With the new Scream out in theaters, I decided to double-up Midnight Screenings this week and pair my exploration of the meta-critical Gremlins 2 (anticipating the new Matrix) with Wes Craven’s Shocker, his most unheralded exploration of media logic, and in many ways a more interesting and fearless work than his original, genre-redefining Scream.
Shocker is, to be clear, quite a bad movie by any reasonable standard. But it feels so perfectly and obviously like the film that writer-director Wes Craven, a philosopher who became a porn director who became a horror film director despite not watching movies growing up, wanted and maybe needed to make to show those bastards cannibalizing his beloved Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in the late ‘80s, that I can’t help but find it a worthwhile experience. If Nightmare explored main-street U.S.A.’s dark underbelly as evocatively in the mid-’80s as any director not named David Lynch did, Shocker clearly wants to interrupt its strange candy-coated offspring, the paranormal slashers of the late ‘80s, less through critique than entropic explosion. Shocker is no more narratively or thematically coherent than any of those films, but it goes far out of its way to make a virtue of its chaotic and inexplicable narrative logic, equal parts dream theater and surrealist televisual channel-flipping, that it’s perversely difficult to turn away from. Recreating the addled meta-logic of changing the TV channel, half asleep at two in the morning, this is supernatural slasher cinema run amok all over your eyeballs, fluid cinema’s revenge on liquid television.
Nominally, Shocker is the story of all-American football player and high school student Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) who develops an inexplicable relationship to serial killer and electrician Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) who, and I mean this exactly as I’m writing it, manages to become electricity in the middle of the film, obviously complicating the elaborate cat and mouse game the two play with one another. Really, it isn’t much of a story at all and, when it is, it’s the story of Craven’s own frustration with his hellish offspring. Craven had already directed one of the most popular and best horror films of the ‘80s (and one of the best of the ‘70s in The Hills Have Eyes) and watched it slip away from him in a series of increasingly deluded sequels (although Nightmare II’s psychosexual urges and slippery narrative logic to rhyme with Halloween III’s paranoid corporate nightmare and Friday the 13th Part V’s truly intoxicating pile-up of neo-realist portraits). But in a few short years, Nightmare’s Freddy Kreuger had been turned from a cold-hearted, comically sadistic killer into Bugs Bunny with a skin condition.
Craven would tackle his anxieties in-universe in 1994’s New Nightmare, which explicitly fashions Kreuger as a real demon that was no longer being channeled into horror films as palliatives. He would, in turn, further excoriate the horror genre in the Scream films, which have always felt somewhat self-superior and holier-than-thou to me, and generally less than invested in exploring the filmic language of horror cinema. (Although Scream II has some genuine miniature arias of meta-textual curiosity, like its opening film-screening-set double-kill, where the cult of fascination around Scream keeps a real murder from being recognized.) Shocker is much less focused than Craven’s later forays into self-critique, and generally gets the short end of the stick for that reason, despite, finally, exhibiting a much more salacious and curious attitude about how cinema and television work as visual mediums.
Another way of putting this: if Shocker anticipates New Nightmare’s more famous metatextual exploration of Craven’s own creation, famously figuring Nightmare as Craven channeling an uncontrollable demon unleashed by the potency of cinema, Shocker itself also feels much more like a genuinely demonic entity, a wild and wooly howl of disgust and ferocious anger, a film legitimately dealing with its own unclarifiables and emotional urges.(Scream, meanwhile, feels too much like a college paper on horror cinema.)Krueger, in New Nightmare, became an animated being, a demonic urge turned on its creators, most tellingly the technicians who literally tinker with and materialize Kreuger’s hand. In fact, New Nightmare reanimates a decades-old cinematic sensibility about channeling potentially divine or demonic forces beyond human control, tampering in the domain of what Noel Burch calls the “Frankensteinian” dream of cinema: the will to search for and recombine varying parts of matter in search of a new vision of possibility, anything from a better world to a proof we, finally, are all we have. Here, animated figures are generated but refuse to submit to their ostensible master, always teetering around a resistance they cultivate on their own. Shocker tackles these vitalist considerations quite literally in the form of a killer who diffuses himself into electrical energy, flowing with the plasmatic force and thereby discovering how he might control it, albeit never completely.
