Teens-In-Peril continues to be one of the most popular horror sub genres, and adolescent mayhem is not limited to masked killers knocking off stereotypical characters one by one. Let’s face it, teenage life can be scary. With fears ranging from school exams, to dating, to the question of what to do after graduation, filmmakers use countless tropes to transfer those nightmares to the screen. From old-school classics to modern, meta takes, teen horror spans the spectrum, focusing not only on movies aimed at a younger audience, but also those dark dramas that feature teen characters. This go round, for “Cops n’ Killers” month, I’m taking a look at Shocker, Wes Craven’s highly underrated 1989 supernatural serial killer slasher.
The premise of Shocker is rather simple and one that begs for series treatment. After being executed via electric chair, serial killer Horace Pinker uses electricity as a means to continue his reign of terror. Shocker stars Peter Berg (Fire in the Sky), Camille Cooper (Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe’s War), Michael Murphy (Batman Returns), and Mitch Pileggi (Return of the Living Dead Part II). The film was written and directed by horror legend Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Peter Berg, starring as Jonathan Parker, has the most interesting role in the film. At first glance, Jonathan appears to be what a lot of people would refer to as “the kid next door”. On the surface, Jonathan‘s life seems perfect. He is a college football star and has a beautiful girlfriend, but there are other, darker aspects to his life. A lot darker. Jonathan and his foster father are the ones responsible for putting serial killer Horace Pinker behind bars. Plus, it is revealed to Jonathan during the first half of the film that his real father is none other than Pinker himself! To say that Jonathan has a lot on his plate is a vast understatement.
For many students, college is a strange “in between” time. While no longer being a typical high school teenager, college is often a time of self discovery. Think of it as a slice of a few years between the past and the future. With the character of Jonathan, Craven has written a character who is struggling to come to terms with his past. Put simply, Jonathan can’t move forward until he makes amends with yesteryear. In Shocker, Jonathan is torn between two vastly different realities: his foster father, a lieutenant detective, and his biological one, a serial killer. To put in bluntly, Shocker‘s lead protagonist is in the midst of a battle between good and evil.
“For a movie that hit at the very end of the ’80s horror cycle, Shocker manages to reach through a decade of theatrical releases as a memorable one.”
Teen-focused movies and books often work best as coming of age stories, and horror-based ones are no exception, but becoming an adult in the world of fiction is a hard lesson to learn. For theatrical reasons, there is usually something that is literally standing in the way of the character achieving his or her inner goal. For Jonathan Parker in Shocker, it is easy to see the roadblock as being something as obvious as Horace Pinker. But there is more to the evolution of Jonathan. Instead of simply defeating the primary antagonist, Jonathan has an emotional arc to contend with as well.
Shocker also delivers big-time by the way of sight and sound. It is important to note that the film’s structure leans heavily toward a typical teen slasher, albeit a supernatural one. The effects and music pair amazingly well with the overall tone and atmosphere. The electricity-related CGI effects hold up extremely well as a slice of late ’80s horror visualization. Pair the effects with a heavy metal/hard rock soundtrack which features music from Megadeth and Iggy Pop, to name a few, a perfect blend of late ’80s horror is born. Interestingly, similar styled imagery was featured again five years later in another techno-horror film, Brainscan.
Featuring many similarities to Craven’s recent mega-hit series A Nightmare on Elm Street, it is obvious that Shocker makes an enormous attempt at becoming a new horror franchise. Ideally, the series would feature Pileggi’s Horace Pinker as the series’ Freddy Krueger-like villain, full of one-liners and increasingly crazy kills. Shocker was released on October 27, 1989 to largely mixed reviews from critics. Even though the film wasn’t a runaway hit, Shocker did turn a reasonable profit earning over $16 million on a $10 million budget. Ultimately (and sadly), Horace Pinker as a new horror icon was never fully realized.
Shocker is an often overlooked and largely underrated theatrical slasher film. For a movie that hit at the very end of the ’80s horror cycle, Shocker manages to reach through a decade of theatrical releases as a memorable one. It is a shame the film doesn’t have a much larger following today than it actually does. Upon revisiting the movie, viewers will find the film holds up extremely well. Most will see that Shocker rightly deserve a place in the revered canon of ’80s horror.
Are you a fan of Shocker? How would you rank it among the titles in Wes Craven’s overall filmography. Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!