Criminally Neglected: Shock Treatment

Chris Jordan reviews the other Richard O'Brien/Jim Sharman rock opera: the one you don't get to see midnight shows of... even though it deserves them.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle cult-cinema moments that can only happen spontaneously and unexpectedly; the kind where just the right weird movie comes out at just the right time in our pop-cultural zeitgeist, and finds itself championed by an audience that no one really expected to be there. You can't deliberately manufacture an audience response like that – many movies have tried too hard, and many movies have failed. That is why Fox's upcoming TV-movie remake of Rocky Horror seems like a questionable (if not outright bad) idea: actively trying to recapture that once-in-a-career confluence of weirdo passion project and audience enthusiasm seems nearly impossible. Just ask Rocky Horror creators Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman. Six years after the unexpected runaway success of their original film, they developed another rock opera, equally eccentric, unique, and sharp in its social satire. They weren't trying to recapture their previous film's magic – in fact, the new movie was a deliberately very different experience, in both theme and style. Still, it was from the same distinctive imaginations that had so recently given viewers one of the most beloved cult classics of all time; it would be reasonable to assume that their follow-up would be greeted with equal excitement and passion. Yet it was not to be: despite having the best cult cred imaginable, Shock Treatment was a huge flop which struggled for years with an unfairly maligned reputation. Why was it so quickly rejected, when Rocky Horror was so quickly embraced? Was it that it was too weird somehow? That its music wasn't quite as easy to sing along to? That its characters weren't as much fun to dress as? Or was the problem simply that it wasn't Rocky Horror? Fox unwisely marketed the film as more or less a sequel (which it isn't, even though it initially seems like it could be); did the movie itself diverge too much from audience expectations? Whatever the reason, it took years for it to gain a moderate cult following on home video, and it only very, very rarely receives the midnight screenings and shadowcasts that its predecessor still enjoys today. It's a shame, because Shock Treatment is quite a good movie in its own right; not quite Rocky Horror good, but not far behind.

Shock Treatment: Max H-h-h-headroom

Once again Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman's script is driven by social satire, but whereas Rocky Horror reveled in sexual hangups and awakenings, Shock Treatment is all about pop-cultural obsessions and consumerist dependencies. It tells the story of a town that has literally been consumed by a television station: the town exists inside the studio, and the townspeople's lives, marriages, mental health troubles, and everything else are captured by cameras as around-the-clock reality TV that they themselves watch. The community is like a bizarre closed loop of consumerism and tabloid celebrity, where they are so obsessed with living into the ideal of American life that the media sells them that they have actually become the product they are buying and selling. Into this madness enter Brad and Janet Majors (Cliff De Young and Suspiria's Jessica Harper, replacing Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), struggling to navigate both their own relationship and the town's commercial unreality. The themes their journey takes us through are not only pretty ambitious and high-concept, they are also extremely ahead of their time. Shock Treatment predicts the rise of reality-show culture by nearly two decades, and features a premise remarkably like The Truman Show, from 17 years later. This is a rare case of a social satire that has arguably gotten more relevant and accurate with time, as things that may have been over-the-top exaggerations in 1981 no longer seem so far off. This alone makes it essential viewing, and makes a stronger case for its cult-classic status now than ever.

Come on, you know you'd love to dress like
this guy at a midnight screening.
While the story is told with the same sort of imagination and lunacy we remember from Rocky Horror, what is initially so surprising about Shock Treatment is how very different it is, both in its visual style and its music. The art design takes the concept of a town that exists on a sound-stage and runs with it: all the sets are deliberately artificial, and exist in a space that is clearly constructed, with no windows or natural light, and skies that are clearly just walls painted blue. It gives the whole thing an oddly postmodern feel, and puts us in the same situation as Brad and Janet, not entirely knowing what is real. It is a very unique art style, and it gives the film a strong personality which sets it apart from O'Brien and Sharman's previous film. The music also sets this film apart: while the Rocky Horror soundtrack is loaded with ear-grabbing rock songs that are instantly easy to sing along to, Shock Treatment's music is a bit more bound to its narrative context: not as geared towards audience participation, not as easy to pull out of the movie as rock singles, and more intended to propel the story and themes. This is not intended as a criticism: they are still good songs (if a bit uneven), they are just written with a different sensibility, which means they occasionally may require a couple listens to get into. This may, however, be one of the reasons why the film didn't become a midnight hit like Rocky Horror: Rocky's music is ultimately more accessible on the first viewing/listen, and admittedly a bit more consistently strong as a soundtrack album. Shock Treatment does still boast a few really catchy and memorable singles, though: the excellent title track, the Richard O'Brien-fronted “Little Black Dress,” and the very funny Brad/Janet duet “Bitchin' in the Kitchen” are obvious standouts that probably would have been fan favorites had the movie taken off as intended. O'Brien wrote some excellent lyrics for the film, digging into the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of American culture with sharp-toothed humor: “You'll find happy hearts and smiling faces... and tolerance for the ethnic races.”

