"It was hoped that Shock Treatment would repeat the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And I think in hindsight that what you realize is that you can't create a cult. Cults happen organically. An audience finds a movie, embraces it, and makes it into a cult." - JOHN GOLDSTONE, producer
When a Hollywood movie is released to popular acclaim and financial success, the next step is clear: give the audience more of the same, only with the volume turned up, as soon as possible. It helps, of course, if the first movie belongs to an easily-identifiable category (comedy, action, horror) and leaves its most popular characters alive and ready for further adventures at the end. But how do you follow up an unexpected, late-blooming hit like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a bizarre, cross-genre mishmash which ends with the death of its central and most popular character, the transvestite alien mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry)? Such was the question plaguing the executives at 20th Century Fox back in 1979 in the wake of Rocky Horror's highly unlikely reversal of fortune. British writer/actor Richard O'Brien's oddball 1972 stage musical The Rocky Horror Show had been a hit in London and Los Angeles, but an attempt to bring the show to Broadway had flopped by the time Fox's film adaptation limped into theaters in the fall of 1975. It looked like another pop culture fad had come and gone, but amazingly the movie -- about a square American couple, Brad and Janet, who undergo a night of debauchery in the Gothic castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter -- somehow became the object of intense adulation among its hardcore fans, who used the film as the center of a truly unique multimedia phenomenon. Weekly showings of RHPS incorporated live performance, audience participation, and the filmed image. Complicating matters further, as far as a sequel was concerned, the film's following was at least partially ironic: the tradition of yelling "callbacks" at the screen started as a form of heckling during the many awkward pauses in the dialogue. But, still, the demand for more Rocky was definitely there, and so O'Brien got to work on a sequel to his famous/infamous creation.
The initial result of O'Brien's labors was a screenplay called Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, conceived as a direct sequel to the first film in which Dr. Frank-N-Furter rises from the grave, Janet gives birth to his half-alien baby, and Brad reveals himself to be homosexual. This script, accompanied by a demo tape of new songs, apparently did not instill much confidence in the Fox brass, so O'Brien set about reworking the project with Jim Sharman, the director and co-writer of the original Rocky Horror film. Eventually, through a series of rewrites, Heels mutated into something called The Brad & Janet Show, which in turn became what we now know as Shock Treatment. Along the way, all three principals from the first film -- Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon -- either became unavailable or backed out, and the entire project had to be reconceived on a much-smaller budget following an actor's guild strike. What had been planned as a location shoot in Dallas, Texas would now be filmed entirely within a British soundstage. The resulting film came out in 1981, six long years after the first, and was quickly rejected by the Rocky Horror cultists, who felt they were being manipulated by the Fox publicity machine. An attempt to show the film at New York's Waverly Theater, birthplace of the Rocky Horror cult, proved disastrous and led to a scathing editorial in the Village Voice entitled "Mock Rocky," deriding this prefabricated attempt to create another Rocky Horror. Outsiders seemingly had no interest in the film either, and it vanished into home video obscurity. And that is pretty much where Shock Treatment's reputation lies today. When the film is mentioned at all nowadays, it is used as a cautionary example of why a studio should never, ever try to intentionally create a so-called "cult" movie. The history of Shock Treatment, one would be tempted to say, has been written. Its fate is sealed. The verdict is in, and it's guilty. Right?
Well, possibly. But every defendant is entitled to the benefit of counsel, right? That's where I step in.
