Judge Brett Cullum is gonna put on a strapless backless little black dress and do it anyhow anyhow with this pseudo sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Janet: Hi, Brad. I've just come to tell you how fabulous I am.
When Shock Treatment debuted in 1981, it was touted as the next big cult hit because it was the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It disappointed fans of Frank N. Furter, because the film felt different in tone and themes. It was something people didn't understand, a story divorced from the free love and libertine sensibilities of the original. Yet now the simple story of a woman who will morally compromise herself to be a pop idol on television seems more relevant than it did a quarter of a century ago. Richard O'Brien created a prophetic satire decades ahead of its time. The world has caught up to Shock Treatment and finally the tag line "not a sequel, not a prequel, but an equal" rings true.
Facts of the Case
Brad and Janet Majors are back (this time played by Jessica Harper of Suspiria and Cliff DeYoung of The Hunger) and finally married living near Denton in the suburbs. They aren't anything like we recall from the previous adventure with an alien transvestite, but perhaps that encounter has reversed their roles. Janet is now confidently in control, and Brad seems docile and inept. When they enter Denton's TV studio, they see the newly divorced Ralph Hapschatt (Jeremy Newsome, who is the only actor to reprise his role from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and his ex Betty (played by British comedienne Ruby Wax) working on public access style shows for the network. Game show host Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, out of his Dame Edna drag) mysteriously chooses Brad and Janet for a round of Marriage Maze, which reveals Brad is an emotional cripple. He's won treatment from the incestuous TV doctor team of Cosmo (Richard O'Brien) and Nation (Patricia Quinn) McKinley, who institutionalize Brad all too readily. Meanwhile, Janet's stock keeps rising as she becomes a star on Denton's television station, which follows her life because the viewers seem to love her. As Janet's ego grows out of control, a real threat is revealed as the mysterious head of the network reveals he has designs on Janet. Will he win her away from Brad? And who is this mystery man really?
Originally, Richard O'Brien intended this film to be a direct sequel to the story he started with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He came up with an idea of having Frank N. Furter return to find Brad and Janet in Denton with his baby in their care. The proposed script was rejected, and Richard began to work on something entirely different. He envisioned the entire first movie's cast returning as different roles with a new story about television and the power of the media to seduce even harder than the sexual antics of Frank and his creation. O'Brien wanted to film on location in Denton, Texas, but an actor's union strike prevented this from happening. He also lost most of his original intended cast, and had to find replacements willing to come to London to film the movie entirely on sets rather than locales. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick (Rocky Horror's Brad and Janet) were committed to other projects that would keep their careers heading in more traditional directions. Tim Curry (Frank N. Furter) turned down both the roles of Bert Schnick and Brad Majors, citing he didn't believe he could convincingly pull off an American accent. Meatloaf (Eddie) had decided to turn back to his music career. Jonathan Adams (Doctor Scott) and Peter Hinwood (Rocky) were distancing themselves from the madness surrounding the previous film. Yet Patricia Quinn (Magenta), Little Nell (Columbia), Jeremy Newsome (Ralph Hapschatt), Charles Gray (the Narrator), and Imogen Claire (a Transylvanian) were all game for a new story.
You have to enjoy Shock Treatment on its own terms. It feels more sterile, and in many ways more polished, than the rock and roll nightmare that was trademark of its predecessor. The score is New Wave and the production is done on theatrical sets that feel artificial and all too clean. Gone are B-movie horror and sci-fi references, replaced by a complex satire of pop culture and television. It's not kinky, but rather more twisted in taking on American culture and group think. Shock Treatment feels far too self conscious to be true camp, and comes off as spiky schlock with thorns and deep thoughts about reality and television. Hardly what anyone expected, but a piece that can stand on its own quite well.
There are many things that make Shock Treatment work. Jessica Harper as Janet is outstanding, and the actress can sing like there's no tomorrow. She's fun to watch and the one with the most on-screen charisma to watch. Charles Gray and Ruby Wax make a hilarious pair as the precocious judge and spurned ex-wife reporter after the truth. O'Brien's music is complex yet catchy as hell. The score is a knockout, and arguably of better quality than Rocky Horror if only because each number is well-crafted and works as a song on its own merit. The whole thing is a lot of fun, and as a sophisticated satire of reality television, it works better today than it ever did back in the day.
This DVD edition has been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. The movie has never looked this clear, finally in widescreen with color correction and not a scratch or nick to be found. Sound is presented in surround giving the tunes an extra oomph they've only had on the CD soundtrack. Extras include a retrospective documentary with many of the cast and crew recalling the filming. There's a discussion of the unique score as well. Finally, a commentary is provided by Shock Treatment Fan Club Presidents Mad Man Mike and Bill Brennan. They offer a lot of trivia, as well as a guide to visual homages to Rocky Horror found littered throughout the film. They know the film backwards and forwards, and it's a solid track for men not involved in the production proper.
There are two releases of this title on shelves now. One is a single disc edition that only contains Shock Treatment, and then there is another three-disc edition that includes two discs devoted to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you own the anniversary edition of the first movie with the bonus disc, seek out the single release of Shock Treatment to complete your collection. But if you don't have the full edition of the original, this is your chance to get the bonus disc with some supplemental material. Anyone who owns the European release, it's bare bones and this is an upgrade for Shock Treatment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You can't purposefully create a cult hit, and unfortunately O'Brien and Fox would learn this lesson with Shock Treatment. Sure people have found ways to perform in front of the show at midnight screenings, and it seems designed for audience participation. That's the main problem. Too much of Shock Treatment seems purposefully made to be poked fun at, and that takes some of the fun out of it. It's missing an earnestness true cult films have before they graduate to midnight screenings.
There are some specific problems with the DVD. The music sound seems to drop significantly in level during "Denton, Denton"'s finale while Brad's clapping remains at a normal level. All the Region One discs do this, so no need to exchange the disc for a new one in hopes of a bad batch. At the end of the movie, the overture heard in the original print is oddly replaced by a reprise of "Shock Treatment," which ends abruptly as the credits fade out. There are some spots where the soundtrack wavers as if it is being played at the wrong speed for a second or two, but that has been the case since the original release. The glaring omission in any of the extras is its creator Richard O'Brien himself. Is O'Brien ashamed of the project? Or is the fact he is preparing a true sequel to Rocky Horror for the stage making him wish not to draw much attention to this chapter? Whatever the real reason is, he is the voice we want to hear from. It's not here, and the silence is deafening.
Shock Treatment is a title I've been waiting for years to get on DVD. I can finally ditch my full screen VHS copy that bleeds colors like a stuck pig. This is a real treat for fans of Richard O'Brien, even if he doesn't show up to comment on the proceedings. The music is great, the movie is lively, and the message seems even more relevant today than ever. If The Rocky Horror Picture Show espouses freedom of sexual expression, Shock Treatment rails against the tyranny of following the crowd and falling for the cult of celebrity. Together they make great bookends, even if they feel completely different. People looking for a true sequel will be disappointed, but it's easy to learn to love Shock Treatment in its own way. If you're a fan, this is a digital dream.
A guilty pleasure of a film, Shock Treatment jumps like a real live wire on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Shock Treatment Fan Club Presidents Mad Man Mike and Bill Brennan
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