Shock Treatment

Director:Jim Sharman                              
Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O'Brien

Not even many fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have heard about this sequel to their favorite cult movie. Actually, there is argument both among the creators and the fans as to whether this is a sequel or an "equal". It certainly can be viewed both ways, which may be considered just one of the ways Shock Treatment is a sloppy, and at times almost incomprehensible, movie. (Reader William Olson confirmed my suspicions that the movie suffered from a number of problems during its production.) Still, I would be lying if I said there wasn't anything of merit in it.

The sequel brings back many people who worked on the movie. Jim Sharman is the director again, and many of the same cast members return. Nell Campbell and Charles Gray return, but in different roles. Richard O'Brien (who, like in Rocky Horror, also wrote) and Patricia Quinn return as another kinky brother and sister duo. Only Jeremy Newson reprises a role from the original, coming back as Ralph Hapschaff. Tim Curry didn't return, and neither did Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, who originally played the Brad and Janet characters. Those two roles are played here by Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper. In this sequel (or "equal"), Brad and Janet live in the town of Denton, and their marriage seems to have suffered. It's never properly explained what's wrong, though Janet suggests with some passing remarks that Brad has turned into some kind of wimp, and she's embarrassed by his behavior. Still together, they go to the DTV television studio to join the studio audience for The Denton Dossier Show and other shows shooting that day, including the game show Marriage Maze - which they are selected to participate in, much to Brad's horror. None of them know that the show's new sponsor, Farley Flavors (also played by De Young), has sabotaged the show so that the game ends with Brad being locked up in the studio's lunatic asylum, and with Janet now open for a new relationship. Flavors' flunkies have already seduced Janet with visions of fame, so much so that she soon starts to put Brad in the back of her mind.

Up to this point in the film, things have been a little confusing, but overall still understandable. Afterwards, though, the script rapidly breaks down. The character of the judge and his assistant make feeble gestures to making some sort of investigation of the enactments of the shadowy Flavors, and the McKinley siblings groom Janet and try to stop her from thinking about Brad, but no real effort is made to develop a proper story. Between the end of the game show and the last few minutes of the movie, there's perhaps maybe ten minutes or so of plot. An attempt is made to hide this lack of story by having the characters run around frantically while making weird movements and uttering nonsensical statements (when they are not singing.) Viewers might take their mind off the story for a few minutes to watch this nonsense, but it wears thin quickly. Nobody seems to know what's going on. When the plot is reactivated, there are still some problems. You'll have to listen very closely to the dialogue, or else you'll miss some important things - the few that are actually are. The important revelations are buried in the middle of nonsensical going-ons, and are sometimes spoken in exaggerated voices that make it sometimes hard to make out the dialogue. Trying to figure out who is who, and why each character is doing something is very frustrating.

With no story, the burden falls on the actors. O'Brien, playing one of the sibling doctors, looks so peculiar with his glasses and a shaved head, that he's watchable from his looks alone. He puts a smile in his performance, so that even despite his bad script, whatever he does comes across as amusing. His partner Quinn, however, is given little to do. Newson babbles his dialogue so badly, I couldn't understand what he was saying. Grey gives some warmth in his performance, making his bumbling easy to swallow. Harper could have played an acceptable Janet had she not played her to be so bitchy. In a dual role, De Young is actually quite good - it's sometimes hard to believe the same actor is playing both a wimp and a wealthy megalomaniac. Unfortunately, De Young hardly gets to do anything with either character. He spends most of Brad's scenes drugged into catatonia, or bound up and gagged. And as Farley Flavors, he spends most of the time sitting in a small room making grunts of pleasure or disapproval into the camera lens.

The direction doesn't try to clarify these characters or the story itself. Setting the entire movie in one particular location is a challenge for even the best of directors. The studio stage is divided into several rooms, but the deliberate tacky look to these cheaply divided rooms goes beyond camp, and ends up being just plain ugly to look at. It appears this movie was made on the cheap. With little money and cramped quarters to work in, it appears Sharman didn't know what to do. He does pull off creating a nice dreamy atmosphere when the situation warrants it, and he manages to put in some lengthy shots, including the impressive opening tracking shot which lasts more than two minutes. The smoothly directed "Lullaby" musical number is also pleasing to look at. There are hints that he's buried one or more messages in the movie, but I'm not sure if that's so, or even exactly what these messages are. There are occasional symbols of America (eagles, red/white/blue color schemes) that might have been an attempt to put out some kind of an anti-American message. A more likely theory is that there's an attempt to satirize popular taste in television and its viewing audience. When focused on, the studio audience comes across as a group of conformists, that needs to be prompted in how to react to what they see before their eyes. So little time is spent here, however, that I can't be sure, despite them being featured prominently in the confusing resolution of the story.