I came to this movie in a very roundabout way. In my high school and college years (mid-to-late 1990s), I was entranced by the Rocky Horror phenomenon. I had only recently discovered the whole "cult movies" movement, mainly thanks to books like Midnight Movies, and the audience participation rituals surrounding Rocky particularly fascinated me. I attended any nearby screenings I could find, which were rare, and eagerly wrote about the film on Internet message boards. Ultimately, a CD of Rocky Horror rarities called Songs from the Vault found its way into my music collection, and through that album I was able to hear three songs from the sequel: "Denton USA," "Little Black Dress," and the title tune. In retrospect, this was the best possible introduction to the film, i.e. through its three catchiest numbers: anthemic rock tunes which I felt rivaled those of the Rocky Horror soundtrack. Around this time, I was also assembling a collection of articles and books related to Rocky Horror, and these usually included at least a paragraph or two about Shock Treatment. I was intrigued enough to actually track down the film on VHS -- luckily it was still available for rent back then -- and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, though I'd been warned it was a difficult first watch. I special ordered my own copy for my permanent collection and watched it many times, eventually becoming nearly as obsessed with Shock as I had been with Rocky. Soon, I was writing about it on Usenet and composing detailed and loving parodies and quizzes related to the film. After a few years, my fervor for all things Rocky Horror cooled, but I have never entirely lost my affection for either film and revisit both occasionally, both by watching the DVDs and listening to the soundtracks on my iPod. When Craig suggested the theme of ready-made cult movies for this project, I thought it was a good opportunity to write about this film and how it's held up nearly 30 years after its original, ignominious release.
Shock Treatment has the sad, unalterable fate being forever known as the inferior follow-up to Rocky Horror -- the Wings to Rocky's Beatles, you might say -- but I think it deserves a little better than that. In fact, I'd like to think of it as the Rocky Horror equivalent of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. When critic Nathan Rabin reviewed that divisive album, he called it "a bittersweet sleeper that hovers somewhere between an interesting failure and a secret success. It seems destined to be the weird little orphan that fans single out as a favorite." Those words apply themselves manifestly to Shock Treatment, a film which actually has carved out a tiny niche of die-hard fans within the larger Rocky Horror community over the years, despite the scorn of critics and widespread indifference of the population at large. Still today, there are several super-detailed Shock fan sites on the net and even rare screenings of the film with full live shows, even though Fox has not shown much interest in promoting the film in almost three decades. It was fan demand alone which brought the soundtrack to CD back in the 1990s and the film itself to DVD just a few years ago.
To be fair, the film barely feels like a proper sequel to Rocky Horror, despite the return of several cast members: O'Brien himself, plus Patricia Quinn, (Little) Nell Campbell, Charles Gray, and Jeremy Newson, whose bland Ralph Hapschatt character is promoted from cameo status to supporting player. Behind the scenes are further Rocky alums: director/co-writer Jim Sharman, composer/arranger Richard Hartley, production designer Brian Thomson, and costumer Sue Blaine. With all these graduates of the first film on board, why does Shocky -- as fans have nicknamed it -- seem so different from its big brother? For one thing, as I mentioned previously, all three of the first film's principals -- Curry, plus Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon -- are AWOL for various reasons, namely money and scheduling. (If you had told people in 1975 that Rocky Horror's sequel would feature no appearance -- or even mention -- of Dr. Frank-N-Furter but would contain a whole lot more Ralph Hapschatt, who would have believed you?)
