Overlooked & Underseen: Shock Treatment (1981)
We all have our Rocky Horror Picture Show stories to tell. I first saw it in high school. I think I was about 15 and my older friends asked me if I wanted to go with them to see it. I said “Hell, yes!” I was familiar with the movie because my mum used to watch it after work with her friends when I was a little. My friends warned me not to say it was my first time. I wondered why not. They said “You’ll see.”
Flash forward to 2004, when I first met my now husband. In getting to know him, he revealed that he was in a Rocky Horror group when he lived in Austin. He would play either Eddie or The Criminologist. I think he was embarrassed to tell me but it made me like him all the more. At some point early in our relationship, he asked me if I had seen Shock Treatment. I hadn’t and I think he took delight in being able to show it to me for the first time. If you read this column with any regularity, you know that Eric is responsible for introducing me to a lot of things, including exploitation movies. He's helped make me into what I am today and I’m forever grateful to him.
It’s now 2017 and Arrow announced it was giving Shock Treatment the, well, Arrow treatment and I knew it was something my husband would want. It arrived (the cover bent to hell, tsk) and we decided to watch it this weekend. I hadn’t seen it since my husband showed it to me all those years ago so I was excited to watch it again. When it was over my husband looked over and me said “Overlooked and Underseen?” to which I replied “Fuck, yeah, it is.”
Shock Treatment, as we’re told over and over in those Arrow extras, is not a sequel to Rocky Horror. It’s not a prequel to Rocky Horror. It’s an equal to Rocky Horror. Brad and Janet Majors (Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper) are married and living in a town called Denton, USA. The town is really just a television studio and the citizens are all part of the shows on the DTV network. They are either audience members or, like Brad and Janet, become part of a television show. At first, they go on the game show Marriage Maze, hosted by Bert Schnick (the amazing Barry Humphries) where it’s deemed that Brad is mentally ill and should be committed. He is then sent to Dentonvale, a soap opera-type show hosted by sibling doctors Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn). Janet isn’t sure about all this at first, she just thinks Brad is boring but she goes along with it. She’s caught the eye of Farley Flavors, new owner/sponsor of DTV and the new show Faith Factory. He not only wants to make Janet a star, but he also wants her in the bargain. She’s happy to do whatever she’s told and turns into a singing star as well as a major diva. She loves the spotlight (she likes the nightlife, she likes to boogie…).
Meanwhile, upset that their own show has been cancelled, Betty Hapschatt (the fun Ruby Wax) and Judge Oliver Wright (the man with the voice that makes me melt, Charles Gray) decide to start investigating all the shenanigans going on at DTV. They find out all isn’t what it seems in Denton, USA as the try to let the world know everything is a sham. But does the world what to hear it?
First off, I have to, have to, talk about the awesome Jessica Harper. I mean, what a fucking trifecta of goodness this woman starred in… De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, Argento’s Suspiria, and, of course, Sharman’s Shock Treatment. Yes, she’s been great in other roles but nothing tops these three films in terms of cult status. If she isn’t your goddess, you should take another look at these three movies. Here, especially, she has a chance to shine as a singer. Her voice is reminiscent of Karen Carpenter (clearly, Carpenter can’t be touched but you know what I mean). It’s low and lovely. “In My Own Way” and “Looking for Trade” are highlights of hers. I would sing these at karaoke in a second. I don’t think Harper gets enough credit for her work in these films because there is so much other shit going on in them. But there is no doubt, she is the real deal.
Screenwriter Richard O’Brien was ahead of his time, man. This movie is so prescient, it’s scary. He envisioned exactly what has happened, not only in the US, but also in the UK and other countries around the world. He foresaw we’d be slaves to reality television. Shock Treatment also feels especially prophetic in terms of our government. The leader of the “free world” is a reality television host and even though we can see what a fucking sham he, his family, his administration, and his party say “we” don’t care. Farley Flavors even looks like a member of the president’s family. It’s all very eerie and disturbing.
Is the movie as “fun” as Rocky Horror Picture Show? Well, no, not in the Tim-Curry-is-as-sexy-as-fuck kind of way. I’m not so sure Shock Treatment should actually be compared to RHPS. It’s a totally different kind of movie and, even though it has the Majors and actors from RHPS, it is its own thing and should be treated as such.
The U.K. Arrow Blu-ray release has several goodies inside including the soundtrack. Despite the shoddy packing, we’re happy we bought it. Otherwise, Shock Treatment is available on DVD. Whether you’re a fan of Rocky Horror or have never even seen it, Shock Treatment should be watched by everyone. Today.