Wednesday, March 27, 2019

SHOCKER: A Nightmares & Schlockscapes Spotlight

Welcome to Nightmares and Schlockscapes, where movies that go bump in the night are dragged from beneath your bed and into the spotlight. The Gothic classics of yesteryear, the bodacious B-grades, and those celluloid chillers best watched through your fingers.


Horror. It's versatility and the importance of it's tropes to other genre spectrum's make it transcend tone, becoming a language all it's own. Beside the great Greek masks of Sock and Buskin that represent the pillars of storytelling - Comedy and Tragedy, respectively - there should be a third with barred fangs and splattered blood. Horror can be thrilling or unnerving, inducing cheers or screams. It may expand your mind with philosophical waxings on life, society, and the psyche. Or, you know, maybe just have a hockey mask wearing super-fiend beat someone to death against a tree. All shapes, all sizes. It's the oldest form of storytelling, and be it grandiose rumination or splatter-punk, it tingles that primitive part of our brains. There's one variety of fright flick I have a particular soft spot for, and it shares a namesake with the title of this feature: Schlock. A term that carries with it... mixed connotations. Many negative, for sure. But, when used in the context of a certain breed of horror film, it can be quite endearing.

So, it's only fitting to start this series with the film that birthed this love of schlock. Wes Craven's SHOCKER is a frenzied, nutso, tonally whiplashed delight. It is also, sadly, a near ignored entry in the late horror maestro's filmography. Craven placed the unmitigated definition of over-the-top into a stew pot, poured a sizable helping of earnest melodrama so thick it could choke you on top, stirred in a pinch of spit in your face pop culture, and what brewed was a film born to be rented on V/H/S over and over again.


Shocker's plot is simpl­­- wait, no, what am I saying? Shocker's plot is complicated. It's actually closer to three movies smashed together into an under-two-hour run-time. Peter Berg (yes, that Peter Berg) plays Johnathan Parker, an All-Star High School football player that looks nothing like an All-Star High School football player, and who may or may not have a speech impediment... but I think that's just how Peter Berg talks. Johnathan begins dreaming of a serial killer that's been stalking his town, dreams he soon finds out are all too real. Reality and something beyond blur together as he out-of-body witnesses the brutal slaying of an entire family. Using this newfound psychic connection, Johnathan helps the police track down a deranged fellow named Horace Pinker (played by Mitch Pileggi, best known as Director Skinner on The X-Files, and putting in one HELL of a delicious, scenery-chewing performance) to his Television Repair shop. There, they discover Pinker dabbles in black magic, and apparently obsessively watches twenty television sets at a time.

Unfortunately, Pinker escapes, along with the knowledge of who has outed his identity. In retribution, he murders Allison, the love of Johnathan's life, before being apprehended by our now vengeance-seeking protagonist, and sentenced to death. Yes, I did just describe the plot of one whole movie. Yes, the first twenty minutes of this thing has a three-act structure. It's not until Pinker's in prison that Shocker becomes Shocker. In his cell, sitting within a pentagram, and holding exposed wiring from his TV set (swank death row), Pinker calls out to... his satanic TV God or something, and makes it clear that he wants "the power." At which point, giant lips appear from out of the set and declare, "You got it, baby." This escalated.

Next thing we know, Pinker survives his execution by utilizing the power of the electric chair to hop from body to body. This has gone from a supernaturally tinged serial killer tale to a wack-a-doo possession story out of nowhere - and that's only plot change two. Plot three begins awhile later when Pinker and Johnathan are battling atop a TV station's broadcast antenna, and Pinker merges with the signal, blasting himself off into the living rooms of everyone with a boob-tube. That's right, Horace Pinker has gone NATIONWIDE. And now, to defeat his mortal enemy, Johnathan must utilize his connection with the ethereal world to leap into the television, himself, and battle Pinker through various shows and movies (culminating in Peter Berg calling out to Beaver from Leave It To Beaver for help), all set to the tune of Demon Bell -- The Ballad of Horace Pinker by Dangerous Toys.