But more importantly, the two films are going for entirely different moods. Rocky Horror is essentially a nostalgia piece: a cluttered curio shop filled with pop culture wreckage of the middle decades of the last century, particularly the horror films of the 1930s and the rock music of the 1950s. At its core, Rocky Horror takes a 1950s-type couple (Brad and Janet), exposes them to the liberation and experimentation of the 1960s, and then deposits them, bewildered, into the cynicism and disillusionment of the 1970s. And all that in one night! Shock Treatment, on the other hand, is all about this new thing called the 1980s and how Brad and Janet fare in the new decade. It came out in 1981, Ronald Reagan's first year in office and a turning point for America. The failure of the Carter presidency represented the last gasp of the Woodstock generation's idealism, and the next decade would show a return to those dubious "traditional family values" of yore and an increased emphasis on unchecked avarice and mindless materialism. Remember in our article on Spies Like Us when I said that the 1980s were sort of a second 1950s, with "Dutch" Reagan as the new "Ike" Eisenhower? Interestingly, Shock Treatment actually contains a few references to Eisenhower himself. One character, Judge Wright (Charles Gray) says of Brad and Janet: "Ike would have been proud of them." Meanwhile, newcomer Cliff De Young, taking over the role of Brad Majors, modeled his performance on Ike's straight-arrow grandson, David Eisenhower (who along with Tricky Dick's daughter Julie Nixon formed a real life Brad-and-Janet-type uber-WASP couple). In Shock Treatment, the small town of Denton, USA has been turned into a Reaganite nightmare world: a giant television studio called DTV where the like-minded, polyester-clad suburbanites in the audience frequently stand up and sing about the joys of consumerism and conformity, while the on-air personalities are grinning, insincere monsters whose megawatt smiles vanish the second the cameras are turned off. This is the world Brad and Janet now inhabit -- a sterile, shiny environment that is a far cry from the dark and dusty castle of Rocky Horror. Having been plucked from the studio audience to appear on a game show called Marriage Maze, Brad is shipped off to a mental institution where he is straitjacketed, gagged, confined to a wheelchair, and imprisoned in what looks like a giant birdcage. Janet, meanwhile, is groomed for superstardom as a singer/actress and is fed a constant supply of Judy Garland-type "happy pills" to keep her docile and out-of-it. We soon learn that these bizarre events are being orchestrated by DTV's obscenely wealthy and mysterious new sponsor, fast food kingpin Farley Flavors, as part of an elaborate revenge scheme. (Ever notice how often the fast food industry is used as shorthand for "pure corporate evil" in the movies?) And all of these plot developments are used as fodder for a series of what we would now call "reality shows," with cameras and monitors everywhere and all the characters spying on one another. In hindsight, the sub-motif of cameras and monitors in Rocky Horror provided the seed for this facet of the film. This "reality show" aspect of Shock Treatment shows just how ahead-of-the-curve Richard O'Brien was. With this film, he was satirizing a genre which doesn't even exist yet!
Just as the early rock & roll provided a counterpoint to the enforced niceness of the 1950s, the punk and New Wave movements did what they could to undermine the straight-laced soullessness of Reagan's America. Appropriately, much of the music in Shock Treatment has a vaguely New Wave sound (the movement is even name-checked in the galloping title song), and there's even a sort-of-punk band here, Oscar Drill and the Bits, who perform a great number called "Breaking Out," which sounds like 1981's answer to Green Day. Interestingly, one recurring motif of punk music from the Ramones (who sang "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment") to Suicidal Tendencies (of "Institutionalized" fame), is a paranoid mistrust of the entire mental health industry, and that's one of the big motifs of this film as well. The punk view of the mental health industry, possibly supported by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is that mental health is just The Man's way of dealing with rebels and malcontents, using insidious drugs and surgeries to make them cooperate and behave. Here, the running joke is that passive, utterly harmless Brad -- who seems to have suffered a stroke since Rocky Horror -- is treated like Jack Nicholson's rebellious McMurphy from Cuckoo's Nest. Weirdly, though, he does not undergo the title treatment, possibly because the institution to which he has been committed, Dentonvale, is run by "character actors" (O'Brien and Quinn) posing as real doctors.
