Shock Treatment

Shock TreatmentSynopsis: Trust me, I’m a doctor! The musical madness and mayhem continue in this sumptuous “sequel” to The Rocky Horror Picture Show!

In the continuing adventure of Brad and Janet Majors (Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper), their suburban hometown, Denton, U.S.A., has been transformed into a giant TV studio, where the brainwashed citizens remain happily glued to an endless series of soap operas, variety acts and game shows. But before you can say, “We’ll be right back after this,” the station’s unscrupulous sponsor has locked Brad up in a mental hospital and recruited Janet to be the sexy star of her own hit show. Stay tuned for a shocking lineup of maniacal characters, biting satire and all-out fun!

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Shock Treatment 3.5

eyelights: its brave attempt at breaking away from the previous film.
eyesores: its failed attempts at connecting this with the previous film. Tess Harper. Richard O’Brien. the script’s utter incoherence. its lame choreography. its bland songs.

‘Shock Treatment’ is a 1981 low budget musical comedy set in a television studio. It’s a satirical take on American culture and values, also poking fun at North Americans’ obsession with celebrity in all forms: in it, a couple are picked out to be game show contestants and are sucked into the insane world of reality TV and television personalities.

‘Shock Treatment’ is the spiritual companion of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘. Created by the same folks and featuring tenuous links between the two films, it was originally conceived of as ‘The Brad and Janet Show’ before a Screen Actors Guild strike forced the filmmakers to reinvent the picture substantially in order for it to even get made.

It was a financial and critical disaster.

I had long heard that there was a sequel to the cult classic, but I couldn’t be bothered to see it. I’m no great fan of the original and, from what I’d read, this one was disowned by not just Richard O’Brien, but fans as well. That couldn’t be good. But, last summer, I stumbled upon this gem on DVD for 2$, and my curiosity got the very best of me.

Apologists tend to say that ‘Shock Treatment’ is not a sequel or a prequel to ‘RHPS’, but an equal. I love the sound of that, but I wish it were true. Granted, it is neither a sequel nor a prequel – even though Brad and Janet reappear here (incarnated by completely different actors and with largely different personalities). But it’s not an equal.

For starters, it doesn’t have Tim Curry in it. I’m sorry, but without Curry even ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ wouldn’t be its equal (uh…). He is the picture. Secondly, its songs aren’t as zesty (although fans claim they’re technically better – which may be true). It’s also far more incoherent than the original – to the point that its makers can’t agree on the plot.

Frankly, I just sat there wondering where it was all going and trying my best not to scream. It made me think of a really demented version of ‘UHF’ – even though they have nothing in common aside from both being low budget films set in a television studio. I suppose I was trying to go to one of my safe places – and ‘Weird Al’s picture is a comfort food of sorts.

Even its few connections with the original fail miserably:

  • Brad is played by Cliff De Young, who does a decent job of it (he was the first choice for ‘RHPS’, actually), but his character ends up institutionalized for most of the picture so he’s taken out of commission.
  • Janet is played by Jessica Harper instead of Susan Sarandon (who was by then, six years later, too expensive for this cheap-o production). Harper simply doesn’t have the same presence at all. And her lip-synching is horrible. I don’t like her as an actress to start with, but where Sarandon played up the camp, Harper toned it down, making her character less delightful. Which it is: here Janet becomes an egotist jerk-off who wants to be a star at all costs – to the point of turning her back on Brad, whom she’s hen-pecking all the time til then.
  • Richard O’Brien plays a character who is supposed to be a mad scientist, but he’s nowhere as interesting as Riff Raff was. He’s also evidently no Dr. Frank N. Furter: his doctor timidly oozes on screen instead of commanding it.
  • Charles Gray plays a Judge who guests on one of the television station’s talk shows. He plays a similar character as in the first, tonally, except that he’s part of the plot instead of being the narrator. Since his cues in the original were such a delight, removing these was a huge loss to me. As much as I like Gray, he’s always better in small bits (case-in-point: ‘You Only Live Twice‘ versus ‘Diamonds Are Forever‘)

Okay… I was wrong. They don’t all fail miserably. Patricia Quinn was actually quite good here. But even the musical numbers aren’t nearly as interesting. They can be somewhat elaborate at times, but they’re sloppy (the perfect example of this is when the whole crowd gets into the opening number – they shift back and forth mechanically. Ick). It made it hard to watch.

I did enjoy the “Little Black Dress’ number; it had an energy that the others didn’t have. But the music was all-too-familiar, rooted as it was in ‘RHPS’. And the “Looking for Trade” number was decent because it had a smokey groove to it that made it listenable. Otherwise, it’s entirely forgettable (in fact, I had forgotten it – only my scrawled note saved me).

‘Shock Treatment’ also has objectionable aspects to it – in particular its racist and homophobic comments. Now, I realize that this is meant to satirize a certain type of all-American suburb dweller, but it isn’t made clear enough – it could easily pass as genuine hatred. And there’s the obvious product placements, which either were meant as satire or were ineptly inserted in the picture.

And that’s the problem with ‘Shock Treatment’: for all its intentions, the message isn’t clear. It’s so chaotic and poorly put together that it’s difficult to make any sense of it – and what little does make sense is disjointed from the rest. It’s a frightful mess on too many levels for it to work. Sadly, after my initial shock, there was no treatment that make up for it.

The only thing that really redeems this picture in my eyes is that at least the filmmakers decided not to make a direct sequel to ‘RHPS’ (they considered it, actually, but the idea was rejected). It’s a gutsy move to make a follow-up to an extremely popular work and not ride on its coattails. Having said this, they rode on them just enough that it tainted the project.

Sigh… I can’t recommend this as anything but a curiosity. And even then, I’d suggest caution.

Post scriptum: there’s a bloody good chance that I will watch ‘UHF’ to cleanse my palate. It may not be genius satire, but it succeeds far more then this one does. So watch for it in coming weeks.

Date of viewing: May 7, 2014

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