Whatcha Craven?: Shocker (1989)

This film is called Shocker. I want to state right away that it in no way has anything to do with The Shocker, and if you don’t know what that is, well, I’m not going to tell you. All I can tell you is that tonight’s entry of Whatcha Craven is not full of too many surprises. Well, there was one surprise for me, but thankfully it wasn’t an uncomfortable one, merely unfortunate.

In 1989, Wes Craven was desperate to spawn another franchise. Feeling like he hadn’t been paid all the money he was owed by New Line for the Nightmare series, he took a new idea to Universal in hopes that it would spawn sequels and residuals for years to come. The end result however had more in common with Nightmare on Elm Street 4-6 than Wes’ original masterpiece. With Shocker, Craven didn’t bother to try and recapture his former glory, and instead churned out a film that played right into what many horror fans feel are the weak points of Freddy’s final adventures.

Shocker is the story of Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) a serial killer who’s already killed seven whole families and gotten away without a trace. When the cops do begin to close in, Pinker lashes out and kills lead detective Don Parker’s (Michael Murphy) whole family. After an accident, Parker’s foster son Jonathan (Peter Berg), who now lives on his own and is a football star at the local college, develops a connection to Pinker through his dreams. Eventually, Jonathan is able to lead the police to Pinker and the killer is caught, jailed, and sent to the electric chair. Pinker, who practices black magic, has made some kind of unholy pact, and after he is electrocuted, his soul lives on and he gains the ability to possess people and keep on killing. With the help of his dead girlfriend Allison (Cami Cooper), it’s up to Jonathan to come up with a way to defeat the body hopping, TV dwelling, electric killer.

I have to admit I was a bit confused when it came to this film. I had strong recollections of really enjoying it, but sometimes, as we get older, tastes change, memories fade, or worse yet, it’s not even the movie you remember it being. I completely had this movie confused with the much, much better and extremely similar film The Horror Show (1989) starring Lance Henrikson and Brion James. How this ever slipped my mind I’ll never know. I even had the good fortune to meet Mr. James at a sci fi convention in the early nineties and he was extremely surprised to have someone tell him how much they liked The Horror Show. Unfortunately, that fine film is out of print while this Wes Craven stinker still remains.

The main problem with Shocker is that as the film moves through its 109 minute running time what starts off as an interesting premise slowly becomes an almost unbearable exercise in foolishness. Mitch Pileggi, who would later achieve fame as Skinner on the X-Files, begins the film playing Horace Pinker as a ruthless cold blooded killer, but by the time the credits roll he’s reduced to spouting one liners that would make Henny Youngman cry. What is it about becoming a supernatural slasher that makes antagonists feel the desire to reel off puns and quips? Well, in this case, I think it was the cold hard cash that the Nightmare films were still taking in.

Craven wanted what he felt like was his, and so he proceeded to rip off anything that was theirs. Take for example the fact that Jonathan can track down Horace in his dreams, sounds a little familiar, right? How about Jonathan’s cop father who won’t believe a word his kid says about the killer? How about an appearance from Heather Langenkamp, Nancy from the original Nightmare? Sure, it was neat to see her in a cameo role in Craven’s film, but it just felt like more of Craven lifting from the successful franchise. The film, which starts off as a derivative but interesting slasher, devolves into a mess of desperate copycatting. Wes was just coming off the success of 1989’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, and for the life of me I can’t understand what made him stoop this low after hitting an artistic height with his previous film.

While Pileggi makes the most of his role (even the campy parts), the same can’t be said of his co-stars. Peter Berg, the future star of TV medical drama Chicago Hope, is just plain bad as the football star on the killer’s trail. He alternates from over-emoting to underselling his lines, and frankly, neither of the two was very good. Even as his girlfriend, coach, and pals get killed off by Pinker, I could never really get empathize with Berg’s Jonathan. Mr. Berg, I know Nancy, and you sir, are no Nancy.

