Wes Craven gets a charge out of a new supernatural serial killer creation with the studio pic SHOCKER, out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
After sustaining a concussion, college football star Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg, ASPEN EXTREME) has a vivid nightmare in which his foster mother and siblings are brutally murdered by a serial killer who has been slaughtering entire families. When he wakes to discover that they have indeed been murdered, he tries to convince his police lieutenant father Don (Michael Murphy, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE) that he saw the killings and the killer by offering up details he could not have known. When the stakeout of the TV repair of Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II) turns into a bloodbath, Pinker gets away and murders Jonathan's girlfriend Alison (Camille Cooper, MEET THE APPLEGATES). Attempting to find Pinker through his dreams again, Jonathan gets to the killer's next crime scene at the same time as the police and nearly loses his life when he goes after a fleeing Pinker who is apprehended by the police. Father and foster son have front row seats to Pinker's execution which he nearly misses by seemingly trying to fry himself with the television in his cell. The electrocution does not go as planned as Pinker seems to have built up a tolerance and causes a massive power surge, shocking the prison doctor (Janne Peters, WORKING GIRLS) when she tries to examine him. When Pinker's charred remains liquefy, Jonathan comes to believe that Pinker is not dead and has somehow hopped into another body (a notion confirmed by the visiting spirit of Alison who warms him that Pinker will continue to kill). When not trying to kill Jonathan in a series of different bodies (which start to wear out from his habitation), Pinker continues his killings and Jonathan becomes the prime suspect.
Part of a two-picture deal with Alive Films distributed by Universal Pictures similar to what they did with John Carpenter on PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE a couple years before – Craven's other effort being THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS – SHOCKER came out from Universal six months after United Artists released Sean S. Cunningham's similarly-plotted THE HORROR SHOW (in which electrocuted Brion James haunts cop Lance Henriksen). While the Cunningham film seemed derivative of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET – as with most late eighties horror films that strived for surrealistic "nightmare" logic – Craven's SHOCKER feels even more so like a bland studio reimagining along the lines of BAD DREAMS, with Craven attempting his own take on the more absurd direction of the NIGHTMARE series' subsequent entries (even though he already had the opportunity helming the series' best sequel) for much of its duration until it goes amusingly off the rails during the climax (which features an inspired bit of casting in Timothy Leary as a televangelist). The middle of the film is a bit of a mess with the protagonist jumping back and forth between different sidekicks – between teammate Rhino (Richard Brooks, THE HIDDEN), coach Cooper (Sam Scarber, THE KARATE KID), and assistant coach "Pac Man" (Ted Raimi, CANDYMAN) – about as much as Pinker jumps bodies and little development of the pivotal father-son relationship(s), although it is refreshing that the film does not have a damsel-in-distress love interest beyond the first act.
While Pileggi went on to later genre fame with THE X-FILES, he does not make for a memorable villain despite some moments during the climax, and his one-liners ("Come on, boy, let's take a ride in my Voltswagen!") fall as flat as the film's use of Megadeth's cover of Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" during the execution chamber sequence (although John Tesh as a news anchor is what dates the film the worst). Berg is still acting but the momentum of his performing career fizzled in the late nineties after CHICAGO HOPE and he has since become a director of big budget but generally terrible movies (apart from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and LONE SURVIVOR) following his debut helming VERY BAD THINGS, a film which sort of anticipated the "douche-bro" trend of movies (with Berg playing himself occasionally on ENTOURAGE). Heather Langenkamp has a cameo appearance as one of the victims. The make-up effects of Lance Anderson (who had worked for Craven on DEADLY FRIEND and THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) seem not have been not so much MPAA-trimmed as downplayed knowing the organization's crack down on horror that made much of the late eighties and nineties R-rated horror almost bloodless while the shortcomings of the film's visual effects are actually used to signal a sense of unreality (for instance, Jonathan's first nightmare in which he and Alison are bluescreened against a neighborhood street) leading up to the chase through TV-land.
