FILM REVIEW: Shock Treatment (1981)

Shock Treatment (USA, 1981)
Directed by Jim Sharman

Starring Cliff De Young, Jessica Harper, Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn

The only thing more foolish than remaking a cult film is making a sequel to one. This idea becomes worse still when that cult film happens to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show: no matter how many of the original cast return, it wouldn't be humanly possible for lightning to strike twice. For all its initial promise and moments of hilarity, Shock Treatment is a failure both as a sequel and in its own right.Shock Treatment could be called the middle instalment of an unfinished Rocky Horror trilogy. The unproduced third instalment, Revenge of the Old Queen, would have been set on the planet of Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, with Frank N. Furter's mother (the Old Queen of the title) seeking revenge on Richard O'Brien's Riff Raff. While Brad Majors has become a Las Vegas go-go dancer and died from falling off a trapeze, Janet has become a mother through her night of passion with Frank in the first film, and brings their new-born child to this strange and twisted planet.Neither Shock Treatment nor Revenge of the Old Queen are direct sequels, retaining much of the same cast but playing different roles. Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn are still playing brother and sister, with Riff Raff and Magenta becoming Doctors Cosmo and Nation McKinley. Nell Campbell trades in Columbia for Nurse Ansalong, and Charles Gray's Criminologist becomes Judge Oliver Wright. They are joined by Barry Humphries, playing a Dr. Strangelove knock-off called Bert Schnick, and a pre-Young Ones Rik Mayall as 'Rest Home' Ricky. And in classic B-movie fashion, the main characters from the first film are played by different actors, with Cliff De Young taking over as Brad and Janet being played by Suspiria star Jessica Harper.Shock Treatment does attempt to tackle a number of interesting ideas surrounding the nature of television, using musical conventions to raise serious questions in a light-hearted way. To some extent it is about how advertising has come to dominate television and influence its content at the expense of serious programming. This is shown in Charles Gray's first scene, in which almost every word of his 'interview' is talked over by promo people and his disinterested host, played by Ruby Wax.The look of Shock Treatment is deliberately tacky and plastic. Everything within the TV station looks like an advert, with fake pinball smiles, garish 1950s colours and women who all resemble either air hostesses or fashion models. One song is set in a gallery of all the clichés of the American dream - the white picket fence, the perfectly sheared hedge and the man with his lawnmower. And there is the association of fast food consumption with being sane, which resembles a non-ironic mix of Monty Python's Appeal for Sanity with the New Seekers adverts for Coke.There is also an undercurrent in Shock Treatment about reality television. The population of Denton have given up their lives to become the permanent studio audience of this 24-hour TV station. Their entire existence is based around watching the lives of others, observing and obsessing over every last detail of relationships. The nature of the TV programmes such as Dentonvale reflect this voyeuristic desire; characters are committed to the asylum so that people can watch them go to pieces, all for the sake of entertainment.Sadly, all these interesting ideas end up getting lost as the film moves on. For all the subversive intelligence of O'Brien's ideas, his script and songs cannot convey them in a way which is meaningful, coherent or narratively sound. The result is a total mess which resembles channel surfing through a mixture of MTV and late-night game shows.The first and biggest problem with Shock Treatment is its story. In the case of Rocky Horror, the plot was assembled from different bits of B-movies and pushed forward by the songs: the familiarity of the references always gave you some idea of where it was going, or at least that it was going somewhere. Shock Treatment doesn't have those traditions to fall back on, and its existing plot is far too thin to stand on its own.Because the central story is so simple (Brad and Janet fall out, split and get back together), the film has to keep chucking different things into the mix to appear more sophisticated, until staying on top of it becomes as difficult as herding cats. There are too many characters on whom to focus, with both Rik Mayall and Nell Campbell being largely superfluous, and the rest are barely developed beyond suggestions of odd sexual preferences. In any case, the idea of real people being caught up in a lethal TV game show was handled better in The Running Man six years later.A related problem is that there is no strong central performance. In Rocky Horror, Tim Curry stole every scene that he was in, so that even if what was going on made no sense at all, there was a magnetism in the finished product which kept you interested. There is no such tent-pole in Shock Treatment: Cliff De Young is no Tim Curry, and he doesn't get enough screen time in either of his roles to build himself up. There is also no narrator who can come in to steer the ship: Charles Gray is shoved into the background and becomes a subplot with little bearing on events until the trite final revelation surrounding Brad and Farley.When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 came out, Kim Newman wrote that it seemed to have been directed by someone who not only didn't make the first film, but who never actually saw it. And for all the good work that Jim Sharman did on Rocky Horror, there is a similar feeling with this film. Despite its deliberately tacky edges and madcap colour schemes, there is precious little of Rocky Horror's distinctive style remaining here. In fact, with all its 1980s fashion and emphasis on glamour, it begins to feel like a series of videos for The Human League or Michael Jackson.Then there are the musical numbers to worry about. The cast sing well enough, especially Jessica Harper in her musical debut. And there are one or two tracks which pass muster: the title track is catchy and 'Bitchin' In The Kitchen' is quite witty in combining marital frustration with household appliances. But the rest are just plain forgettable, with none of the syllable-stretching wit of O'Brien's earlier work. 'Little Black Dress' feels like an off-cut from Grease (and not in a good way), while 'Thank God I'm A Man' finds O'Brien ripping off Frank N. Furter's song from the first film.Worst of all, Shock Treatment is really quite dull. The cast clearly had a ball making it, but next to none of that fun rubs off on the people watching it. The story is too incoherent, the characters too uninvolvingly madcap, and after a while the deliberately plastic conversations between the presenters and audience becomes repetitive and tiresome. Even the prospect of Charles Gray singing and dancing - one of the highlights of the first film - isn't enough to rouse us: the sight of it just makes us wish that such an entertaining actor hadn't been so obviously wasted.Shock Treatment is a deeply disappointing misfire from Sharman and O'Brien. It was never going to match Rocky Horror on any level, and the creators deserve some credit for wanting to make something that could stand on its own and have something to say. But in the end all their efforts are in vain, with all that was magical and distinctive about Rocky Horror being mostly absent this time around. You won't need treatment after watching it, but to quote Rocky himself, it's a pretty big downer.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: A disappointing misfire


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