In truth, the mental health theme in Shock Treatment is rather muddled and inconclusive, and this points to the film's structural weakness. Rocky Horror had a very definite template from which to work, that of the traditional "spooky old house"-type horror movie, and this helps guide the audience along even as the plot threatens to lapse into incoherence. Shock, however, does not have this advantage, and its defiance of traditional genres makes it a tough sell to newcomers. If anything, it's a satire -- and a somewhat snide and mean-spirited one at that -- of American values as seen from a British perspective. I've been re-watching Monty Python's Flying Circus recently, and it's amazing how consistent the British satirical view of America is. To them, we're fast-talking phonies with pasted-on smiles and aggressive handshakes, and it seems like we're always selling something or other. This film frequently plays like it was made by people who had heard third-hand descriptions of America but never actually been there themselves. The script, as I said, was hastily rewritten to take place entirely within a soundstage, and I don't think O'Brien and crew had quite worked out all the kinks in this idea. The studio audience are shown arriving at the beginning, for instance, but then are shown to spend all day and all night there as well, actually sleeping in their seats. Furthermore, the bad guys are always scheming in secrecy amongst themselves, but since there are cameras and monitors everywhere -- and the rooms have no ceilings anyway -- it's far too easy for the heroes to unravel the various conspiracies. And frankly, the closed-in, utterly artificial environment of DTV becomes tedious over the course of an entire film. All the walls in this place are padded like those of a "rubber room" in a mental ward, the floors are all polished to a high shine, and the lighting is of the bright, industrial variety. Given that many of the characters wear medical-type uniforms throughout the film, Shock Treatment has a cold oppressiveness that makes one long for the cluttered, cobwebbed look of Rocky Horror, which seemed to be taking place in a derelict cinema. The bright, primary colors of Shock Treatment's costumes and sets -- especially the forced red-white-and-blue motif (subtle, right?) -- also began to irritate my eyes after a while.
There are further obstacles for the viewer to overcome. While the movie is a satire of the television industry and takes place entirely within a TV studio, director Sharman aims his camera far too often at actual television monitors so we get that tapestry-like look with horizontal lines running through the picture. While re-watching the film for this project, that technique soon wore on my nerves. The "Dentonvale" scenes are intended as soap opera parodies, but the tinny organ music and voice-of-god narrator make these scenes feel more like a Muppet Show skit rather than a real soap. Furthermore, too many scenes end with characters making cryptic pronouncements and then either staring at another character or staring off into space. (Judge Wright and Farley Flavors are particularly guilty of this.) I guess it's another way of parodying soap operas, which often employ "scene-ending stares," but I got tired of it over the course of an hour and a half. Overall, the film has a charisma vacuum left by the absence of Tim Curry. Through the various rewrites, the Frank-N-Furter character was eventually supplanted by Farley Flavors, who like Brad is played by Cliff De Young, a capable singer and actor but not a terribly exciting screen presence. De Young modeled his portrayal of Farley Flavors on Jack Nicholson and does a fairly good impression of him, but perhaps only an actor of Nicholson's caliber could have made us truly care about this rather underwritten, though crucial, character. Meanwhile, Nell Campbell -- often a delightful presence in campy, offbeat films -- seems slightly underused in her role as cheerful, underwear-flaunting Nurse Ansalong. She is paired up here with British alternative comedian Rik Mayall, whose gifts for verbal and physical comedy are completely squandered, since his hospital-orderly character is mostly seen performing menial tasks in the backgrounds of scenes. It is amusing to think that a year before The Young Ones, Rik Mayall was spending his time learning his steps to numbers like "Look What I Did to My Id."
