Make a Case #2— Wes Craven’s SHOCKER (1989)

Welcome to the 2nd Make a Case here at Father Son Holy Gore— the inaugural column, way back last year, is available here. Make a Case is a new series here on the site. It looks back at films that had potential to be interesting but never quite hit the mark.

This time around we’re focusing on the oft-maligned Wes Craven flick Shocker, rightfully not considered one of the master’s best works.  At the tail end of the 1980s— arguably the greatest decade in the genre, depending on who you talk to— there were plenty of slasher flicks reaching for ways to spice up the sub-genre, after Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Chucky, Angela Baker, and more had already torn up the box office to various degrees.
Craven tried to write another supernatural-style villain, miles away from Freddy. He combined the old myth of a prisoner surviving the electric chair with technology, which is partly where he went wrong, by not going deep enough into certain compelling themes from either premise. What he did get right is Horace Pinker (played with disturbing, gleeful delight by Mitch Pileggi)— a vicious, worthy slasher villain. A significant portion comes right out of Pileggi’s performance. Some does come from Craven’s writing and his willingness to make a nasty character to propel the visceral horror.

Not a lot to love in Shocker. Make a Case is going to look at the ways the film could benefit from a remake. There could’ve been much to love, particularly with Craven at the helm. It’d be a fun title to see someone remake these days. Part of Make a Case’s whole purpose is to look at films that NEED to be remade, rather than the popular titles being remade for a cash grab by studios. From special effects to the writing itself, this lesser Craven would benefit a look back, and the talents of a hungry horror filmmaker to reshape the concept into something fresh for the 21st century.
Father Son Holy Gore - Shocker - Pinker StaticBecause there’s a huge supernatural element merged with technology later, the earlier supernatural angle involving Peter Berg’s character, Jonathan Parker, feels like overkill. In the beginning, Jonathan has inexplicable dreams allowing him to see what Pinker’s doing, giving him a front seat show to a horrific family murder. Berg’s character is disposable. He’d be better worked into a character without psychic ability. As it stands, the plot with Jonathan feels like Craven got lazy while writing and ham-fisted a way for the young football star to be connected to Pinker into his screenplay.

There could’ve been a connection to Pinker via Jonathan’s father, a police lieutenant. If you remove the psychic element, Pinker still comes into contact with the family, and the screenplay remains able to arrive at the serial killer’s arrest / execution where the supernatural-tech plot would kick off fine. The serial killer’s black magic at least helps explain, to some degree, his arc. Jonathan’s psychic powers come off as bloat and a cheap method of allowing him to follow the killer after Horace becomes a roaming entity post-execution. The supernatural part of Pinker becomes scarier without the other added bits, too. Like My Soul to Take after it, Shocker was weighed down with too much contrived story for its plot(s) to handle, forcing unnecessary connections between characters rather than creating a plot that flows organically. A Nightmare on Elm Street, while supernatural at its core, also contains a brilliantly layered story behind the film’s basic plot of teens haunted by a scary dream man. Simple yet wildly effective.

Craven makes a point of including the justice system in Shocker, and in doing so, he shoots himself in the foot. Jonathan’s psychic ability creates a major legal plot hole, in that the case against Pinker would’ve been tossed out for lack of sufficient evidence, seeing as how Jonathan’s telepathic link is the only legitimate evidentiary connection to the crimes. If Craven didn’t make the legal system— specifically capital punishment— an integral piece of the story, this wouldn’t be an issue. Again, it’s an instance of lazy writing, where a hole in the plot could’ve been addressed or rewritten entirely. Instead it makes everything a bit more foolish than it is already.Father Son Holy Gore - Shocker - Bloody PinkerShocker has the makings of a fantastic social horror— don’t forget, Craven’s been doing this brand of terror since The Last House on the Left. No stretch to imagine someone capable writing an updated script for 2019 / beyond that takes the screenplay into compelling directions when it comes to capital punishment, critical media / TV theory, and other worthy subjects.

One of the immediately obvious angles in the screenplay is capital punishment. Pinker’s quickly arrested, tried, and put to death by electric chair. There’s a number of ways a screenwriter could run with this aspect. Father Gore’s choice would be to use the plot to explore societal repercussions of supporting capital punishment. Craven already has a great, disturbing scene in his ’89 film that speaks strongly to a deeper look at the morality of the electric chair. The chair’s shown in an almost celebratory light while metal music plays like a music video in which the chair’s the star. Distressingly glorified. Although if the theme were played up and made more prominent there’s lots of exciting, grim places this slasher flick could go.
Pinker’s whole supernatural rampage after death can act as the haunting of an entire society / system / institution with Althusserian implications— it’d be ripe for a whole franchise of sequels if done right. One scene in particular where Pinker uses a cop— part of the repressive state apparatus— as a tactic of revenge against Jonathan, who helped put him in the chair, is a solid example of how Craven was headed in the right direction.

Another metaphor Pinker serves well is the idea of TV / media as a destructive force in society. He worships television: the credits have a Freddy Krueger-like montage with Horace working away in his garage between close-ups of screens, and later, in prison awaiting his execution, he conducts a black magic ritual in reverence of the TV, giving him his eventual spooky powers. Most of the metaphor already exists in Craven’s film. Especially those moments with Horace, whether as himself or in the body of someone else, quipping taglines out of ads (KFC’s “Finger licking good!”) and referencing titles of popular songs (“No More Mr. Nice Guy” used as a line of dialogue in synergy with a cover of the Alice Cooper tune done by Megadeth on the film’s soundtrack + footage of Cooper’s 86 The Nightmare Returns tour during another scene).
Pinker’s serial killer nickname, the Family Slasher, fits right in place with this theme. The Family Slasher, who literally annihilates whole families, is put in direct parallel with TV / media as a perceived societal ill, figuratively tearing families apart— in fact, today this theme would be more interesting than in the ’80s with the proliferation of so much more technology many people feel is ruining society.Father Son Holy Gore - Shocker - Newspaper

“This is screwball beyond belief”

Father Son Holy Gore - Shocker - TV RitualImagine Horace Pinker bellowing “Im nationwide now” as he not only moves through TV programs, battling against Jonathan while they go, but also takes over the airwaves, from radio to television. Imagine the power he could wield by entering a satellite and controlling all arms of the media! Just a minuscule drop in a sea of ideas that lie beneath the surface of Craven’s existing concept for Shocker.

Craven has given us so much horror to stand the test of time. In death, he reigns as one of the Masters of Horror. Anybody who’d question that, frankly, is crazy. Shocker doesn’t rank near among his best. Doesn’t mean there isn’t exciting stuff going on, which hopefully Make a Case has made somewhat evident. The Hills Have Eyes was a good flick when Craven made it— Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur improved it with their 2006 update— and for one of his not-so-hot properties a fresh re-imagining would work wonders. There’s already a dedicated base of fans who love the film. Father Gore’s one of them, in spite of all its glaring flaws.
We can dream of the day when some executive decides this needs to be dusted off for a brand new audience. Better than watching the endless Hollywood machine produce remakes to bolster their revenue. Occasionally they’re done right. We’re seeing it now with a new, unexpectedly cool Child’s Play, and there have been great remakes in the past, like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Maniac, Evil Dead, The Crazies, and others.

More important than any of all this, what do YOU think?
Would you go see a Shocker reboot?
What other horror film would you like to see remade? Sound off in the comments.
Let Father Gore know what you’d like to see for a future Make a Case!

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