It’s very weird to listen to someone speak—someone you’ve never met—and then, a few days later, they die. Wes Craven passed away over the weekend and just a few days before, I was listening to his audio commentary for his 1989 horror film Shocker. It’s just him on the track, going into how the movie was made and all the various stories and anecdotes that are obligatory for a director’s commentary, and even though the track was recorded many years ago, he spoke very much the same way he always did about everything. He put himself into all of his movies, each one in its own way a reflection of what got under his own skin and kept him up at night.
Shocker was made in the middle of the ten-year span between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a period which also gave us The Serpent and the Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs. It’s like an amalgam of every idea he had all at once: dreams, ghosts, serial killers, the occult, technology overload, astral projection, possession, and weirdly, family drama.
A horrible, violent serial killer named Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) is on the loose and nobody knows who he is or where he’s going to strike next. He’s an electrician of sorts and uses it to pray to some demonic entity. Elsewhere, a college football player named Jonathan (Peter Berg) has been having weird dreams involving the killer he’s heard about on the radio. His adopted father, Lt. Parker (Michael Murphy) is trying to catch the psycho. In one dream, Jonathan sees Pinker in his own house, attempting to kill his mother and family and tries to stop him, but wakes up before he can. Turns out, though, it wasn’t a dream. Jonathan uses his dreams to help the police track down the murderer and—after he’s murdered Jonathan’s girlfriend—Pinker is eventually captured after a foot chase.
Now that would normally be enough for a movie, but not a Wes Craven movie—that’s literally just the beginning. Jonathan is visited several times by the ghost of his girlfriend and when he goes to witness Pinker being executed by electric chair, the convicted murderer proclaims that he was in fact the young man’s biological father. The switch is thrown, but despite the volts coursing through his body, Pinker doesn’t die. When the police eventually have to shoot him and his body dies, his essence is transplanted from person to person. Of course, only Jonathan notices this, knowing that Pinker’s electric spirit drains the life from his hosts, but nobody believes him except his football team. But how do you catch someone who can travel through electric wires?
This is an exceedingly difficult film to describe because it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s a ghost movie, sure, but it’s also a little like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Pinker is sort of like an electric (literally speaking) version of Freddy Krueger. At the same time, it’s also sort of Krug from The Last House on the Left. Clearly, Craven was troubled by this kind of psychopath, someone who laughs with glee while performing horrendous brutality. The ghost girlfriend presents a weird wrinkle, as does the possession angle. It’s also a comedy, kind of? The whole thing is just, for want of a better word, bonkers.
But it’s also undeniably a vision of its creator. The first of two films Craven made for independent company Alive Films (the second being The People Under the Stairs), Shocker is the result of having a modest but respectable budget and essentially all the freedom in the world. No other filmmaker could have possibly thought up this movie, because Craven was, among many other things, an original. Until Scream, he didn’t really get to make movies with studio backing, and he’d been essentially hosed out of most of the residuals for the now-immeasurably popular Elm Street saga. So he was an angry guy, a thoughtful guy, and a guy with a lot of creativity and it manifested in movies that are completely singular and not derivative of anyone—even himself.
The new Blu-ray from Scream Factory, which releases on September 8, is the usual stellar effort from the classic movie distributor. Along with Craven’s enlightening commentary, there is also a second commentary by director of photography Jacques Haitkin, producer Robert Engelman, and composer William Goldstein. There are also interviews with actors Mitch Pileggi and Cami Cooper and executive producer Shep Gordon, a feature about the film’s music (which featured a ton of ’80s metal), trailers and more. It’s a lovely set for a rather forgotten minor classic from a true master.
Image Credits: Scream Factory
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!