Dr. Strangefilm Case #014: Shock Treatment

Shock Treatment1Hollywood often gets a bad rap for squeezing blood from stones (or beating dead horses, or whatever colorful metaphor one wishes to use) with ill-conceived and unnecessary sequels, but you have to give them some credit for allowing many of the truly classic films to stand alone. It was TV, not the movies, that gave us the Gone with the Wind continuation Scarlett; Frank Capra didn’t bring back Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as an elderly couple ignored by their grown kids in It’s Still a Wonderful Life; Warner Bros. didn’t go through with a proposed Casablanca sequel entitled Brazzaville, and John Waters abandoned plans for his Pink Flamingos reprise, Flamingos Forever, after Divine’s untimely passing. With all that in mind, whose bright idea was it to make a follow-up to the quintessential cult movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show? None other than RHPS creator Richard O’Brien, as it turns out, and what eventually evolved into 1981′s Shock Treatment overcame a number of obstacles to emerge as…not as bad a film as one might expect.

Once 20th Century Fox took a look at Rocky’s midnight show success in the late 1970s, it wasn’t surprising that they, co-producer Lou Adler, director Jim Sharman, and O’Brien would consider making a sequel. Just where does one go, though, after that film’s finale, with (SPOILER ALERT!!!) “sweet transvestite” Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) dead and ravaged all-American sweethearts Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) left “crawling on the planet’s face”?  O’Brien came up a script entitled Rocky Horror Kicks His Heels, which would have revived the corset-clad scientist and had a pregnant Janet wondering if the father-to-be was Brad or Frank, but the original’s three leads begged off due to–depending upon whom one talks to–either scheduling or salary reasons, and the idea was scrapped.

Next up was The Brad and Janet Show, an relatively unrelated story (filled with O’Brien’s songs) that skewered middle American life and the mass media, with the title couple falling prey to the owner and staff of a sinister TV station. Curry was offered the dual role of Brad and station owner/fast food mogul Farley Flavors, but turned it down because he wasn’t sure he could pull off an American accent, and Sarandon had by this point gone on to bigger projects (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City) and was thus unavailable. Taking over as the hapless duo were Cliff De Young, who had been considered for the Brad role in Rocky, and Jessica Harper, who played the heroine in Brian De Palma’s RHPS-like 1974 horror/musical Phantom of the Paradise. Several actors from the first film (Nell Campbell, Charles Gray, Patricia Quinn, and O’Brien) did return, albeit as new characters. The only person to have the same role in both? That would be Jeremy Newson as Ralph Hapschatt. You know, Brad’s pal who got married in Rocky’s opening scene.

Shock Treatment4In a curious case of adversities working in a production’s favor, a U.S. actors’ strike forced the shooting to move to England, where a lack of suitable outdoor locations and budget constraints led O’Brien to set the film, now retitled Shock Treatment, entirely within a giant TV studio that’s a second home to the residents of typical small town Denton. Two of those residents, De Young’s Brad and Harper’s Janet, are “volunteered” to appear on a game show called Marriage Maze, hosted by the manic, Germanic and apparently blind Bert Schnick (Australian comic Barry Humphries, minus his Dame Edna drag).  When their responses to Bert’s leading questions reveal Brad to be an “emotional cripple” and more than a little boring, he’s quickly wheeled off onto another program, the real-life hospital drama Dentonvale, and into the “caring hands” of incestuous sibling doctors Cosmo (O’Brien) and Nation (Quinn) McKinley and their aides, Nurse Ansalong (Campbell) and Rest Home Ricky (Rik Mayall).

Meanwhile, Janet has caught the eye of the mysterious Flavors (De Young again), who arranges for her to be groomed for stardom by Schnick and the McKinleys and presented to the eager Denton viewing public as its latest celebrity on his new show, Faith Factory. All the fame and attention goes to poor Janet’s head, while poor Brad is left sedated and straitjacketed in Dentonvale (“Is it because I’m becoming too popular?,” she asks). It takes some assistance from local commentator Judge Oliver Wright (Gray, who does indeed have a neck) and Ralph Hapschatt’s ex-wife Betty (Ruby Wax)–hosts of the recently-cancelled Denton Dossier news show–for Brad to escape his confinement and confront his rival for Janet’s affections.

Shock Treatment5Taken on its own merits, Shock Treatment does have several things in its favor. The beguiling, wide-eyed Harper is fine as Janet, and is a more natural singer (as evidenced in Phantom of the Paradise and 1981′s Pennies from Heaven) than Susan Sarandon. De Young’s Brad Majors is even more bland than Barry Bostwick’s RHPS “hero,” but he does manage to carry off a late ’70s Jack Nicholson’s sleazy charm as the manipulative Flavors, who has a not-all-that-surprising link to Brad’s past. Humphries, still a relative unknown in the U.S. in 1981, is a hoot (or maybe a “Hoopla!”) as the demented Schnick. O”Brien and Richard Hartley’s soundtrack is mostly on a par with Rocky, with the opening “Denton, U.S.A.” number, “Little Black Dress,” and the title tune sequence in particular standing out. And how can you not like a script featuring a sight gag that references Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? The film’s most intriguing aspect, however, is how O’Brien managed to (inadvertently?) predict the rise of reality TV and the omnipresence of shows like Big Brother and American Idol. For Denton, the line between real life and show business has ceased to exist, and Janet is all too willingly sucked into her perverted Pygmalions’ quest for fame.

On the other hand, the haunted house spoof storyline and sense of “innocent debauchery” that allowed Rocky Horror to connect with audiences willing to see it week after week are sorely lacking here. The satire of society’s small-screen obsession, prescient though it proved to be, comes off as somewhat heavy-handed and too self-aware. It’s hard at times to sympathize with the starstruck Harper and the semi-comatose De Young, O’Brien and Quinn’s brother-sister quack therapists never fully develop as characters, and Campbell gets even less to do aside from helping wheel around Brad.

It’s next to impossible to deliberately create a cult film. It’s even more difficult, if you’ve accidentally made one, to catch that lightning in a bottle a second time. Consequently, Shock Treatment failed in its initial theatrical run as a midnight movie, when it was considered too offbeat for non-RHPS fans and not enough like its predecessor for the hardcore faithful. Nearly three decades later, in a digitally-linked world saturated with instant media coverage and obnoxious manufactured TV “stars” (I mean you, Real Housewives and Jersey Shore casts), the film can stand out as a fun, if uneven romp that–if it doesn’t quite live up to the tagline “not a sequel, not a prequel, but an equal”–still manages to charm with its own demented style. Hoopla, Denton!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rose.weisburd Rose Weisburd

    A comparison to The Apple (1980) would be interesting. Both have a theme of a young heroine being seduced away from her true partner by fame.