CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, , Charles Gray, Ruby Wax,

PLOT: A young married couple end up in a town that’s actually a giant television network; Janet is groomed as a celebrity, while Brad becomes a mental patient in a hospital show.

Still from Shock Treatment (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shock Treatment is a cult film even among the tiny subset of cult film enthusiasts. This “sequel” was rejected as a confounding disappointment by most fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but is still vehemently defended by a segment of that fan base. It’s a peculiar exercise in wacky musical satire, for sure, but it lacks the kind of résumé necessary to place it among the most significantly weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: What would you get if you took The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stripped out Tim Curry‘s domineering performance as the mad scientist transvestite dominatrix, leaving behind only the theater-rock musical numbers and campy supporting players? (On the off-chance you don’t see where I’m going yet, the answer is Shock Treatment). Whereas Rocky Horror was a theatrical flop that organically grew into a cult movie, Shock Treatment was pitched as a deliberate cult movie, but became an instant flop. This delayed follow-up is full of amped-up ideas and energy, but it comes off as cocksure; it’s so convinced its madness is entrancing that it forgets to ground us in its quirky universe. The (confusingly executed) idea is that the entire town of Denton, U.S.A. is a TV studio, with the audience as regular citizens, the stars and staff as sorts of metro officials, and the sponsors as big-money villains manipulating studio politics behind the scenes. The movie throws so many colorful eccentrics at us that every character turns into a minor character, even the leads. Janet (not necessarily the Janet Susan Sarandon played in the previous movie) and Brad (again, a character with the same name but little connection to the original) enter the town’s audience, for unclear reasons, and wind up on a marriage counseling show run by a blind Austrian in an orange thrift-store tuxedo. He hands Brad off to a brother/sister pair of psychiatrists (writer Richard O’Brien, wearing uncomfortable-looking coke-bottle glasses, and Patricia Quinn—they played an analogous ambiguously incestuous couple in RHPS), stars of the mental hospital soap opera “Denton Vale.” Brad is caged up and drugged, Janet’s parents (also in Denton’s audience, for some reason) are given a reality TV showcase after winning a quiz show, and Janet is written in to the town’s script as some sort of celebrity. Fame goes to her head and she forgets her institutionalized hubby; it’s all a plot by smitten cult leader Farley Flavors, who wants to seduce her. There’s also a pair of recently sacked, disgruntled talk show hosts running around causing trouble, a sexy nurse (RHPS‘s Little Nell) in an extremely short mint-green minidress, red-jacketed support staff, and a couple of multi-purpose cheerleaders who show up on various programs. Even if they weren’t constantly breaking into songs, this plot and cast would be fairly exhausting to follow. O’ Brien’s light-rock tunes are in the RHPS vein, although there’s no knockout, hummable number like “Time Warp.” His style is a matter of taste; I’ve seen the score both praised and trashed. Though the melodies are a matter of subjective preference, the lyrics can pose objective problems; like the rest of the movie, they often drift off-topic. One of the major plot-advancing numbers is a song duel between two characters have no prior history together; it contains the inexplicable exchange “you lost your heart”/”you lost your cause”/”you lost your baby when you lost your balls.” The title tune references the “shock treatment” that has no other place in the movie. The script is also thematically vague; there’s an emphasis on concepts of “mental hygiene,” an idea that seems to want to link itself to television’s ability to construct reality in favor of status quo interests, but it takes a lot of work on the viewer’s part to construct a meaningful satirical angle out of that tangle. The end result of the plot turns feels something like RHPS—an encounter with weirdos initially corrupts but eventually liberates uptight straights—but without the mildly naughty free-love edge. On the plus side, although Shock Treatment is confusing, it’s never boring. The costumes, sets and choreography are genially bizarre, there are a smattering of funny lines (“thank God he was born an orphan, it would have killed his parents”), and the boob-tube parody does impressively predict the rise of reality television. The returning RHPS cast of O’Brien, Quinn, and Little Nell meet fan expectations in their kinky supporting roles; Jessica Harper makes a somewhat bland Janet but proves she can really belt out a tune; and although Cliff De Young spends too much of the movie bound and gagged, he is surprisingly good in two roles (it’s hard to believe the same actor played both parts). While watching this DVD, I was never anxious to hit the “eject” button; but, having taken the disc out, I’m not tempted to reinsert it into the carousel.

One curious feature of the DVD is that the commentary is supplied by the President and Vice President of the Shock Treatment fan club. Within two minutes, they’re literally comparing the movie to Citizen Kane. Dedicated Rocky Horror fans may want to check this out, although keeping expectations low is advised. Those who like Rocky but haven’t added it to their DVD collection yet may want to take a flyer on that film’s 3-Disc Anniversary set (buy), which includes Shock Treatment as a bonus disc.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a confusing mess that, despite moments of inspired insanity, sadly fails to live up to the standard set by the original.”–Jason Buchanan, All Movie (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by our own (pre-fame) Alex Kittle , who promised it would be “really awesome, and really weird…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)”

  1. Wow, that’s a very informative and detailed survey of some of the troubled history of this movie. I recommend anyone interested in Shock Treatment give L. Rob’s article a read. All the revisions the script went through may help explain why it seemed to me the lyrics didn’t always fit well with the story—most of the songs were originally written for a completely different scenario.

  2. I have to admit LRob, I’m pretty impressed, you’ve been published in the same circulation that Godard was published in, and you know what you’re talking about. Kudos.

  3. I know I know, it’s not for everyone, but I completely love this movie! I think I’ve watched it more than RHPS, which is one of my favorites. I don’t know, something about the ambiguity is tantalizing- I keep looking for hidden clues to help me figure the whole weird thing out. Also I’m convinced it’s a sequel, since there are references to RHPS, but I know it’s up for debate. I also think the soundtrack is excellent, so I have to disagree with you there. And Cliff De Young really is surprising in the dual role- I didn’t realize it was the same person on my first viewing!

    Anyway I’m sorry this won’t make the list but I can’t pretend I don’t understand your reasoning. It’s not like that’ll stop me from watching it once a month anyway. Now I’m off to read LRob’s article!

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