Monday, January 28, 2008

You Need a Bit of....Shock Treatment

I would be surprised if the vast majority of Americans (not to mention many people elsewhere) have not heard of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I rather suspect that not many people beyond Rocky Horror fans know that a follow up was made to that cult film of all cult films. There has always been some debate as to whether Shock Treatment is actually a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as many of that film's major characters (namely, the Transylvanians) do not appear in the film and it makes no concrete references to them. That having been said, the main characters in Shock Treatment are Brad and Janet, who were also primary characters in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Producer John Goldstone always maintained that Shock Treatment wasn't a sequel, but an equal, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Regardless of whether one regards Shock Treatment as a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show or not, it certainly would not have existed if it were not for that film, just as The Rocky Horror Picture Show could not have existed without the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show. By 1978 The Rocky Horror Picture Show had gone from a film that had bombed in its first release to an outright phenomenon, playing weekly and even twice weekly in midnight shows. Like any other big American studio, 20th Century Fox thought it might be a good idea to follow up such success with a sequel. In 1978, then Richard O'Brien wrote a treatment titled Rocky Horror Shows His Heels. The treatment is set after the events of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when it is learned that Janet is pregnant. Of course, the question is whether the child belongs to Brad, Frank-N-Furter, or Frank's creation, Rocky. Complicating matters is the fact that both Frank-N-Furter and Rocky are revived, and Frank is convinced that Janet's baby is his. As might be expected, both Riff-Raff and Magenta return to Earth to deal with the matter of a baby who have been conceived by Frank. Rocky Horror Shows His Heels fell through because Tim Curry did not want to reprise his role as Frank-N-Further and director Jim Sharman did not like the idea of a movie so similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which he had also directed). Having written many new songs, O'Brien simply developed a new concept, entitled The Brad and Janet Show, around those songs. The Brad and Janet Show would develop into Shock Treatment. From Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, The Brad and Janet Show retains the characters of Janet's parents and the rock group Oscar Drill and the Bits, as well as many of the songs.

The Brad and Janet Show would experience several problems on its way to becoming Shock Treatment. Barry Bostwick was occupied with another project, and so he could not return as Brad. The dual role of of Brad and Farley Flavors was then offered to Tim Curry. Curry ultimately turned it down for fear that he could not get the accent right. As in Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, the character of Dr.Scott was in the initial scripts of The Brad and Janet Show, then it was learned that Jonathan Adams did not want to return as the character. The character of Dr. Scott was then rewritten as Bert Schnick (eventually played by Barry Humphries of Dame Edna fame). Since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Susan Sarandon had gone onto success in various films, so she asked for a starting price of $250,000. The Brad and Janet Show was slated for a budget of only $4 million, so in the end it was decided Susan Sarandon would not be playing Janet.

In the end the producers were in the position of having to recast both of their leads. Cliff De Young had been Jim Sharman's original choice to play Brad in The Rocky Horror Show (he was unable to take the part because of prior commitments), so he was cast in the dual role of Brad and Farley Flavors. Jessica Harper, who had starred in The Phantom of the Paradise and Suspira, replaced Sarandon as Janet. Of the characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show returning in Shock Treatment, only one would be played by the same--Jeremy Newson played Ralph Hapschatt in both films. Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn played new roles, that of Doctors Cosmo and Nation McKinley. Although some fans have theorised that they are actually Riff-Raff and Magenta, Richard O'Brien has categorically denied this (even though both sets of siblings are uncomfortably close for brother and sister...). Nell Campbell (who played Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show) returned as Nurse Ansalong, although she does little more than sing and provide the film with a bit of eye candy.

Unfortunately, casting the film would not be its only problem. Initially the movie was going to be shot on location in the United States. The production team even scouted Denton, Texas for locations (I always thought Denton, Texas was the "Home of Happiness...). Unfortunately, in 1980 the Screen Actors Guild went on strike. As a result the movie had to be filmed entirely in a studio in England. It is due to this necessity that Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien hit upon the idea that Denton had been turned into one gigantic television studio.

After all the problems The Brad and Janet Show experienced in becoming Shock Treatment, the movie would not have a happy ending. Shock Treatment had been set for release in September 1981. Unfortunately, the movie tested poorly with audiences, so its release was then moved to select cities in early October. This was then changed to the film being given a limited release in November. Ultimately, Shock Treatment would not be released until December 1981, and then only in a few cities. It was never given a wide release. Indeed, as of 1997 (a whole 16 years after its release) it had only grossed $100,000.

