In 1989, the popularity of the Nightmare On Elm Street series and its flagship character, Freddy Krueger, were still going strong. Wes Craven, who’d created them both, had parted ways with the series due to creative differences, and his attempts to break out of horror with hybrid films like the sci-fi tinged Deadly Friend (1986) and the political drama-flavored The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) had had mixed results. So when production company Alive Films (at Universal Studios) hired him and gave him full creative control, Craven set out to beat Freddy at the horror game and comment on the Elm Street series at the same time.
The result was Shocker, released just in time for Halloween 1989. It made its budget back, but the lukewarm reception it got otherwise meant that the hoped-for franchise was a non-starter. What makes Shocker fascinating 30 years later is how nakedly the film is an attempt by Craven to compete with Freddy while furthering his own creative interests.
The most obvious element of Elm Street in Shocker is the depiction of its maniac killer, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi). Physically, Pinker evokes Freddy with his bald head, eye-piercing fashion sense (an orange prison jumpsuit with a racing-style black-and-white checkered pattern in the middle), and a noticeable impairment — for Freddy, a perpetual burned visage, and for Pinker, a prominent limp. Both characters have similar backstories as active serial killers prior to their supernatural transformations. They also tend to obsess over a particular set of victims, with Freddy targeting the children of the parents who burned him alive, and Pinker attacking his own son, Jonathan (Peter Berg), Jonathan’s friends, and other members of his extended family. Pinker and Krueger also gain powers over reality and the natural laws after their resurrection, with Krueger gaining the ability to invade and manipulate dreams while Pinker becomes a being of pure energy, able to travel through and utilize any electrical device.
All of these similarities might be coincidental were it not for the fact that Pinker is clearly imitating the humorous, almost lovable icon that Freddy had become. Craven was critical of that development for Freddy, and he would more clearly satirize that aspect of the character in 1994’s New Nightmare. Pinker is just as much of a homicidal Catskills comedian as Krueger ever was, letting loose bon mots such as “Let’s take a ride in my volts wagon” and, after biting off a victim’s fingers, “Finger lickin’ good!”
Comedy isn’t just relegated to one-liners in the film, either: The entire second act sees Pinker body-hopping into different people, with Craven making a meal out of a killer running around as a little girl, et al, while the third act has Pinker and Jonathan battling over the television airwaves and inserting themselves into TV programs, a concept that would be the basis for an actual comedy, Stay Tuned, just a few years later in 1992. The movie’s soundtrack features a song entitled “Shockdance,” in which Pileggi raps in character, just as Robert Englund did as Freddy the year before in “Are You Ready For Freddy.” When Pinker is gifted his powers by a demonic force, the movie depicts this as a giant, Rocky Horror-like mouth that intones “You got it, baby!” Craven was attempting to comment on Nightmare while using the same outrageous elements, and it’s an odd mix.
Unabashedly chasing Freddy’s success seems out of character for the typically more original Craven, but a closer look reveals that his intention was to create a new Krueger that he would have creative control over. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) quickly dispensed with Craven’s themes and rules from the first film, which disappointed the filmmaker greatly. Shocker is an attempt to merge the elements that Craven assumed audiences loved about his character with concepts he’d been mulling over for his entire career: the existence of the soul and life after death — which he dealt with in Chiller (1985), Deadly Friend, Serpent, and later in My Soul To Take (2010) — along with the notion of hereditary evil, as seen in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The People Under The Stairs (1991), and others. He also uses a concept in the film that had been omitted from the Nightmare series — Jonathan’s girlfriend Alison (Cami Cooper) becomes a hybrid guardian angel and ghost in the movie, a fate that Craven and writer Bruce Wagner originally intended for Nancy Thompson in their draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Shocker’s failure to start a franchise ended up paving the way for Craven to address most of what he had left to say about Freddy with New Nightmare. The film is compelling as a potpourri of Craven’s thoughts at the time, but as far as franchises go, it taught him a very Pinker-esque lesson: lightning rarely strikes twice.