But for all the shortcomings of Shock Treatment, there is much to take delight in, too. I discovered this film around the same time as Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, and I developed an intense, long-lasting crush on Jessica Harper because of those movies. With her vaguely Karen Carpenter-esque singing voice and cartoon-chipmunk-cute looks, Jessica should have become a major star with dozens of hit films and maybe a long-lasting sitcom on her IMDb page. But instead of headlining major blockbusters, she usually found herself in oddball pictures like this one, gaining the adulation of her fans but probably not much money, and ultimately wound up as a performer of children's music. Sort of a shame, really, but in the long run it's "our" gain and "their" loss, as Jessica's fans can still enjoy her appearances in diverse and off-the-wall films like Inserts, Pennies From Heaven, Suspiria and Stardust Memories, and we don't have to suffer through lame, formulaic romantic comedies, which is probably what Hollywood would've given her had she become a bigger star. Harper's singing and acting contribute enormously to Shock Treatment, and she even manages to sell two of the film's less-catchy, somewhat dour numbers, "Looking For Trade" and "In My Own Way." Speaking of those songs, the conventional wisdom on Shocky is that its soundtrack is not up to par with the first film. But I maintain that the songs tend to grow on you with time, much as the film itself does. Those three tunes included on Songs from the Vaults are perhaps the film's catchiest and most-obvious would-be hits -- and hence provide the best "gateway" to enjoying the overall film -- but there are other musical gems in this film as well. The song "Lullaby," while not serving much of a thematic or plot purpose in the film, is nevertheless a gorgeous midtempo rock number. I've already praised the terrific punk raver, "Breaking Out," which absolutely deserves to be heard outside the context of this film. And then there's the film's most startling number, "Thank God I'm a Man," sung by Janet's super-conservative father, Harry, who dons an army helmet and golf clothes while he "mows" his fake Astroturf lawn. The song, a litany of proudly misogynistic and homophobic beliefs, is in some ways the Shock Treatment answer to "Sweet Transvestite." Like "Transvestite," "Thank God" gives sort of a weather report on the sexual climate of the day.
Boy did things change between 1975 and 1981!
When I suggested the theme for May, I must confess I had an inkling of which "Cult on Arrival" film Joe would choose for us. I figured, as a longstanding Rocky-ologist, he wouldn't be able to resist the siren call of that film's much-maligned sequel, Shock Treatment, and happily I was proved right. I say "happily" because until now I've only ever seen the film once and it wasn't under the most ideal conditions. For one thing, it was a second-generation VHS copy (probably dubbed from a rental), so the sound was hissy and the picture cropped. For another, I watched it in the company of a friend who is near and dear to me, but we were over his apartment and his son (who was very young at time) was constantly trying to get our attention, which was more than a little distracting. So while I was able to say that I had seen the film, it didn't feel like I had gotten the full Shock Treatment, well, treatment.
Of course, I had had a similar experience with The Rocky Horror Picture Show itself, starting in high school when a group of friends rented it from the video store to see what all the fuss was about. (This was in 1990 when, in celebration of its 15th anniversary, the film was given its first, long-delayed video release.) Unsurprisingly, the experience was somewhat underwhelming since none of us knew anything of the film's history or what to do or say at any given moment, which made the whole thing seem rather pointless. I changed my tune when I got to college and, early in my sophomore year, went to an outdoor screening on campus with a number of Rocky Horror veterans in attendance who were able to walk us through some of the audience participation antics and lobbed comments at the screen like the pros they were. They also encouraged us to come to the movie theater where they had their weekly screenings, but I wasn't ready for that kind of a commitment. As a matter of fact, it was another few years before I had my first full-fledged Rocky Horror-in-a-packed-theater-with-live-cast-miming-in-front-of-the-screen experience (at the invitation of the same friend who later showed me Shock Treatment) and I determined that once was enough. Sure, I had a good time, but I recognized that Rocky Horror was not something I needed to dedicate my life to.
Since then, I've read a great deal about it in various cult and midnight movie books, and learned all about its history from Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult, which was published in 2002, but didn't watch the film itself again until just recently, in preparation for this article. If I was going to judge Shock Treatment on the basis of its attempt to become an overnight cult movie, it only made sense for me to reacquaint myself with the cult phenomenon it failed to replicate. Seeing the films back-to-back was instructive, especially since I came full circle with Rocky Horror, borrowing it from the library (on DVD this time) so I could watch it in the comfort of my own home. Happily, having spent the past two decades familiarizing myself with the kinds of movies Richard O'Brien rapturously sings about in "Science Fiction/Double Feature," I found I was able to appreciate the film on its own merits quite apart from the cult trappings that grew up around it. This is largely due to the combination of O'Brien's masterful book and lyrics, which affectionately sent up and fulfilled the requirements of the genre in equal measure, director Jim Sharman's translation of the play into a cinematic tour de force (aided in no small part by director of photography Peter Suschitzky, who shot films for Peter Watkins, John Boorman and Ken Russell, among others, before becoming David Cronenberg's cinematographer of choice starting with Dead Ringers), and Tim Curry's indelible performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. His total commitment to the role elevates the material in ways that can't be denied and his decision not to return for the follow-up -- even as a different character -- was a blow from which Shock Treatment never really recovered.