In 1981 Shock Treatment was released to generally poor reviews, an indiffernet audience, and a hostile reaction in the case of many Rocky Horror fans. No less than producer Michael White and creator Richard O'Brien have expressed disappointment (to put it mildly) in the film. While I cannot explain while either Michael White or Richard O'Brien dislike the film, I do have some thoughts about why some Rocky Horror fans do. I have no doubt that many Rocky Horror fans wanted the return of Frank-N-Furter, Riff-Raff, and Magenta. These characters play no role in Shock Treatment. And while Rocky Horror Picture Show was simultaneously a parody of old horror movies and one of the most overtly sexual films of its era, Shock Treatment is a spoof of television and its relationship with its audience. Because of this, some Rocky Horror fans have viewed as shedding a bad light on the Rocky Horror phenomenon and its emphasis on audience participation.

While I know there are many Rocky Horror fans who would disagree with me, however, I must state that I have always liked Shock Treatment. While the only major characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to appear in the film are Brad and Janet, it clearly continues their story. Given the events which unfolded in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it would be understandable if Brad and Janet experienced difficulties in their marriage. And it is at this point that we meet them in the film. The entire town of Denton having been turned into a gigantic television studio, ostensibly by fast food magnate Farley Flavors, the two soon find themselves on the game show Marriage Maze. And unfortunately for Brad, the prize they win is a trip for him to Dentonvale, the local asylum. Of course, pulling the strings behind it all is Farley Flavors, who has own reasons for wanting Brad out of the way and his own secret to keep.

While it is not a direct sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shock Treatment does stand up quite well on its own in my opinion. In transforming the town of Denton into a gigantic television studio, Richard O'Brien is able to comment on the nature of the media and its manipulation of the audience. The audience is wholly involved with the shows they watched, responding to the television personalities with worshipful adoration. And not only do Bert Schnick and Farley Flavors manipulate ruthlessly manipulate the audience, but the "performers" as well. Indeed, in some ways I think the movie was a bit ahead of its time. In the gigantic television studio that is Denton, there are cameras everywhere and the real lives of Denton citizens are played out as TV shows for the audience's enjoyment (there is even the soap opera Dentonvale, set at the asylum...). This not only pre-dates such movies as The Truman Show and EDtv, but the entire reality show phenomenon from The Real World to Survivor. In this respect, then, Shock Treatment did not simply spoof television, but foresaw the current reality show craze to come. If anything, Shock Treatment is more relevant now than it was when it was first released.

Of course, none of this would matter if Shock Treatment wasn't truly entertaining. I know that many Rocky Horror fans may accuse of me of blasphemy, but I think I actually prefer Cliff De Young as Brad to Barry Bostwick as Brad. Quite simply De Young's Brad seems less like the world's ultimate square than simply a straight arrow seeking to do the right thing. This makes Brad a much more likeable character. Barry Humphries is also a delight as Bert Schnick, the blind, off the wall TV personality--I rather suspect his performance owes a bit to both Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove and Jonathan Adams' Dr. Strangelove. And I thought Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn were delightful as the Doctors McKinley (while O'Brien denies it, I still have to wonder if they aren't Riff-Raff and Magenta--even a billionaire like Farley Flavors couldn't turn a whole town into a TV studio on his own...).

The movie also has some great songs and some great musical sequences, even if there is nothing that quite matches "The Time Warp" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The song "Shock Treatment" may well be the best song from the film, and it is also one of the better sequences in the film (Nell Campbell even gets a bit in the song beyond standing around). Other musical sequences have some rather nice touches to them. For instance, the "Farley's Song" sequence involves Farley Flavors singing the song from a television set, bringing home the movie's theme of media manipulation. As to "Breaking Out," performed by Oscar Drill and the Bits, it is an enjoyable piece of garage rock in with the movie's All-American milieu.

Naturally, Shock Treatment has its flaws. Some might find the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times. And while one can easily understand how Janet could be manipulated by Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is more difficult for me to understand how she so easily falls under the sway of Farley Flavors, the Doctors McKinley, and Bert Schnick. This brings me to another complaint I have about the film. While Jessica Harper certainly has a great voice, but in other respects I think she was a poor choice to play Janet. I say this only because Susan Sarandon played Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sarandon's Janet was initially very conservative in her views at the start of the film, but she was still undeniably sexy. To put it more bluntly, Susan Sarandon was a total babe. While Jessica Harper has a great voice and is a very good actress, she isn't exactly a sex symbol in the way Sarandon was.

While Shock Treatment was either ignored or abhorred in its initial release, the film has slowly developed a cult following over the years. In September 2006 a special, 25th anniversary DVD was released, bringing the movie a new generation of viewers. While it might never become the phenomenon that The Rocky Horror Picture Show. is, Shock Treatment might well be redeemed in the end. Over a quarter of a century after its release, it could yet become more than a footnote in the history of Rocky Horror.


poppedculture said...

Where do you get all your research? You are more thorough than Wikipedia, considerably so.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I get my research from a variety of sources. A lot of it is from books. Some of it is from reliable sources on the web (Time, The New York Times, and so on). Some of it from other sources, for instance for this article I used the retrospective documentary on the Shock Treatment 25th anniversary special edition DVD.