Jan 21, 2020

SHOCKER (1989)

It's been just under five years since Wes Craven's death and it still feels very surreal and wrong that he's gone. On that sad evening in August, the news of his death began circulating throughout the web, especially on social media, and people were sharing their surprise and dismay that the man who had created so many nightmares (literally and figuratively) for legions of moviegoers was gone. Memorials and tributes began cropping up all over the place to examine the man's legacy, his fingerprints on the horror genre, and the films he left behind.

It's a strange, strange feeling to have experienced such a loss for someone many mourners never knew personally, but yet at the same time felt like family. How is that even possible? How can a perfect stranger, who did nothing more than create a handful of boogeyman and rob us from a few nights of sleep, leave a friend- or family-sized hole behind in the wake of his death? Because, for the horror genre, he's been an ever-constant presence in our homes. It was through his sensibilities as captured on film with A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Hills Have Eyes, or any number of documentary-driven examinations on horror in which he eagerly took part, that he became so well known to us all. There was no mistaking that soft-spoken voice, that kind and somewhat shy smile, and his incredibly nuanced and levelheaded approach to the genre, and why it was important.

In the fantastic horror documentary The American Nightmare, Craven had said:
“[Horror films are] boot camps for the psyche. It’s strengthening [kids’] egos and strengthening their fortitude… That’s something the parents never seem to think about… Even if [the films] are giving them nightmares, there’s something there that’s needed.”
In a really strange way, Craven became a father to us all - concocting on paper and then on film an array of boogeymen to scare us to our wit's end, not just so we could leave the theater laughing at the rush only a horror film can bring, but to prepare us for the real world...where things are much scarier, and much more dangerous.

In the days following his death, there was an appropriate amount of people who openly mourned, but there were also a faction of those who stated, unromantically, "Wes Craven actually made a lot of bad movies." And maybe that's true. Maybe many, or most, of Craven's films never managed to reach the scare-tinged heights of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the clever ingenuity of Scream, or the naked and honest brutality of The Last House on the Left, but no director on earth - living nor dead - is free of their own collection of mediocrity. One of the most celebrated genre directors ever to have lived, a man named Hitchcock, was not even free of such infallibility, and when he died, no Internet armchair critic was opining about all the bad films he made.

Which leads us, perhaps unceremoniously, to Shocker.

To call Horace Pinker a cheap Freddy Krueger re-appropriation wouldn't be a slight against the departed Craven, who has freely admitted over the years that his signing away of all rights to A Nightmare on Elm Street (which, in case you didn't know, generated enough money, along with its subsequent sequels, to establish the studio that would then go on to produce the Lord of the Rings trilogy) directly led to Shocker, in hopes that Craven could shape a new movie maniac with enough familiarity that it would create its own franchise which he could then control (and profit from).

That did not happen.

Man who comes out of your TV was no match for man who comes out of your nightmares.

Taken on its own merit, Shocker is very okay, if at times a little too silly, with an electric! (ugh) performance from Mitch Pileggi. Craven has always tried to mix humor into his horror films, and while this has often worked (Scream), other times the two very conflicting tones just don't work well together (Last House). For something like Shocker, in which a discorporated serial killer can travel through electrical circuits and end up on television shows, yeah, humor was to be expected. A silly movie would look even sillier if there wasn't a sly sense of humor throughout the whole thing.

Though you may not be able to tell by the finished product, Shocker was based on several distinct inspirations, from other films to Craven's own personal life. The construct of the film was inspired by a combination of 1951's The Thing From Another World and 1987's The Hidden, directed by Jack Sholder...who, quite ironically, had directed 1985's Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Personally, Craven has previously noted the tense relationship he had with his father, whom he described as "angry," and how the making of Shocker was an exorcism of sorts for his feelings toward him. Of the scene where Michael Murphy's recently possessed character tries to convince his son (Peter Berg) that he's fine, and that he's taken control, only to reveal that it was Pinker all along, Craven chuckled and observed, "I dunno, I guess I have trust issues."

The most striking thing about Shocker is how very similar it all plays out to A Nightmare on Elm Street - so much that Craven, while viewing the film for the first time since its post-production, admitted to being taken aback by all the similarities.

Shocker isn't a "great" addition to Craven's filmography, but in an odd way, it is essential viewing, if only to see a filmmaker retreading familiar ground in a different environment simply because that's where his sensibilities led him. However you may feel about Shocker, it's a pure, unfiltered Wes Craven film. And it's worth seeing for that alone.

Celebrate the catalogs of those filmmakers you revere. Lesser entries still have a lot of merit, and much to offer to completist viewers. Though it will never be spoken about with as much reverence as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker very much contains Craven's aesthetic and sensibilities in every frame - not just in the usage of the dream relationships and walking premonitions, but in the power of the youth who are unable to depend on the nearest adult and have no choice but to take care of it themselves.

Father to us all, indeed.

Rest easy, Professor Craven. You are still very missed.

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