The film does sport some pretty cool performances in the supporting cast. Ted Raimi, who I always love to see, pops up as Jonathan’s nerdy friend Pac-Man (Really, by ‘89 people were still nicknaming people Pac-Man?), and as usual, he provides a solid performance. You also get a small role from future Law & Order A.D.A Richard Brooks, longtime character actor Michael Murphy as the cop dad, and a blink and you miss him performance from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner. The best cameos come from the most unexpected folks with John Tesh hamming it up as a news reporter, and best of all, Acid guru Tim Leary as a money grubbing Televangelist. The latter was the high point of the film for me.

I don’t really have much else to say about this film. It did have quite the opening theme from rock super group The Dudes of Wrath featuring Kiss’ Paul Stanley on vocals and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, but I reject the heresy that is the Megadeth cover of the Alice Cooper classic, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” The score to the film was not memorable at all, and the film making itself was uneventful. In fact the romp through TV land that was the big effects bonanza was the worst part of the film, and I recall better looking effects in A-ha videos.

All in all, I wish I had remembered this film better going into it. Last week I found that people were quite divided on the love it or hate it film, The People Under the Stairs. I would find it very hard to believe that many folks would rush to Shocker’s defense, but who knows? There’s one more week left in Whatcha Craven, and next week I’m going to cover the first installment of the successful franchise Wes so craved. So check back next week, well, that is if you like scary movies.

Bugg Rating


  1. Yeah I used to love SHOCKER as a kid but now, I think it's just silly and a disappointment compared to Craven's other stuff. What sucks is that the film starts off so good and then just deflates with the Krueger-like one liners and annoying characters who deserved to get killed by this guy. I heard they're actually remaking this. I don't mind one at all, if it could make the concept more serious and fix the flaws. And I dig Coop's version over Megadeth's myself. Great review.

    By the way, love the Spider-Man reference in the beginning with The Shocker.

  2. While I would in no way impugn your own rating of this film, "to each their own", etc. - I reference your closing argument, where you stated: "I would find it very hard to believe that many folks would rush to SHOCKER's defense..."

    I am one who WILL rush to SHOCKER's defense. I think this movie is a great watch. In spite of the fact that it does borrow heavily from other stuff and the fact that it relies on a 'trial & error' method for finding what works and what doesn't, SHOCKER throws so much violent & hokey 80's holdover cheese on the screen, with a fantastic NON-self-conscious "metal" soundtrack, that I can't help but smile and be entertained every time. It's not subtle or consistent or as intelligent as it would like to think it is, but dammit, it's a blast anyway, as far as I'm concerned. There's tons of "important" or clever & technically "good" movies out there that I can praise all over the place, yet never feel like watching again. But SHOCKER is a greasy piece of processed cinematic junk food that I will gladly sit through repeatedly.

    But like I said, to each their own. And hey, that just leaves more SHOCKER for me. ;)

  3. Thanks for the comments fella's always appreciated, and J.Astro I'm glad someone did run to the films defense. Perhaps my last few lines were baiting a little bit. Glad you enjoyed the film and you're welcome to all the Shocker you would like.

  4. I hope "The Shocker" you mean is the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. Spider-Man villain. Because if it is, I got the reference. If not, I'm ashamed that I missed something.

    I think this is best of Craven reviews you've done so far; the film ain't great, but I really love the observations about Craven's career at this point and what he was attempting.

    I haven't seen this movie since 1994, when some of us in a film class in college were studying the developing cyberpunk film genre; since there wasn't much around at the time (oh those pre-Matrix days of yore) we decided to watch this film as a form of Friday night "studying." Har har. We figured: hey, a guy who dwells in a TV set! Sort of Max Headroom. That's sort of cyberpunk!

    Oh well, not really. I recall nobody thought highly of the film, but I don't myself remember much about it specifically. However (and this made me snicker reading your review) I do recall two moments with our audience: somebody yelling "Hey, that's Timothy Leary!" and someone else saying "This cover of 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' sucks."

  5. Thanks for the comment,Ryan, and I really enjoyed the idea that you guys had hopes that the film would sate a cyberpunk need.

    I'm afraid no one got The Shocker I was talking about because I'm not a spider man fan but rather a dirty bastard.

  6. Well, as I was watching The Shocker's first appearance in The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series right before I read this review, it was a natural guess. (And I'm a big Spidey-fan, so it's even more natural.)


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