There's occasionally a funny line or a peculiar moment that grabs your attention, but the only moments of real length that shake us momentarily out of our confusion and apathy are the musical numbers. Some of the songs are duds, but out of the fourteen songs, I felt that ten of them ranged from good to excellent, which is quite an achievement for any musical. I first saw this movie five years ago, and even before renting it again recently, I could still hum many of the catchy-as-hell songs like, "Denton U.S.A." and the "Duel Duet". Sure, "Little Black Dress" sounds too much like Rocky Horror's "Time Warp" for its own good, and "Me Me Me" almost comes across as a song by E.L.O. But derivative or not, these are very good songs, not only catchy, but with lyrics that are alternately witty and nutty. (Sample lyrics from "Bitchin' In The Kitchen": "Dear knife drawer / Now won't you help me to face life more?") Though I always welcomed the songs when they came on, there are for the most part forcibly injected in. For example, at one point of the movie, a band named Oscar Drill And The Bits comes on stage, and performs the rockabilly-influenced "Breaking Out". Great song. But the song doesn't comment on the story, the characters, or their feelings. Songs in musicals are usually designed to do that. The songs in Shock Treatment, good as they are, are more like a break in the (feeble) plot, and the excuses the screenplay uses to get the characters singing are sometimes laughable.

The last number in the movie, "Anyhow Anyhow", reveals an underlying flaw in the entire production. In this number, the characters sing this catchy song while walking and jumping up and down at the same time, even doing a little dancing. It looks goofy, but the actors are having so much fun, their infectious joy is like a thunderbolt. In the rest of Shock Treatment, there is no sense of fun. Everything else in the movie is taken too seriously, so much so there's a sour, almost cynical feel hiding in the background. That scene is the one moment that gets close to the atmosphere of Rocky Horror. Had the rest of this movie quieted down and not tried to be so complicated over nothing, it may have still not matched Rocky Horror, but it could have been a sweet little goofy romp. Instead, we've got a movie with a scattering of good moments, and a justification for the fast-forward button on your remote.

UPDATE: "Alex" sent this in:

"Just a little factoid: Tim Curry (whose mere presence would have keyed the film up a much-needed notch) was offered the role of Farley Flavors, but since it would have necessitated him playing the part of Brad as well, which for whatever reason he didn't want to do, he turned the part down.
It has long been rumored (by O'Brien himself) that Richard O'Brien is at work on the "true" sequel to Rocky Horror, ostensibly to be called: Revenge Of The Old Queen, in which Frankenfurter's mother and his son come to earth to investigate the circumstances of his death. What a coup that could be...can you see Curry playing both parts? Or at least, since he is a little older now, the Queen?"

UPDATE 2: David Carpenter wrote the following:

"Read your review of Shock Treatment and figured I'd let you know some of the information I found out and maybe it might help with some of what you noticed in the movie.

"To begin with, the sequel was ORIGINALLY called Rocky Horror Shows His Heels - the songs in Shock Treatment were originally all written for THIS movie. It was supposed to take up right where Rocky Horror Picture Show ends. Brad and Janet make it to town and try to put what happened out of their heads. They get married and try to set up a new life. Janet is pregnant - she is uncertain if the baby is Brad's or Frank's,.. Marital probs are upon Brad and Janet (possibly from the pregnancy) and this was where the song "Bitchin in the Kitchen" came from. Rocky, in the meantime, recovers (he was never really dead, apparently) and takes Frank's body to Dr. Scott and forces him to resurrect Frank. To do this, Dr. Scottt has to to a transfusion with the blood of 5 male virgins. Frank is delighted to be alive again and decides to take over Denton (the song "I'm gonna be an Ace"). Brad and Janet split up and Brad goes over to stay with Dr. Scott. Janet's Dad questions Brad's sexuality ("Thank God I'm a Man"). Frank had convinced Brad and Dr. Scott to join him and they go to take over the town - in little black dresses ("Little Black Dress"). The takeover is going when it's discovered that one of the virgins in Frank's resurrection wasn't a virgin and Frank begins to deteriorate. He chases the guy around as suddenly, 2 figures emerge and gun him down - it's Riff Raff and Magenta who have come back to tie up the loose ends. They depart the earth and Brad and Janet get back together, Janet finally giving birth. From the gurglings the baby makes, it's clear that it's Frank's. I'm sure that I've overly simplified it and probably left parts out, but it's been awhile since I've even thought of it.

"ANYWAY, Tim Curry was being HORRIBLY typecast by Frank and had NO intention of playing him again. Not wanting to try to cast another Frank, the script was DRASTICALLY re-written as the NEXT draft; The Brad and Janet Show

"This story has a lot of the elements of Shock Treatment. The storyline was a bit weakened since Richard re-wrote it trying to save the songs he wrote for RHSHH. Differences in the story is that Dr. Scott is in it instead of Bert Schnick (he was found getting out of his wheel chair trying to sneak a peek at Janet by Nation, showing that he could really walk. This was later changed to Bert being able to really see when Jonathon Adams wouldn't come back to the movie). The movie was slated for production and everything was set - then there was a strike. NO exterior filming could be done. Seeing all the probs already gone through, They didn't want to try to wait and chance the project being scrapped - so Richard quickly re-wrote the script so that Denton was entirely inside a studio, along with OTHER changes, and we get the mess that is Shock Treatment. I used to have the script for The Brad and Janet Show and, even though it has a very similar story line, was much better than Shock Treatment. Still think Rocky Horror Shows His Heels would have been the best project though - pity is wasn't made."

"Well, I hope that answered some of the questions you had about the production of Shock Treatment. I actually like the movie - albeit, mainly for the songs. "

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability of soundtrack on Amazon (CD)

See also: The Apple, Disk-O-Tek Holiday, That's Black Entertainment