When people think of Wes Craven and supernatural slasher films, they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Perfectly justified, of course, as Freddy is one of the biggest icons of horror cinema. However, often overlooked however is his 1989 film Shocker, for some justifiable reasons including awful 80s CGI and an incredibly messy second half with little regard for laws of its own unreality. But at its core, and especially for the first third of the film, the gothic elements of the story are undeniable, and it’s a genuinely interesting case of a modern ghost story in the urban gothic vein.
There are gothic influences all over the film, but what tipped me off was the police invasion of Pinker’s TV shop. We head past the initial lobby of televisions playing visions of war and death and enter a dimly lit series of dusty hallways, hardware packed into the shelves on either side. We’ve dispensed with the creaky castle library and entered a modern equivalent of television sets. Noises in the dark. Turn around. Nobody there. We feel a presence nearby but can’t see them. This is classic haunted house stuff going on here.
And then we get the big tip-off as to the influence. We get a POV shot, very Hitchcockian (thinking especially of Norman Bates peering through the peephole into Marion’s room in Psycho), of Pinker’s eye up to a gap in the shelf, peering into the shop. The monster’s hiding in the walls. A policeman stands guard nearby. Nothing. And then hands shoot through the shelves, catches him. He’s pulled back against the shelves, and the whole thing pivots in on a hinge. The cop is dragged inside and the shelf snaps back in line, never to be considered again.
A few minutes later Jonathan (the MC) and his father appear, none the wiser save for a smoking cigarette on the floor. And then they discover the horrible truth when they see blood pooling out from underneath the shelf, like those ghostly legends of old mansions where the walls drip red. Breaking their way in they find cats flayed and dead-on hooks, red lighting from the cinematography department reinforcing the demonic aspect. And then there’s the body in the middle of the room, throat cut, blood on the floor.
This is classic gothic stuff. The secret passageway in the walls is complete Scooby-Doo, Agatha Christie, even some Sherlock Holmes (I’m thinking here of The Musgrave Ritual in particular). The Cat and the Canary did it as well. We’re in the middle of a slasher movie, and we’ve got secret panels and hiding places? We might even claim that these secret passages go even further back, to the origins of the gothic, in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the story we take the term ‘gothic’ from in its now traditional literary application.
And yet somehow it doesn’t feel out of place, doesn’t feel corny, because we can understand that Craven is deliberately drawing upon these influences to create a gothic atmosphere. This is important, as it subtly clues us into the paranormal parts of the film that come into play when he is electrocuted in the chair, turned into a horror version of the Phantom Virus from Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (those movies were great, Cyber Chase an underappreciated meta gem of Scooby-Doo lore for the final third act). If the ghost aspect had come out of nowhere, we might have complained that it was too much of a shift from straight serial killer to paranormal horror, but here these elements help to ease the transition over. Not much, because it’s still a jolt switching subgenres, but it helps nonetheless. I’m not sure how the blood pooled all the way from the chair to spread under the shelf because it’s a hell of a long way. Perhaps this is faintly paranormal in origin, the cop’s spirit doing what it needs to do to alert the living to its final resting place in a bid to stop his killer? Most likely it’s a goof and I’m reading way too much into it, but it’s certainly a possible reading if you wanted to go that far.
Let’s also remember that, even after the electrocution, the film is in essence a ghost story. Whereas in centuries before a spirit might have inhabited a suit of armor, or roamed the walls of the courtyard in which they were executed, here we have a modern updating, inhabiting the electricity that we have harnessed for our own ends. This criticism of our device-ridden society which wasn’t as prevalent when the film came out, but certainly on the rise, was inherent in genre storytelling of the time. Cyberpunk arose as a subgenre a few years before to question our reliance on technology.
And a few years after Shocker, we see the influx of films from Asia that combined a malevolent spirit and technology to demonstrate new fears of a society rapidly flying into the future. Films like Ringu, One Missed Call, Shutter, Noroi, even The Eye to a certain extent (the elevator scene is my example here, with the apparition not appearing on the security camera), would be films that take this concept and run with it, infusing into their tales a very gender-based morality tale of using a stereotypically male industry (technology) and using it as a vehicle for the classic avenging female spirit of folklore.
Could one orient Shocker as a modern gothic gateway to these tales? I suspect most would argue against it, but as has been critiqued in countless essays, articles, and books, there is not one film history, but multiple readings of film histories. As it stands, the genre itself is also fluid and a very pliable concept in itself. I’m not using any of these arguments to state that Shocker is a great film, because although fun, it’s most certainly hovering just in the ‘mediocre’ range of horror films. However, that these more traditional elements find their way into divisive and forgotten films might go some way to showing that it’s not just the revered masterpieces of regarded canon that have interesting literary facets to their makeup.
-Article by Kieran Judge