In the middle section of the film, this allows him to take over the vital energy of other people and, in the final section, to take control of electrical currents themselves, famously concluding with a 20-minute sequence where Horace chases Jonathan through the television surfing from channel to channel. Horace Pinker takes over the airwaves, a cinematic monster being a televisual one who comes to suggest television’s monstrous interrogation of cinematic storytelling. With a rock ‘n’ roll energy and a frankly absurdist brio, Shocker thus replaces Nightmare’s florid giallo-adjacent nightmare logic with a glorious perversion of the American Dream of persistent access to all media at all times embodied in the solidification of a purportedly fluid culture that offers “something for everyone.” With so many opportunities and spaces for democratic transfer of energy, Craven suggests, there may only be so many more new ways to observe the same thing. Depending on your perspective, Shocker either suggests the glorious trespass of televisual surreality (with its plastic flow between segments and commercials and shows, rather than following a “logical” story from beginning to ending) into cinema, unloosening and untethering rational film with near-psychotic cartoon id, or, conversely, a plunging into a dark depth of artless chaos from which no meaningful order can be salvaged. Anarchically unchaining its most lurid impulses, Craven unleashes art forms upon one another, and very little survives the encounter.
Perhaps inevitably, then, very little about Shocker “works” in a conventional sense. Pileggi, ever the professional, is never less than completely convincing, but Berg is frankly anodyne, an all-American figuration made of cardboard, almost meta-critically working as the protagonist from a dream you had last night but can’t quite place with any specificity, or a walk-on protagonist for a “very special episode” who you never see again in the show’s run. That’s probably giving Craven’s film too much credit, but Shocker explores similar ground as same-year films such as Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape or Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, each concerned, in different registers and with varying focal points, with the melding of corporeality and technology and attendant questions of post-human singularity. (I was also reminded of John Carpenter’s unfairly maligned Ghosts of Mars, which effectively suggests that digital video cameras might inhabit a post-human ecosystem and revolt against law-and-order types who try but fail to hold a film narrative together). Rather than a mad scientist reanimating a particular body, Shocker feels like Craven unleashing his inner frustration on the very warp and woof of the cinema, turning the medium’s own animated energy into a disobedient, unmappable terrain with an unknowable center. Pinker himself becomes an artifacted, glitchy presence, a kind of extratextual object, outsider art unraveling onto the film, emblematic of what German artist Hito Steyerl called the “poor image” swarming and destabilizing, and the film gestures toward what later works like Adult Swim’s “Too Many Cooks” would exacerbate. I’m still not precisely clear that any of this tracks as “good,” but there’s something nastily amusing about Craven’s, well, craven attempt to follow the more improbable elements of his mental disarray rather than to package it into a meaningfully coherent object.
Shocker’s ultimate attitude toward media is as slippery and difficult to latch onto as Pinker or the film’s narrative anti-logic. In the late stages of the film, Pinker passes from body to body where he is corporeally able to attack his prey, implying that television empowers him. Killing the body, however, leads to Pinker’s body turning back into diffuse electric waves, a corrupted presence translucently present on-screen and prone to attack. Pinker harnesses televisual waves to transcend cinema, yet at his most televisual, he is at his most vulnerable. Of course, Shocker itself harnesses television’s wandering, channel-surfing energy to pull cinema apart at the seams, rendering fairy tale bona fides like a late-film supernatural necklace beholden with unclarifiable power entirely empty and arbitrary, deus ex machinas left breathtakingly without explanation (as though a logical or tighter reasoning would benefit any of this?). So, point to television. On the other hand, televisions mediate and interrupt the film screen, appearing on all sides and in random corners, suggesting that every perspective (even the camera frame) might be revealed as a TV screen if we just tilt 90 degrees. The potent, liberating, liquid logic of television, the film suggests, also provides ample opportunities for a proliferation of controlling and observing perspectives, a diffuse world where both agency and power are thickly entangled and structurally enmeshed, perhaps inseparable, where every opportunity to resist and unshackle and unmoor is also a means to control and partition, a post-modern Panopticon of mass-market entertainment. No one said it would be easy.