Thanks Wes Craven for one of the most haunting images of my youth

The horror maestro produced fear that transcended the screen.

Words

David Jenkins

Wes Craven produced one of the scariest images of my youth. I would see this image pretty much on a rigid weekly basis, when my father and I would amble up to our local VHS rental store. The shop boasted a fairly standard layout, with kids/family titles closest to the door (most rented: 1989 Fred Savage vehicle, Little Monsters), and as the boxes fanned out towards the counter, things got a little darker, with horror and “adult” tucked away at the far end.

Tiring of all the animated fluff which me and my younger brother had seen enumerable times (the selection was limited), I’d often like to cheekily browse that liminal zone where action merged into horror. Films like Cobra, Predator and Total Recall were deemed fair game as possible family rentals by my liberal father, and so I could pretend to be glancing over those titles, when in reality I was peeking across at the terrifying late ’80s, early ’90s horror box art.

They had, what I now recall, as being a lot of terrible VHS horror (the entire Vestron Video corpus) which never made it to cinemas and doubtful made the journey beyond that beloved, antiquated medium. Which is fine, as they’d done their service to cinema in that format. There was one box cover which I found utterly terrifying to the point that I could barely look at it. The image on the cover was a convict dressed in regulation orange overalls and sat in an electric chair with a metal clasp around his head. Across his chest he had a bizarre black-and-white chequered stripe, inferring that electrocution may have been some kind of extreme sport.

The most haunting aspect of this image is that this man – who I later discovered to be the actor Mitch Pileggi (oh no, not Skinner from the X-Files!) – seemed to be getting some kind of excitement from being electrocuted to death. His facial expression was a clean mix of sheer agony and high sexual ecstasy. The film was called Shocker from 1989, and its presence on that video rack meant that I was unable/unwilling to dip my toe into the fetid waters of the horror movie for a good many years, lest I had to spend too long looking at that cover.

I still find this cover pretty, ahem, shocking, due in part to it being offensively in-your-face in a way which few equivalents – modern and vintage – are. It’s rare for a home entertainment box cover or marketing poster to contain an actual photographic image of a character being killed – when there is an image of death, it’s usually softened by use of illustration or photo manipulation. But here was an actual man who was actually being murdered (by the state, I’d hope!), and the people behind this movie had just decided that the best route to success would be point-blank honesty with regards to the content of this film.

I never rented Shocker, nor have I ever seen it, that residual fear perhaps building up in the interim years to make it a personal film maudit. Although I have seen and enjoyed many of Wes Craven’s other directorial works, including genre classics such as 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (a great film about dreams) and 1996’s Scream (a great film about high school), this one remains there as a single image sitting in the darkest recesses of my sub-conscious, like one of those impulse actions which prevents you from putting your hand into a food mixer. Yes, he probably didn’t personally design that image, but the film was his idea – he created the sick inspiration.

It was extremely sad to learn that on the morning of August 31, 2015, Craven had died of a recently diagnosed brain cancer, as announced by the Hollywood Reporter. For Londoners currently gathered for a long weekend of horror-based indulgence at the annual Film4 FrightFest, a time of collective mourning may be the order of the day. For horror fans – nay, movie fans –  worldwide, one of the wicked high priests of modern genre cinema has passed, and each will find their own way to celebrate his revolutionary oeuvre. Me? I’m going to finally watch Shocker.

Published 31 Aug 2015

Tags: Wes Craven

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