Beyond Rocky Horror: Undergoing Shock Treatment

I must have first seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show aged around six or seven years old, stumbling upon a video of it my parents had taped from the TV (a spot for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare would date it early 1992 in the UK), and it kind of blew my tiny mind. Of course, much of its adult material flew over my head, I just enjoyed the silliness of it all, and my parents must have not been too concerned regarding the content given that they took me to see it on stage a couple of years later. So I grew up with Rocky Horror in a peculiar way, even appearing in a desexualised school production in my early teens (according to one parent, my American accent was very convincing). And yet the closest I’ve been to one of the film’s midnight screenings or sing-a-long events, the very thing that has sustained it as a pop cultural entity for so long, was an interview with creator Richard O’Brien and original musical director Richard Hartley at the Southbank Centre, culminating in a live rendition of ‘The Time Warp’.

With this background in place, I first became aware of Shock Treatment with its release on DVD, bundled together with a special edition version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, I soon gathered it had a reputation, even among Rocky Horror fans of being a bit, well, crap. You need only look at the general consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, and though it does have its defenders, the clear majority thinks it sucks, largely with the view that trying to follow in Rocky Horror’s footsteps was a bad idea to begin with. So for a long time, I gave it a miss – until now.

Released six years after the original film, Shock Treatment picks up with Brad and Janet, now wed but their marriage is on the rocks. Their hometown of Denton now appears to exist entirely within a TV studio and when they become gameshow contestants, Janet is whisked away into a life of glamour and celebrity while Brad is committed to a mental asylum. Will they ever break free and be reunited? Now, even I’m not sure that brief synopsis is what I saw, and that’s just very lightly skimming over the surface of the film’s many components. But first off, is it even a sequel then?

Janet (Jessica Harper) and Brad (Cliff De Young) on the Denton TV Set.

Well, Brad and Janet are the main characters. And a fair chunk of the cast and creative team return. But the callbacks to Rocky Horror are so minor (and nothing of their Transylvanian experiences are mentioned), it might as well exist unto itself. Though Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon didn’t return to their roles (filming commitments and salary quibbles respectively), this works in the film’s favour, drawing an effective line between Rocky Horror and itself. You might even wonder why they would even bother having Brad and Janet in at all, but as the archetypal sweethearts, it’s fitting that they should continue to represent the American dream gone sour, no longer chaste and repressed and ultimately giving into the “absolute pleasure” of Rocky Horror, but now married and facing the new struggles of stagnation, boredom and depression. In place of Sarandon and Bostwick are Jessica Harper (having already solidified her cult credentials with starring roles in Brian De Palma’s similarly rocking Phantom of the Paradise, and Dario Argento classic Suspiria) and Cliff De Young (who pulls off an impressive dual role so effectively, I didn’t realise until the end – or maybe I’m just a dumb-dumb). Meanwhile, returning Rocky Horror alumni include O’Brien (but of course), Patricia Quinn, and Nell Campbell, but if it is perhaps missing someone that could fill Tim Curry’s sizeable stiletto boots, you do get Barry Humphries as a crazy, blind, Austrian gameshow host, so it’s not a complete loss. And if that’s not enough, you also get Ruby Wax (yay?) and an all-singing all-dancing Rik Mayall (what?).

Yet, Shock Treatment remains an altogether different beast. Thematically it seems incredibly forward thinking, imagining a 24 hour constructed reality show, taking pop shots at consumerism and its place in modern society as a new religion, and dependency on drugs and self-medication to avoid dealing with their emotional problems head on – all in a heightened, bizarro musical fantasy. You could even say it is more relevant now than it was then, but maybe more relevant circa 2007 would be more accurate. But this melting pot of ideas is partially why it comes unstuck, prone to missing as many targets as it hits. Whereas Rocky Horror at least had a familiar framework of B-movie sci-fi and gothic horror tropes, Shock Treatment is more cohesive but less coherent, offering so little in terms of explanation it can feel alienating at times. There’s no outside world or context (partially down to the 1979 Screen Actors Guild strike preventing location filming), everyone simply accepting they live in a TV studio now, and no explanation for how and why this would be the case. What it really could do with is a narrator, akin to the Criminologist in Rocky Horror, but while Charles Gray also returns and offers some partial insights into what the heck’s going on, it’s not enough. Yet it’s carried along by its intense loopiness and your curiosity as to what might happen next, and there’s something quite admirable in how it offers no concessions to the audience.

The staff of insane asylum soap opera Dentonvale.

But then there are the songs, and any doubts that it couldn’t compete with Rocky Horror soon fizzle away, for the Shock Treatment songbook is arguably the equal of its famous forebear. Though in a similar rock ‘n’ roll vein for the most part, Shock Treatment shakes things up a fair amount too. The rousing, brilliant cheerleader chanting of ‘Denton, U.S.A.’ worms its way into your ear and refuses to let go. ‘Bitchin’ in the Kitchen’, in which Brad and Janet sing odes to household goods and appliances as featured in a commercial break over a nifty ska beat, is delightfully silly. The smoky and sultry ‘Looking for Trade’ is strangely haunting, ‘Lullaby’ is both sweet and creepy, while ‘Little Black Dress’ is the ‘Time Warp’ take two, and title track ‘Shock Treatment’ is a joy. As a selection of great songs, with inventive staging, set design and lighting, Shock Treatment is hard to beat. It’s just all the bits in between that barely keep it from falling apart under the weight of its weirdness.

Even with its flaws though, it still seems kind of baffling why it has nothing like the legacy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was cynically deployed, playing predominantly in midnight movie slots in the States, where Rocky Horror found its success, but this time round, even the in-built fanbase didn’t take to it, so it died at the box office with no one willing to resuscitate it. Given that the film is so self-contained, you would think it would find a new life on stage. And as the Denton TV audience is effectively the chorus (and you could simply replace the dressing up box of fishnets and Transylvanian tuxedos with Americana and doctors/nurses/strait-jackets), you might think a sing-a-longa crowd would adopt it as its own for all its cultish charms, but when even the President of the Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club doesn’t see the potential for audience participation, I guess Shock Treatment’s position as the unloved and forgotten sibling will unfairly forever remain.

So what I’ll say at the end of all this is if you love Rocky Horror, don’t delay your viewing of Shock Treatment any longer. If you don’t like it fine, it won’t sully your opinion of what came before, but you just might find something that shockingly turns out to be a treat. BA-DOOM-TISH.

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