Nothing divides filmgoers faster than a horror movie. Purists profess to like only the old classics: films in poetic black and white, presented by movie host Bill Collins on (Australian) TV, featuring Dracula, the Wolfman, Jekyll & Hyde or Frankenstein. Many – particularly those of faint heart – cannot begin to watch any kind of horror movie without soon fleeing the theatre, or loungeroom.
After all (the argument goes) who wants to have their senses assaulted, their emotions disturbed, and their wits scared out of them? And, in this regard, contemporary horror films – particularly those of the gore or slasher variety – go much, much further than Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff ever did.
Films like The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), A Nightmare on Elm St (1984), The Evil Dead (1982) and Hellraiser (1987) – and their vast brood of sequels – are extreme, excessive horror movies: unrelenting, nasty and bloody (not to mention rather gooey). Occasionally, you hear a public call to bury such films as quickly as possible, even to ban them outright.
However, approve of them or not, it cannot be denied that contemporary horror films are extremely popular, especially in video stores. And there is a deeper, more awful truth about these movies that some of our most concerned citizens will probably never face. Simply, many of them are damn fine films – overflowing with an artistry, intelligence and invention that is often sadly lacking from more sedate, mainstream releases.
Which brings us to Shocker and its writer-director Wes Craven, the genius behind the Elm St series. No doubt it would be easy for a high-minded reviewer to, on the one hand, parody this film for its plot absurdities, paper-thin characterisations and video-arcade special effects – while, on the other hand, decrying its morbid obsession with violence, death and physical decay.
The people who really love this film – and I don’t mean an oh-so-superior, camp type of love – will approach it very differently. Its patent artificiality and unreality help to make it a total fantasy – in fact, a bit like a fairy tale. And in horror fairy tales (particularly those by Craven, a former Humanities Professor), every aspect of our human experience is open to question and speculation.
Shocker mixes bits and pieces of many horror stories old and new. A slasher (or violent serial killer) named Horace Pinker, played with grim relish by Mitch Pileggi, is on the rampage; meanwhile, teenage Jonathan (Peter Berg) “sees” the crime unwittingly in his dreams. Later, Jonathan loses his girlfriend, Alison (Camille Cooper), to Pinker – and then she promptly reappears as a friendly ghost.
The villain himself undergoes a more fantastic metamorphosis. Beseeching the malevolent sprit inside his beloved TV set, Pinker is turned into pure electrical energy, able to enter any human body (male or female, black or white), or indeed any convenient power socket. This is a vivid instance of what I have elswhere called the body hopper film, the most famous example of which is The Hidden (1987).
In the incredible finale, Jonathan and Pinker plunge into a TV screen and do battle in “video space” – passing through the highlights of world history as constructed by TV news, fighting each other with a VCR remote control unit.
None of this makes much sense – but that hardly matters. Shocker is, for all its downers – deaths and electrocutions galore – a strangely giddy and liberating film. It prompts us to think in new and different ways about our physical bodies, about the line between life and death, about the mysterious energy waves that emanate from blinking TV sets and blaring radios.
The film marks a fascinating cultural shift. Just 10 years ago, in Halloween (1978) or Dressed to Kill (1980), the slasher in films was a figure of pure, almost inconceivable horror. Now, in Shocker and a whole slew of recent films, he (or she) becomes a figure of fun, fantasy, and Heavy Metal energy – a good deal more interesting, in fact, than the wimpy hero! Think of the murderous, ever-popular character of Freddy Krueger from the Elm St films: he even got to host his own TV series (Freddy’s Nightmares [1988-1990]).
Of course, Shocker is not really saying that murder or death is fun; nor do I believe it will prompt young teens to electrocute themselves in search of a big thrill. The film, ultimately, is about the power of the imagination, and about those experiences that stir the imagination into life – which includes everything from listening to Alice Cooper albums to falling in love.
If Shocker does indeed touch on some pretty weird and extreme fantasies, perhaps that is simply because it dares to be an open, free-thinking film. I dare you to watch it.
© Adrian Martin February 1990