Forty-six years ago, one of the all-time greats of Halloween cinema, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was released. Six years later, on Oct. 31, 1981, a Rocky Horror sequel of sorts, Shock Treatment, began its limited theatrical run — but it failed to become a similar midnight-movie-circuit classic. Fans and critics found the dystopian musical confounding and disappointing, and its co-writer and composer, Rocky Horror mastermind Richard O’Brien, eventually bitterly disavowed the film, actually calling it an “abortion.”
But 40 years later, the misunderstood Shock Treatment has finally found an appreciative cult audience (it was even adapted as a London stage production in 2015) and seems stunningly prescient and ahead of its time. Years before The Truman Show (and before Facebook, President Trump, webcams, and shows like Big Brother, The Real World, Survivor, The Bachelor, and American Idol), the satirical and scathing Shock Treatment depicted and predicted a 24/7 culture of voyeuristic reality television, celebrity politicians, mental health crises, media saturation, corporate takeovers, and subliminal advertising with eerie accuracy.
Shock Treatment’s storyline takes place in the white-picket-fenced, white-washed Texan town of Denton, USA, which is entirely contained by the DTV television studio (where Denton’s citizens are the full-time audience members, even sleeping in their seats). One day, unhappy newlyweds Brad and Janet Majors are plucked from the audience and thrust onto the stage of a garish game show, Marriage Maze, from which they literally cannot escape. As a supposed prize, Brad is cast in the live-streamed medical drama Dentonvale, where he finds himself straitjacketed in a cage as a psychiatric patient. Meanwhile, Janet is dispatched to a glamorous makeover program, where evil fast food mogul, Denton mayor, and idol-maker Farley Flavors grooms her to be Denton’s next big pop star.
And it is all set to a time-warping sounding that arguably rocks just as hard as Rocky’s. So, what went wrong, exactly?
Well, Shock Treatment was perhaps always doomed to fail. O’Brien’s original, rough-scripted plan was a direct Rocky Horror sequel, Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, in which Dr. Frank N. Furter and Rocky would rise from the dead to turn all residents of Denton gay; the straitlaced Brad would come out of the closet and leave Janet; and Janet would give birth to Frank N. Furter’s lovechild, only for Frank’s nemeses Riff Raff and Magenta to abduct the baby. (In later years, there were also two other never-finished sequel attempts, Revenge of the Old Queen and Rocky Horror: The Second Coming.)
This surely would have been an amazing cinematic experience. But when Rocky actors Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Tim Curry declined to reprise their original roles (although at one time, Curry considered playing the part of Farley), O’Brien and Rocky co-writer/director Jim Sharman opted to go in a very different direction, adapting the songs that O’Brien had already written.
Additionally, when production was threatened by the Screen Actors Guild strike of 1980, Sharman and O’Brien had to get even craftier, so instead of filming on location in the Denton as planned, they shot on one U.K. soundstage, setting the entire story inside a claustrophobic, fishbowl-like television studio. This decision actually worked perfectly with Shock Treatment’s plot — but at the time, it probably didn’t bode well for the film’s short-term success.
And so, this project, initially titled The Brad and Janet Show, eventually became Shock Treatment. Other than the Janet and Brad Majors characters (now respectively portrayed by Phantom of the Paradise actress Jessica Harper and Cliff De Young, who’d been Sharman’s original choice to play Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and also ended up playing Farley); Jeremy Newson reprising his role as Ralph Hapschatt; the return of Rocky actors O’Brien, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in new roles; and the involvement of Sharman, Rocky Horror set designer Brian Thomson, and costume designer Sue Blane, the movie obviously had very little in common with its beloved predecessor.
This was why Shock Treatment was preemptively hyped with the slogan, “It’s not a sequel… it’s not a prequel… it’s an equal,” although that messaging was apparently lost on the diehard Rocky Horror fans to which it was marketed. (On a promising note, however, comedic actress Ruby Wax and future The Young Ones star Rik Mayall also co-starred.)
While The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an exercise in sexcess and a sexy celebration of queer expression, Shock Treatment was stark and sterile — which no doubt further alienated the Rocky fanatics who first flocked to see it, based on the hype from a promotional TV special called The Rocky Horror Treatment, hoping for more lascivious, androgynous action when it was first tested on a double-bill alongside its midnight-madness predecessor.
But as for Shock Treatment’s O’Brien-penned music, the conservative toxic-masculinity anthem “Thank God I’m a Man” is a twisted rebuttal to Rocky Horror’s lusty “I Can Make You a Man,” while the nighttime-prowling “Looking for Trade” and Blondie/Moroder-esque disco banger “Me of Me” are both sexy in a Staying Alive/Satan’s Alley, totally-‘80s sort of way.
And then there’s the glamtastic “Breaking Out” by fictional band Oscar Drill & the Bits, which sounds like classic Generation X or Hanoi Rocks and is every bit as fierce as “Hot Patootie”; “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen,” which sounds like a lost great Hee Haw-era country ditty; and the soundtrack’s glittering centerpiece, “Little Black Dress,” which is just begging for the lip-sync-for-your-life treatment on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Assessed on its own, Shock Treatment holds up surprisingly well, and for all the obvious, above-mentioned reasons, it connects more in 2021 than it did in ’81. It’s a sort of Sliding Doors-like, alternate-universe re-imagining of what the Majors’ lives might have been like had their car never broken down that fateful, velvet-dark and rainy night in 1975. And given how accurately it predicted the future, it’s actually scarier and spookier than anything that took place inside Frank N. Furter’s castle.
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