As a follow-up and ostensible sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shock Treatment was doomed to limbo from conception, destined to please no one. The costumed cultists who made Rocky Horror an enduring phenomenon were inevitably disappointed by the latter film’s radical divergence from their beloved campfest, while those excluded from the cult understandably failed to take note of Shock Treatment’s existence. Director Jim Sharman and writer Richard O’Brien, reunited after the ascendancy of their midnight monster, aimed a movie at a specific subgroup that proceeded to reject it out of hand, unwilling to stray from the familiar: let’s do the Time Warp again and again and again. So the film fell through the cracks, and nobody today seems to care about it one way or the other.
Which is a shame, because as a movie it’s vastly wittier and more watchable than its clunky, artless predecessor. Let’s face it: by the time Meat Loaf shows up in Rocky Horror, you’ve stopped paying attention to anything but the songs. Shock Treatment has memorable tunes, too — especially the title number, a sprightly pop tribute to medical malfeasance. But the movie is also a clever and prescient media satire, following the same campily macabre impulses that informed RHPS but reflecting contemporary society (or an exaggeration thereof) rather than a jumbled fantasia of junk-culture images and ideas. With its darkly chaotic view of the madness wrought by commercial television, the film feels like a disreputable midnight version of Sidney Lumet’s Network, with goofy musical numbers instead of grandstanding monologues.
Released in 1981, the film’s only diegetic connection to Rocky Horror is so tenuous that the word “sequel” hardly applies: the protagonists are named Brad and Janet, theoretically the same couple from the first film but portrayed by a different pair of actors. Since Rocky Horror wasn’t exactly a paragon of incisive characterization, this putative continuation of its heroes’ story means nothing, really, and shouldn’t steer fans or nonfans of Rocky Horror in any particular direction of opinion. The new casting is more appropriate, anyway. Janet 2.0 is Jessica Harper, graduate of ‘70s genre films like Suspiria and fellow rock-musical Phantom of the Paradise, a resume entirely better suited to cult craziness than that of straitlaced Susan Sarandon. In a surprise bit of Brechtian double-casting, Cliff De Young stars as both hero Brad and evil media emperor Farley Flavors, playing the former’s impotent blandness against the latter’s cigar-chomping sadism.
Brad and Janet find themselves guests on a game show called “Marriage Maze,” one of the programs on DTV, a 24-hour network that both documents and entertains the residents of a small town called Denton. The host of “Marriage Maze,” a deranged blind German named Bert Schnick (played by occasional drag queen Barry Humphries), commits Brad to the town/network’s psychiatric institution Dentonvale (“DTV’s most popular hospital series”). As Brad and Janet try to free themselves from the machinations of Schnick, Flavors and the menacing staff of Dentonvale, the gonzo reality constructed by O’Brien and Sharman reveals itself to be more and more insane, abiding by an absurdist logic more complex and inventive than the comparatively banal camp of Rocky Horror.
DTV clearly predicts reality television, but with its studio audience comprised of bloodthirsty Denton townspeople, it indicts the spectators of this future scourge as well as the more obvious target of stars and corporate string-pullers. Due to budgetary constraints, the entire film is confined to a single set, betraying the project’s theatrical origins, but this adds another Brechtian touch to the layers of representation. We’re watching a movie, styled like a stage play, showing lives broadcast to a TV audience within the movie, about characters who have migrated from another movie…
As if to highlight this chain, Sharman frequently cuts to shots of Flavors framed against a wall of TV monitors, and continually toggles between standard shots and those mediated by screens. The camera glides gracefully around the set, so the film only feels stagy insofar as Sharman chooses to convey a theatrical essence. This audacious formal triptych — cinema, television and (musical) theater blurred into one — would set Shock Treatment apart from its predecessor even if it were not a superior entertainment.
“You need a bit of — ooh! — shock treatment,” goes the refrain of the film’s musical centerpiece. In the context of the story, it’s a threat. Thirty years later, it’s an invitation to a movie waiting to be rediscovered.