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Thursday, September 5, 2019 | Retrospective

After the box-office bonanza of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987), every big studio wanted a horror movie franchise cash cow character. And, in particular, some were savvy enough to realize that Freddy Krueger’s basic concept as a character allowed for a certain plot/imagery flexibility (as opposed to a hulking mute like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees) , while also requiring a larger effects budget to assure the promise of that cinematic “wow!” That first factor meant there was also more opportunity to “target the demographic” (that is to say, youth culture, re: Freddy on MTV) and, that second factor? Well, while it might seem like a drawback, a mutable practical effects budget is an easy way to disguise some, shall we say, “creative bookkeeping”? So the race was on to magic-up another Krueger, and this series of articles, which I’ve called the KRUEGER ALSO-RANS, examines four 80’s horror films and their central characters through this lens – that is, attempts by various studies to copy the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET by deliberately creating a franchise-ready character who eschewed the lumbering, silent slasher model and instead embraced the cinematic “rubber reality” approach used by our joking, twisted dream ghoul. None were successful. I’ll follow the examination with some thoughts on sequel and remake potential.

A *very* Freddyesque “workshop” scene opens 1989’s SHOCKER, interspersed with news reports of a battering, hulking killer (also a super-genius!) who has eliminated seven families already. Meanwhile, average high school football player Jonathan (Peter Berg) gets bumped on the head and suddenly remembers some of his pre-orphan past, while also seemingly gaining the ability to now astrally project himself to the killer’s current locale. After finally being apprehended (and adding to the body count), the sweaty, savage clubfoot murderer is identified as Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi, pre-X-FILES fame), blue-collar electrician (who practices black magic and sacrifices animals!), who is promptly condemned to the electric chair. But Pinker has made a deal with some kind of electrical demon, and now becomes a body-hopping spirit (although he still retains his limp in his new form). Can Jonathan figure out his connection to the electrical madman before Pinker kills more people?

“Craven may have a reputation for being one of the smartest guys making horror films, but here he overthinks his basic concept…”

SHOCKER is a goofy, lurid, slick and gory but, ultimately, a busy and overly cluttered film. Craven may have a reputation for being one of the smartest guys making horror films, but here he overthinks his basic concept (come up with another Freddy), larding the movie with so many ideas and so much stuff that it forgets the ultimate aim is to be scary. Jonathan (who, as a foster kid in high-school, somehow drives around in a cherry vintage car) is a bit of a boring drip. If your protagonist and antagonist lack charisma, what’s left for the audience?

There’s lots of staticy ghosts, hard rock music, rooftop scenes, Timothy Leary as an evangelist and Pinker is always foul-mouthed and profane (when he isn’t shouting “c’mon!” in frustration), if perhaps not as quippy as Krueger. He eventually presages THE RING (while visually quoting VIDEODROME) and emerges from a television set. Inventive, sure (the chase through the “mediascape” is deliberately lysergic) but not actually, y’know,…scary. And all very by-the-numbers, despite its gonzo credentials.

Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) transcends the flesh world, but can’t transcend his poorly written character

COULD HAVE BEEN: SHOCKER may have been better served by sequels, after dispensing with its overambitious supervillain origin story at the start. The “mediascape” could have served as an inventive replacement for Freddy’s dream realm (in that “lurks among us” ELM STREET touch) and certainly would have allowed for some inventive set pieces. But, sadly, the pieces just did not come together into a pleasing whole and it was never to be. As for a remake, the internet has kind of already made TV redundant as our subconscious playground/fearscape, so it seems Pinker really may be trapped forever in redundant technology…

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.