Random Review: Shock Treatment (1981)

Shock Treatment (1981), directed by Jim Sharman, written by Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien, with Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O’Brien, Patricia O’Quinn, Little Nell

I’ve never been to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I consider myself a big fan. It’s a movie I love and I never tire of watching. It’s funny, has great music, has great performances by Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Patricia O’Quinn, Richard O’Brien, as well as the film’s many many supporting players – even Meatloaf.

That’s why I put off watching Shock Treatment, the often-overlooked “sequel” to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Shock Treatment has been available on DVD for some time now, but because of my fondness for Rocky, my expectations for its follow-up — which ran high some days and low others – would have never truly allowed me to enjoy the film. Then recently I was able to obtain a copy of it for free. For me, that means I was now able to watch it with little to no expectations. And I did. And I loved it.

Lo and behold, Shock Treatment may very well be a better movie than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Be aware that it does contain some glaring omissions. Rocky fans should know that the movie does not feature Tim Curry stepping a second time into the corset and and garters of Dr. Frankenfurter, although anyone who knows even a little about the film probably already knows this much. As for O’Brien (Riff Raff in Rocky) – who wrote both films – and O’Quinn (Magenta in Rocky), both are back, playing very similar roles as they did in the first film. So is Little Nell (Columbia in Rocky) and Jeremy Newson. Who? Newson reprises his role as Ralph Hapschatt, a very minor character in Rocky whose role is expanded in Shock Treatment – remember the wedding at the beginning of Rocky? That’s Ralph getting married to Betty Hapschatt, also a character in both films.

Director Jim Sharman is back as well, and Charles Gray – the no-necked criminologist from – Rocky also returns for Shock Treatment. Shock Treatment is not altogether not a Rocky reunion. However, there’s still one other big change. While both Rocky and Shock Treatment revolve around the characters of Brad and Janet (Shock Treatment was originally to be titled The Brad and Janet Show), Sarandon and Bostwick declined to reprise the roles.

Playing the parts of Brad and Janet are Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper. In Shock Treatment, Brad and Janet are no longer engaged but married, however, their marriage isn’t doing too well. Although their marital strife could easily be explained by the events of the prior film (like the part where they both had freaky sex with freaky Dr. Frankenfurter and Janet had hunky Rocky “touch her”), it’s implied that their problems started long before their run-in with the Transylvanians (in fact, those events aren’t referred to at all. So, was it all a dream? A fantasy?).

Brad, in the words of the film, is “regressing into childhood,” while Janet is feeling pinned down by her marriage to such a wet napkin of a man.  Brad and Janet become contestants on a television show called “Marriage Maze” hosted by supposedly blind Austrian named Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries aka “Dame Edna”). As a result, Brad is sent away to a mental hospital where incestuous siblings Dr. Cosmo (O’Brien) and his sister (O’Quinn) are the caretakers. There’s also Nell as a sexy nurse and Rik Mayall (The Young Ones, Drop Dead Fred) as orderly Rest Home Ricky. While Brad lingers away in a cell, Janet is groomed to be Denton’s newest celebrity idol. All of this has wider implications which would require a spoiler to explain more.

Oh yeah, this is important. In Shock Treatment, Brad and Janet’s entire hometown of Denton has been turned into a television station. Everything that happens in the film is done in the context of it taking place as part of a television program, predating The Truman Show, by a good 20 years. In essence, Shock Treatment does for television what Rocky Horror did for old sci-fi B-movies — but slightly different. Rocky lampoons but celebrates. Shock Treatment is a darker, different beast. In the Rocky mold, Shock Treatment would allude to great moments in television over the years — maybe. Instead, Shock Treatment is a commentary on how celebrity and media can brainwash the masses.

All that heady stuff aside, Shock Treatment is still a ton of fun. Jessica Harper, who I know from Dario Argento’s Suspiria, is a great Janet. She’s a great actress and singer. She pulls off the transformation between bored housewife to campy vamp as well, if not better than Sarandon. Cliff De Young is also excellent, playing a Brad so wishy-washy he makes Bostwick’s portrayal almost heroic — in a good way. The rest of the cast is just as fantastic.

And what of the music? The music of Shock Treatment is every bit as infectious as that in Rocky. Arguably, it’s a better set of songs. While I love Rocky’s soundtrack, in terms of how the music relates the story, sometimes it can be a bit off. Hot Patooie. What’s that all about? Even The Time Warp makes less sense in context than it does by itself. On the other hand, Shock Treatment‘s songs complement the story perfectly. Furthermore, there’s more genre hopping. The song, “Me of Me” bops along with a sultry disco beat. “Bitchin in the Kitchen” is a poppy duet between Janet and Brad about the sad state of their marriage — it’s both “Dammit Janet Part 2″ and the anti-“Dammit Janet” set to a catchy ska back beat. “Lullaby” is a gorgeous new wave ballad, while songs like “Little Black Dress” and the title tune are more along the lines of Rocky‘s rockabilly throwback sound. But don’t take my word for it thatShock Treatmenthas a great soundtrack. Listen below:

Love Rocky? Hate Rocky fandom? Shock Treatment may be just what the doctor ordered (Yeah, that sentence made me cringe too.)

Be back with a new 50 Movies for 50 States next week. Maybe.

You might also like: