, and Battleship) runs into the goal post during practice and develops the ability to mentally link with Pinker while dreaming. Or something. It might also be because Parker is adopted and Pinker is his real father (SPOILER FOR THE FIRST 40 MINUTES).

 Anyway, Pinker kills Jonathan's adopted family, except for Lieutenant Donald Parker (Michael Murphy), so they track down the killer using his special ability. Just not before Pinker becomes obsessed with Jonathan and murders his girlfriend Alison (Cami Cooper). Eventually even the football team gets involved, particularly Coach Cooper (Over the Top's** Sam Scarber), assistant Pac Man (Oz: The Great and Powerful's "Theodore" Raimi), and linebacker Rhino (Richard Brooks). Pinker is electrocuted but develops the power to leap from body to body using electric pulses, or something, so he continues to hunt Parker while also killing people for kicks. Can Jonathan stop him before he becomes... um... invincible? That's also not very clear. In fact, not much about this movie makes sense, save for the reason it exists.

 It's evident that Craven and Universal wanted Shocker to be the first film in a series because they don't even bother actually killing Horace Pinker off at the end. He's still ranting and raving about how Jonathan had better "never turn on a TV again!" and then the movie just ends. As you'll see below, there are a myriad of reasons that Shocker failed to kickstart a new horror franchise, the least of which is how not scary it is.

 Maybe it's the incongruous heavy metal soundtrack that plays during the worst possible points, or maybe it's Mitch Pileggi's mega-acting from the first time we see him, but after the opening credits, Shocker is devoid of tension. The opening credits only really do anything because Craven is shamelessly ripping off the beginning of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Instead of making the gloves, we see someone building a television set, intercut with footage of war and various atrocities while a news reporter (John Tesh) mentions some unsolved murders. Fortunately for those who can't figure out what this has to do with a TV repairman, the guy building the TV uses a bloody knife as a screwdriver. Whew, I'm glad we cleared that up!

 The cat and mouse chase scenes between Pinker and Jonathan (and there are many) are about as exciting as watching paint dry, which is all the more evident because the dream sequences lifted from Nightmare are sometimes creepy, if not at least atmospheric. So when Craven isn't ripping himself off, the movie is boring or really, really silly. Like, everybody Pinker jumps into also limps like he does, which looks really bad when a little girl does it. I guess you could say that maybe it's supposed to be funny, but I think that Craven was trying to generate suspense (and failing miserably).

 What it lacks in tension, it also lacks in economy of storytelling: Shocker makes all the mistakes we now associate with comic book "origin" stories by devoting most of the film to explain how Horace Pinker becomes a supernatural villain and not enough to him being one. We spend the first thirty minutes of the movie following Jonathan and Lt. Don Parker chasing Pinker around, and the titular character doesn't even "die" until around the 40 minute mark. He doesn't realize that, as a ghost powered by electricity, that he can hide in a wall outlet until the 71 minute mark, and we're 80 minutes into Shocker before Pinker enters the television. That leaves less than 30 minutes of movie for him to go wild in.

 By "go wild," I mean "go from just being a dumb movie with some weird touches" to "being one of the stupidest movies I've seen." It's almost a shame that Shocker didn't take off, because there are so many inexplicably dumb plot elements that I don't know where to begin...

 There are skinned cats and black magic rituals involving Pinker hooked up with jumper cables (this is in his prison cell right before he's going to the electric chair!) and then nightmares that are also premonitions that Jonathan can use against Pinker. But wait, there's more! Jonathan's dead girlfriend goes from appearing in dreams to making a ghostly appearance to fight Pinker with the light of goodness (if it helps, think about the "time arrow" scene in Donnie Darko).

 Things go from "that's just a silly idea" to "oh no, he's not going to... oh yes he is" when Craven sends Jonathan and Pinker into the television to fight. We've already seen all of the stock footage of wars and nuclear explosions, but now we have the added benefit of watching Peter Berg and Mitch Pileggi awkwardly fight as though they're IN the footage. We also finally discover why the local news broadcaster is John Tesh - they interrupt his report about the two of them fighting through the channels. Okay, it doesn't really explain why it was John Tesh (and I'm merely assuming that he was playing himself), but it happens.

  And because that's not stupid enough, they also find themselves in an episode of Leave It to Beaver, an Alice Cooper video, and the movie Frankenstein, before leaping out to fight in the living room of a morbidly obese woman and her family (eating popcorn, of course) so that she can say "I've heard of audience participation but this is ridiculous!" And to top it all off, they jump back into the television to interrupt a televangelist (played by Timothy Leary) who was begging for money. Given the spiritual overtones of good defeating evil, I'm not certain why Craven felt the need to stick it to televangelists in Shocker, but since it's the second appearance in the film, I doubt it's coincidental.

 While I'm talking about the stupid and / or obvious storytelling in Shocker, it's probably worth mentioning all of the electrical / water imagery in the film: Jonathan sleeps on a waterbed which is next to his TV and his vibrating chair. All three are relevant as goodness is symbolized by the water (that's how Alison contacts him after she dies, either in water or emerging from the bathroom where Pinker killed her) and the evil (obviously) by electricity, which culminates in the ridiculous scene where Jonathan's chair turns into Pinker while he's sitting on it.

 Oh, and it's raining when Rhino and the rest of the football team cut the power to the town. You know, symbolism. Wes Craven is a deep dude.

 I have a hard time believing that Shocker was meant to be tongue-in-cheek because it's so bad at it. The actual jokes and one-liners are obvious (for example, when Pinker bites a cop's hand, he says "finger food!") and the more absurd elements are handled in such a straightforward manner that it only increases how ridiculous they are. There's a slightly goofy tone early in the film - especially when Jonathan is at practice - but it goes away for most of the movie while the police are chasing Pinker. After he dies, the movie slowly gets weirder and weirder but maintains an earnest tone. It's hard not to watch Shocker and not be confused as to what the hell you're seeing.

 Shocker's story is like comparing the first Nightmare on Elm Street to the first episode of Freddy's Nightmares, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," which is about Fred Krueger's trial and culminates in him being burned alive. It was the back story nobody needed, just like the first 2/3rds of Shocker. Appropriately, Craven (who wrote the episode in question) borrows "No More Mr. Nice Guy" for Shocker: a cover of the Alice Cooper song (by Megadeth) plays DURING the scene when Pinker is scheduled for electrocution, and then Pinker says it to Jonathan. IMDB has it listed an an "alternate title," so maybe Wes Craven felt it was a nice way to subliminally connect his new horror franchise killer to his most famous. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it didn't work.

 This is not to say things didn't work out for Craven; after unsuccessfully trying to create a new franchise (not usually the best idea), he struck gold with the meta-slasher Scream and turned it into a series that people remember as well as they do A Nightmare on Elm Street. Okay, that's maybe stretching it a little, but for a certain generation he's the dude who brought you Ghostface and not Freddy. Stupid millennials.But the point is that it worked out for him and eventually (as they do with all of his movies), someone will remake Shocker. I may live to eat these words, but I find it hard to imagine that it could be any stupider than the original, which is the only reason anybody remembers Shocker in the first place.

 * Featuring The Last Stand and Red Heat's Arnold Schwarzenegger
 ** Featuring Bullet to the Head's Sylvester Stallone.

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