As Joe has said, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon likewise declined to reprise their roles as Brad and Janet, which left Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper to fill their shoes -- not an easy task under any circumstances. De Young doesn't really get a chance to put his own stamp on Brad Majors since that character is sidelined fairly early on and spends most of the movie bound and gagged to boot, but Harper steps up to the plate and takes ownership of Janet, starting with the way she belts out her songs. I can't imagine Sarandon, whose only solo number in Rocky Horror is "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me," being able to carry the songs in Shock Treatment the way Harper does. She even manages to sell her half of "Bitchin' in the Kitchen," which is the sort of song that encourages me to roll my eyes since De Young begins it by addressing a blender. Sure, as it develops it becomes clear that it's a song about rampant materialism, but Talking Heads tackled the subject with much better results with "Love for Sale" from their 1986 album and film True Stories (which, unlike Shock Treatment, was actually shot on location in Texas).
For his part, De Young makes more of an impression as fast food king Farley Flavors, who watches over the town of Denton (and its attendant television station, DTV) like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Ted Turner, waiting for his moment to swoop down and claim his Jane(t). In the meantime, though, he uses his powers as DTV's primary sponsor to pry Brad and Janet apart (with the help of Marriage Maze host Barry Humphries, better known to the world as Dame Edge Everage) and keep them apart (with the help of Dentonvale's resident mental health specialists Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn, again playing at being incestuous siblings). He even enlists Janet's previously unseen parents (Darlene Johnson and Manning Redwood) and sets them up in Happy Homes so they can be monitored while they attempt to talk her into leaving Brad for good. "Thank God he was born an orphan," Redwood deadpans. "It would have killed his parents." Meanwhile, there's a fair bit of behind-the-scenes intrigue as Betty Hapschatt's public affairs show Denton Dossier is unceremoniously canceled to make way for Good Morning Denton, hosted by her philandering husband Ralph (Jeremy Newson, the only Rocky Horror actor reprising his role from the first film), who has since taken up his co-host, Macy Struthers (Wendy Raeback). For her part, Betty (Ruby Wax) teams up with Charles Gray's Judge Wright to get to the bottom of things, but I kind of wish the film had concentrated more on a few central characters rather than promoting so many others to supporting player status. In a way, Shock Treatment is kind of like a latter-day Christopher Guest film in this respect. Sure, it's great that Guest has so many funny people on his Rolodex, but he shouldn't feel obligated to put every single one of them in every single one of his films.
Near the end of the film, with his goal of usurping Brad in Janet's life almost within reach, Farley Flavors describes her thusly: "Innocence, decency, and the illusion of a happy ending." In a lot of ways, this could sum up Shock Treatment itself, since its happy ending is decidedly ambiguous. Sure, Brad, Janet, Betty Hapschatt and Judge Wright (along with Oscar Drill and the Bits) have managed to escape the confines of Denton's antiseptic studio, but will they remember how to act without the benefit of a viewing audience? I guess we'll never know since Shock Treatment's failure as a midnight movie attraction (which was the only way Fox promoted it) precluded any chance of a third film in the series. Still, it managed to secure a DVD release in time for its 25th anniversary, which may or may not help to raise its profile. At the very least, it's a lot easier to see now.
Up next: "Cult on Arrival" month concludes with a trek across the eighth dimension with a world-renowned brain surgeon, rocket scientist and bandleader all in one smoking package.