O'Brien also leads the excellent supporting cast in another scene-stealing performance which is totally different from Riff-Raff, but just as entertaining and mad. The bulk of the main supporting ensemble consists of returning Rocky Horror alums: Patricia Quinn (Magenta), Nell Campbell (Columbia), and Charles Gray (The Criminologist) are all back, with Gray playing a very similar character who often lapses back into the role of overly serious narrator. Patricia Quinn is once again very memorable, giving another mysterious performance comparable to her iconic Magenta, and lending her voice to a bunch of the movie's songs, often in contrast to Richard O'Brien's vocals. Nell Campbell, meanwhile, is paired in the film with a young Rik Mayall in one of his earliest roles, a year before The Young Ones. The actor who steals the movie, however, is a newcomer to the cast: Barry Humphries (best known for his comedy alter-ego Dame Edna) as a scenery-chewing German TV host who stirs up drama in the lives of the townspeople/reality-TV-contestants with maniacal glee. Humphries' Bert Schnick is easily the most entertaining part of the film, giving even the excellent O'Brien a run for his money; he definitely deserves a spot in the canon of iconic cult cinema characters.

"Whoa, what happened to the lights?
I feel like I'm back in Suspiria."

Of course, the biggest question anyone ever has about the cast of Shock Treatment is whether Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper can fill the shoes of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as Brad and Janet. And the answer is... they aren't trying to. Wisely, they are not really playing the same characters at all; archetypally they are very similar (Brad is geeky and mild-mannered and has trouble expressing himself, Janet is free-spirited and longs for more from life, in a way that isn't a great match with Brad's phobia of the unusual), but beyond that, they are totally different people. They make the roles their own, both in terms of personality and very different vocal styles from their predecessors. It is wisest to think of them as parallel-universe versions of the characters in a completely new continuity, not returning characters in a sequel. In a way, Brad and Janet are archetypes of average middle-class suburban Americans, dealing with the angst and ennui that so many such Americans go through in their search for happiness in life. That they share the name and basic characteristics of different characters from a different movie is simply a function of their symbolic role of everyman and everywoman. In that capacity, De Young and Harper are both great: De Young's constant bewilderment as a fish out of water in this bizarre un-reality is great to watch, and Harper has a fantastic, almost jazzy voice which the music features very well. But all the same, if you expect the same Brad and Janet you already know, you might be disappointed. Go in knowing what the characters are really supposed to be, however, and this version of the couple are great in their own right.

This is perhaps the biggest key to Shock Treatment's lack of success: the presence of characters named Brad and Janet, and Fox's marketing based around this fact, gives the impression that this is really a sequel to Rocky Horror, when it definitely is not. This set viewers up for a mismatch of expectations and reality which left them badly disoriented. The fault isn't with the film, but with the unfortunate situation of audiences expecting something very different from what O'Brien and Sharman were trying to give. This could have all been remedied by simply naming its two main characters something else, but calling them Brad and Janet serves an important enough thematic point that I wouldn't want it any other way. The key to really enjoying the film is to view it on its own terms, and not expect more Rocky; trust Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman, and be willing to go with them, even if it's not in the direction you expect. Shock Treatment isn't a perfect movie, mind you: at times it is pretty scattered, and its many excellent scenes don't necessarily add up to a cohesive narrative whole. But let's be honest – Rocky Horror has that exact same set of flaws, but we give it a pass because its strengths are so easy to love. In both cases, the point of the film is in its themes, its satire, its memorable characters, and its many inspired moments and set-pieces; I don't think O'Brien is particularly concerned with narrative coherence, because his imagination is far too busy for such petty formal concerns.

Dammit, Janet... 
Whatever the reason – poor marketing, mismatched audience expectations, or a level of surreal satire that was too ahead of its time – Shock Treatment has got to be one of the most unfairly maligned and overlooked films in cult cinema history. That it is largely forgotten by the general public while Rocky Horror still enjoys constant theatrical screenings is as baffling as it is unjust; this film may not quite be the masterpiece that its predecessor is, but it deserves way more fandom than it has gotten. If anything, this is the film that deserves a modern television update, not Rocky: while that remake looks like it is bringing very little new to the table aside from maybe one bit of inspired casting, Shock Treatment's prophetic relevance would make for a fascinating revisitation, or perhaps a new sequel altogether. But in both cases, no one else (least of all a carefully-calculating major network) can possibly hope to match the sheer originality and mad, playfully transgressive imagination of Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman. Rather than trying to imitate them with inevitably inferior results, efforts would be better spent trying to champion this hugely underrated film, and get it a few midnight screenings of its own. Take O'Brien's diagnosis: “you need a bit of... (oooooh) shock treatment!”


- Christopher S. Jordan