Yeah. No wonder there was barely any advertisement for this thing when it was released. How the heck do you get that across in a log-line? Much like Pinker hopping from body to body, this is a film that hops from conceit to conceit, and it's beautiful for it. It's a B-Horror trilogy in one! The ultimate party movie. Pinker is a demented cross between Freddy Krueger and Max Headroom; delightful to watch, but despicable enough to cheer when he gets his ass kicked. Best of both worlds.

I first watched it in the late 90s. Watching reruns of Adam West's Batman, a promo on The SciFi Channel advertised that they would air Shocker later that night. In said promo, the image of Horace Pinker, decked out in his ready-made horror icon prison jumpsuit, stepping out of a TV set and flickering with electricity, made that airing appointment television. Staying up late to watch it, I was introduced to what I now refer to as Prestige Schlock. Schlock with substance. Schlock with artistry.

You see, I've said this many times in the past, and it's the aptest review that could be given: Shocker isn't good, Shocker is AWESOME. In a way that only Wes Craven in his heyday could deliver. He utilized the somber surrealism he honed with A Nightmare on Elm Street, plus the drive-in craziness and brutality of The Hills Have Eyes, to create something that at first glance seems like any other schlocky serving of cinematic cyanide... but this is very much covered in the fingerprints of Wes Craven.

I'm unsure where the genesis of this film came from, though considering Craven had spent most of the 80s stuck directing TV - a gig he hated - it's not hard to view this as a not so subtle jab at the very concept of television and it's total takeover of pop culture at the time. Oh, and don't ask Mitch Pileggi about it, he will sooner punch you than discuss Shocker. But it stands as not only unadulterated fun but as a testament to what Wes brought to his craft. Namely, real stakes and real emotions. I mentioned it in passing, but the film's core is melodramatic, corny, earnest, and, honestly, as over-the-top as the rest of the proceedings. I believe it was designed this way by Craven for one purpose - to not get lost in the madness permeating the screen. It blends and heightens, never disappearing in the glee of Pinker possessing a little girl and driving a bulldozer.

All because Pinker is a one-liner spewing super-villain does not mean the deaths he causes don't matter. The core of what pushes this piece forward is grief, mourning, and the need for justice and closure. Craven never cared for other slashers because the mayhem they caused was designed for fun, first and foremost. The bloodshed in the majority of those pictures was splatter-joy. Here, there are still buckets of crimson, but this time... it's horrifying. Craven wants you to know that violence is pain. When a life is taken, those left behind suffer in their bereavement. It's a strange juxtaposition for a film that looks more like it was created by an advertising executive who wanted "the next big slasher" to appeal to that brink of the 90s MTV crowd. It moves Shocker from just another 80s one-off to something wholly unique. It also highlights the greatest tenet Craven gave the horror genre as a whole, a lesson that should be paid more attention to. Never forget that stories exist to explore, comment on, and tap into emotion. Shocker stands as proof you can do that in the silliest way imaginable. You can take something away from any sort of story.

But speaking of that MTV crowd, that was a definite aim by somebody high-up, because this late 80s rock and metal fest soundtrack is glorious. Like all good movies, it has a title song about the movie itself, in the form of Shocker by The Dudes of Wrath, a band made up of the likes of KISS' Paul Stanley, Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee, Whitesnake's Rudy Sarzo, and more. On this record we also have Iggy Pop, the aforementioned Dangerous Toys, and Megadeth's cover of No More Mr. Nice Guy, just to name a few. Rock 'n Roll horror movies are sorely missed. The 80s were plentiful with them, and it's what helped make that decade of horror into the schlock filled wonderland it's known for.

That wonderland crescendoed on October 27th, 1989, the final Halloween season of the decade, when Wes Craven's Shocker came to a theater near you. The King of them all, in this humble article writer's opinion.

Pinker Lives!

SHOCKER is available in a highly recommended Collector's Edition from Shout Factory

Follow Mike Napier on Twitter: @LuckyDeckNapier
Don't forget to follow the podcast, too! @BoxOfficePulp