ShockerWes Craven put some interesting ideas into play in this film, but it doesn’t really work. Blame a fraught shoot, and the fact that Craven was attempting in vain to create a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-like franchise.

SHOCKER (1989) was the first of two films Wes Craven made for the art house outfit Alive Films (who also backed John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE). It was Craven’s third effort after hitting it big with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984…and watching the material become a parody of itself in a succession of crappy sequels. SHOCKER was intended as the first entry in a proposed franchise about serial killer Horace Pinker that was fashioned, believe it or not, to compete with the NIGHTMARE films. Obviously SHOCKER, whose shoot was reportedly extremely difficult, failed in that ambition.

Look for NIGHTMARE’S Heather Langenkamp, Sam Raimi’s bro Ted, Wes Craven’s daughter Jessica and his son Jonathan, all of whom turn up in small roles. Also appearing are sixties drug guru Timothy Leary and, in the lead, future director Peter Berg.

Jonathan is a small town high school football player turned police lieutenant. A particularly disquieting dream inspires Jonathan to spearhead a raid on a shack where a deranged cable repairman named Horace Pinker resides. The latter escapes after offering four of Jonathan’s fellow officers, and later breaks into Jonathan’s house when he’s out and mutilates his wife.

A distraught Jonathan has another dream, this one set in a downtown tenement. He heads to said tenement and Pinker is captured. He’s put on death row, with Jonathan making sure to be in the front for Pinker’s execution via electric chair. What neither Jonathan nor anyone else in attendance knows is that Pinker has made some kind of supernatural pact that allows him to gain power through electricity. Hence, after being fried in the electric chair Pinker takes over the body of a woman police inspector—and then a male officer who tracks down Jonathan.

From there Pinker possesses the body of a jogger and then a little girl(!), then the girl’s mother, and then a construction worker…and so on. He eventually enters into the electric grid itself, which apparently gives Pinker the power to jump in and out of peoples’ TV sets. Jonathan gains a similar power through his dreams, and chases Pinker through various televised landscapes and out into a woman’s living room.

Directorially this isn’t one of Wes Craven’s more distinguished efforts. The first half is essentially a police procedural, and a crummy one. Craven was clearly trying to distance himself from, or at least expand upon, his horror movie roots, yet the remainder of the film plays like a haphazard grab bag of ideas filched from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and Jack Shoulder’s THE HIDDEN (perhaps Craven, who claims Shoulder ripped off his NIGHTMARE script for 1984’s DREAMSCAPE, was returning the favor?).

Marred by overacting, overambitious special effects and too many familiar elements, the film never comes together. There are many things that could have been good, most notably the surreal TV chase climax, which affords a glimpse of how interesting and unprecedented the film might have turned out had Craven been more daring.

Worse, the proceedings are self-conscious and posturing in a way A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET wasn’t. SHOCKER is actually closer to the NIGHTMARE sequels with its wise-cracking villain and clunky narrative that appears to have been conceived around the special effects. Craven was trying to establish a franchise character with SHOCKER’S Horace Pinker, but the fact that Pinker possesses the bodies of others (and so spends much of the film offscreen) severely cuts back on his recognizeability.

There are some inspired bits outside the abovementioned surreal climax. The use of a little girl as one of Pinker’s vessels was offensive to many, but the sequence where it occurs is one of the film’s funniest. Speaking of which, I feel SHOCKER works best as a comedy rather than the intended scare fest–even if most of the laughs are unintentional!

Vital Statistics

Alive Films

Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Barin Kumar, Marianne Maddalena
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Jacques Haitkin
Editing: Andy Blumenthal
Cast: Peter Berg, Michael Murphy, Mitch Pileggi, Sam Scarber, Camille Cooper, Ted Raimi, Keith Anthony-Lubow-Bellamy, Heather Langenkamp, Virginia Morris, John Tesh, Jessica Craven, Jonathan Craven, Timothy Leary