The story of how The Rocky Horror Picture Show became the longest running cult film of all time is pretty well known by hard-core fans and cinephiles alike. Based on Richard O’Brien’s successful stage musical, the movie initially opened to less than glowing reviews and poor audience attendance in the summer of ’75. It was given a second bite of the cherry when distributors were convinced to show it at special midnight screenings in April of the following year. The film garnered a loyal following of fans who began to interact with the film, shouting at the screen and responding to the scripted lines with improvised insults and witticisms. Halloween of ’76 saw devotees turn up in costume, adding to the anarchic, grindhouse atmosphere in theatres, and an audience participation phenomenon was born.
Fast forward five years, and Halloween 1981 saw the release of Shock Treatment, a sequel of sorts from the creative team behind Rocky Horror. Following in the stilettoed footprints of its big cross-dressing brother, Shocky – as it’s affectionately known – was screened as a midnight event. But the gods of viral success are fickle and seemingly arbitrary, and Shock Treatment failed to find a following. Perhaps it was the absence of two of Rocky’s main attractions. Tim Curry as the iconic Dr. Frank N. Furter, had been killed off in Rocky, and while he was offered the role of Brad in Shock Treatment, didn’t feel he was right for the part. Susan Sarandon was also absent, replaced by the more affordable Jessica Harper. Creator Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, and Charles Gray returned as new characters, and Jeremy Newson reprised his role as Ralph Hapschatt. Betty Hapschatt was played by Ruby Wax, and Barry Bostwick’s unavailability saw Cliff De Young take the part of Brad.
The premise of Shock Treatment reads like a straightforward sequel at first glance. Brad and Janet – now married – are living back in Denton and going through a rough patch. They are offered relationship guidance in the rather dubious form of Bert Schnick, the blind host of TV’s The Marriage Maze. But while Rocky Horror was a tongue-in-cheek love letter from Richard O’Brien to the rock ‘n’ roll music and B Movies of the 50s, filtered through the sexual revolution of the 60s, Shock Treatment is a scathing commentary on the greed, superficiality, and self-obsession of 80s America. If you’ve ever wondered why Richard O’Brien doesn’t appear to have aged since the 70s, it’s because he’s a witch. The man predicted the advent and rise of reality TV almost twenty years before The Truman Show and Big Brother.
Rocky Horror is an erotic nightmare. Shock Treatment is just a nightmare. Denton is now a strange dystopia where every inhabitant is either a TV star, crew, or a member of the bovine audience. The Marriage Maze is a quiz show, entertainment dressed up as therapy. When Brad ‘wins’, his prize is a spell ‘starring as’ an inmate in Dentonvale, a soap opera about a mental hospital run by brother and sister team Cosmo and Nation McKinley (another incestuous pairing played O’Brien and Quinn). Janet, meanwhile, is whisked off by Farley Flavors, a fast food magnate who owns the broadcast network and controls Denton. Janet is groomed for stardom while Brad languishes, drugged and bound, in a cell. Farley, it transpires, is Brad’s long lost twin, and he has engineered the whole thing to steal Janet from his drippy brother. But help is at hand from Betty Hapschatt (now divorced from Ralph) and Judge Oliver Wright, who work together to expose Cosmo and Farley as character actors, rather than the doctors the audience believes them to be. The film closes with Brad, Janet, Betty, and Oliver escaping the confines of the studio in a car.
Budgetary constraints and a SAG strike forced O’Brien to revise the screenplay so that the film could be shot in its entirety on a sound stage rather than on location. It could be argued that this was a happy accident. The setting gives the film a claustrophobic, surreal quality which intensifies the panic we feel watching Brad realise he’s not actually starring in a soap. The theme of incarceration and characters (primarily Brad and Janet) being held against their will is prevalent in both Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment, as is the notion of surveillance. In Frank’s castle, ‘guests’ are watched on secret monitors, while in Denton, everyone is on TV 24/7, and while Frank drugs his victims to manipulate them into performing sex acts, in the world of DTV the drugs are administered by quack health professionals to keep the masses compliant. Bert Schnick’s references to Nazi atrocities recall Dr. Everett Scott’s suspect political leanings. Both films end with rebuilding a relationships after a betrayal or traumatic events. Shock Treatment also continues where Rocky left off in its questioning of traditional gender stereotyping, most noticeably in the musical numbers Thank God I’m a Man – a sideswipe at hyper-masculinity – and cross-dressing anthem Little Black Dress.
Musically, Shock Treatment is full of joys. Where Rocky used rock ‘n’ roll, the musical counterpoint to the propriety and family values of the period, Shock Treatment uses punk as a response to early Reagan era Middle America. The studio’s resident band, Oscar and the Drill Bits, perform a new wave song called Breaking Out to distract the audience while Brad and Janet are rescued. It’s ironic that one of the Drill Bits is none other than Sinitta, erstwhile consort of king of reality TV hell, Simon Cowell. Look What I Did to My Id and title track, Shock Treatment, take a playful look at the American preoccupation with mental health, therapy, and medication. Bitchin’ in the Kitchen is a lyrically ingenious number, using gameshow prizes to illustrate the breakdown of a marriage surrounded by the banal trappings of suburbia. And Lullaby, whilst not remotely story point as far as I can tell, is simply a beautiful little rock ballad.
With the first stage version opening in London this spring, thirty four years after its release, while Shock Treatment may not have the notoriety of Rocky Horror, it certainly has fishnet-clad cult legs. Both chilling and feel-good at the same time, it’s like winning a golden ticket and being given a tour of a pharmaceutical factory by Willy Wonka’s bald brother. And Willy’s the more normal one. So go on. Wear something glittery, pour yourself a glass of something strong, sit back, and enjoy the ride.