Released on barebones DVD in 1999 by Universal (and then subsequently in a double feature with THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS and a triple one with THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW), the film got better treatment by overseas owner Studio Canal who licensed a special edition with Craven commentary to European territories. SHOCKER comes to Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Blu-ray is derived from one of the better Universal masters with only a slight waxiness in close-ups but good depth (which is important since Pinker's various incarnations, and Jonathan's later, are sometimes two-dimensional within live action background and sometimes lunge into three dimensions). The image is slick and a little bland, but that has more to do with the photography which gets rather pedestrian in a couple dialogue scenes. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmix of this Dolby Stereo film does more for the sound effects and heavy metal music than for the score (a 2.0 track is also available). Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Like THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, Scream's Blu-ray of SHOCKER is a full-fledged collector's edition. The first of two audio commentaries is the Wes Craven one carried over from the Euro DVDs. Craven cites his two inspirations as Jack Sholder's THE HIDDEN (a New Line release) and the source story for THE THING, and describes the television milieu as "the neural network of the modern world". It was his first film with regular producer Marianne Maddelena as a producer (she had worked as his assistant on DEADLY FRIEND and THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW), and he points out a cameo by his daughter Jessica (while protagonist Jonathan is named after his son). He discusses the deal with Alive Films, including the qualification that the would only have final cut if the film scored at a certain level in test screenings (a stipulation that he has had written into subsequent contracts). He also spends some time discussing the film's early digital visual effects which had to be shot in the last two weeks with many companies working on favors because the rasterized visual effects that their initial effects creator said could be done on the cheap did not work. The second track is – like Scream Factory's SCARECROWS – three successive interviews conducted by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher with three of the crew members: cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (WISHMASTER), assistant director/co-producer Robert Engelman (MORTAL KOMBAT), and composer William Goldstein (HELLO AGAIN). Haitkin talks about working for Craven on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and how that established a relationship with producer Robert Shaye (Haitkin would end up shooting the sequel as well as THE HIDDEN and MY DEMON LOVER for New Line). Haitkin asserts that the film is not an attempt to send up Freddy Krueger but to remake him since Craven had no ownership in the NIGHTMARE franchise. Engelman starts off his discussion with the experience of shooting in Haiti on THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. He describes how Alive Films was generally hands off on the film, and how his mediation between Craven and them may have lead to his co-producer credit. While Haitkin was adamant that the film was intended as Craven's Freddy-esque franchise, Engelman is of the opinion that most horror films post-NIGHTMARE had franchises in mind. Goldstein discusses his early career starting with television through Columbia's Screen Gems which lead to film assignments. Before SHOCKER, he had been working on the show FAME, scoring, selecting songs submitted by all of the major music publishers (and writing a few songs himself), and hiring THE SIMPSONS' Alf Clausen when the workload meant that he could not do his own orchestration.
In "Cable Guy" (17:36), actor Pileggi reveals that he originally read for Jonathan's coach without knowing that it was a Wes Craven film and then was thrilled to be asked to read for Pinker. Although he describes his working method with the character as pretty much going over the top, he did work out Pinker's limp only to then learn that the limp had been established already in the scene in which Pinker possesses a little girl (Lindsay Parker, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC). He also talks about doing fight scenes with Berg who was already watching Craven like a hawk and had expressed his plans to be a director. In "Alison’s Adventures" (17:12), actress Cooper discusses her beginnings as a model for Seventeen, her commercial work in Manhattan before landing a role in LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Of SHOCKER, she recalls liking the character because it was not the usual slasher film bimbo; in fact, she left acting because she was only getting offered such roles and has gone on to work on political campaigns against the exploitation of children.
In "It’s Alive" (11:57), executive producer Shep Gordon recalls how he found his early experiences with studios wanting and deciding to go into distribution as Alive Films where he learned that he could video sales could fund features and distribution. Although they had a string of arthouse hits with films like the award-winning KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, THE ROAD TO BOUNTIFUL, and THE WHALES OF AUGUST, they did not find profitable wide audiences. Seeing that the most consistent video sellers were horror films – and that horror fans did care about the directors of those films – Gordon approached John Carpenter and Wes Craven with the offer of budgets for two films each and left the subjects up to them. Upon hearing of this, Universal got in touch with them and arranged not only for domestic distribution but also for European through Carolco (which is how they eventually fell into the hands of Studio Canal overseas). Although the films were moderate successes, competition for arthouse and independent filmmakers from Miramax and other studios in the nineties made it increasingly difficult to make films and get a return (the last straw being a feature made with MGM with studio interference pushing Robert Urich on the production and then necessitating a reshoot because the studio did not think a star should ever look messy even though the character was wallowing around in a swamp during the sequence).
"No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Music of SHOCKER" featurette (26:13) is a lengthy featurette in featuring music supervisor/songwriter Desmond Child – who got involved with the soundtrack through producer Gordon who was also Alice Cooper's manager at the time – Dangerous Toy's Jason McMaster, Megadeth's David Ellefson, and KISS' Bruce Kulick. Desmond discusses how he rounded up the various musicians who participated on the soundtrack, as well as how he formed the collaborative "Dudes of Wrath" to perform to songs for the soundtrack: "Shocker" featured Child and KISS' Paul Stanley on vocals and Tommy Lee on drums while "Shockdance" featured Alice Cooper singing and Pileggi rapping. McMaster and Child composed "Demon Bell: The Ballad of Horace Pinker" over the phone from stray lyrics McMaster had not used while Ellefson recalls the honor of getting to cover "No More Mr. Nice Guy" since Cooper had been Megadeth's rock mentor. Kulick had written the song "Sword and Stone" for KISS' "Crazy Nights" album but it was not used there but would be covered on SHOCKER by Bonfire for the film's end credits. There are also two vintage making-of featurettes (8:48) in which Craven describes the film as being "designed to retire Freddy Krueger" – and the TV setting as "the daytime dreaming of our nation" – and discussing the influence of his WWII childhood on his horror films (including horrors in the home as signifying fear of abandonment and that parents have dark sides). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer and TV spots (2:32), as well as radio spots (1:09), a storyboard gallery (8:55), and a stills gallery. Like other Scream collector's editions, the disc comes with a slipcover and a reversible cover with the original art on the inside. (Eric Cotenas)
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