Review: Shock Treatment (1981)

Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are bugnuts crazy. I know, I’ve seen it over 500 times, and performed in shadowcasts for well over half of those. I own gold lamé swim trunks.

So when word came out there was going to be a sequel in 1981, there was furor. Well, a quiet furor, because outside the theaters, these people tended to keep to themselves. But nonetheless.

Richard O’Brien created Shock Treatment, described cagily on the DVD commentary track as “Not a sequel, not a prequel, but an equal.”

It’s a parallel universe where Denton, USA, home of happy, square Brad and Janet Majors, has been turned into the world’s first reality TV show.

Remember, this was 1981. Reality TV didn’t really start until the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, and such worthy artworks as COPS. In Shock Treatment, the whole town lives in the studio, and your personal cachet is based entirely on whether you’re in a show or not. Prizes include sponsored merchandise and being on other shows. The hospital, in fact, is a medical drama show called Dentonvale, and baffled, square Brad winds up on the show after winning/losing on the game show Marriage Maze, hosted by Dame Edna (Barry Humphries) in drag, playing the blind, Teutonic Bert Shnick.

The DTV network has its own Charles Foster Kane, in the form of the shadowy, manipulative and alliterative Farley Flavors. It was he that got Brad and Janet onto Marriage Maze, it was he that got Brad committed to Dentonvale hospital, it was he that caused dreary, square Janet Majors to become a star, the “It” girl of his new Faith Factory Show.

Janet, for her part, is babmoozled by fame, and soon forgets Brad, gets hooked on pills, and goes egomaniacal. Meanwhile all the relatively-level-headed townsfolk are getting their shows canceled. The toadlike Judge Oliver Wright (played by Charles "The Criminologist with no neck" Gray from Rocky Horror) and the simpering Betty Hapschatt (“Just a day ago she was palin old Betty Monroe!”) do some backstage sleuthing and discover Flavors’s secret: he and Brad are long-lost identical twins. Then they stage a daring escape and coup.

So, you know, it’s your typical story, as old as time: Boy wants Girl, Boy frames Girl’s husband, Boy has Husband committed, Girl becomes famous, Girl becomes an egomaniac, Husband discovers Boy is long-lost twin brother, Boy and Husband have a musical showdown…

…Boy loses, and Girl and Husband escape — along with punk band, a newscaster and a judge.

All with ridiculous costumes, plot twists, and the silliest songs you can imagine.

Not The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but fun nonetheless. It’s got many nods to Rocky, and some of the songs were originally written for an unproduced sequel (Look up Revenge of the Old Queen some time), so some of the lyrics may seem confusing, as far as the story goes, and some costumes, actors and characters will be familiar to Rocky fans.

Incidentally, there is exactly one actor in both movies who portrays the same role: Jeremy Newson plays Ralph Hapschatt, a man who has one or two lines in Rocky, comes back to Denton as the smarmiest man alive.

Jessica "Phantom of the Paradise" Harper pulls off a surprisingly complex Janet, and Cliff DeYoung as Brad and Farley is actually quite genius. It took me a while to recognize them as the same actor, so clearly did he differentiate the two characters’ voices, styles, postures … and hairstyles.

It’s a bit of a critique of the TV-ifying of the world, and it predicted Big Brother and The Truman Show quite presciently, but it’s never preachy. With O’Brien, as with David Lynch and John Waters, he loves his weirdos.

"You need a bit of, Ooh! Shock Treatment!"

Watch it with a friend. And a drink. Or two.

Scott “Scix” Maddix

written for Film Pipe.

Shock Treatment (1981), a follow-up to the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show — “Not a sequel, not a prequel, but an equal.” Written by Richard O’Brien, directed by Jim Sharman,  and starring Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young as Brad Majors, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and Barry Humphries as Bert Schnick.