Saturday, September 24, 2005

"You need a bit of... (ooh) SHOCK TREATMENT"

If you look back a few weeks ago, I posted a link to Cashiers Du Cinemart, whose site had been updated recently. There is a link to the article I wrote, "Gimme Gimme SHOCK TREATMENT" but no article as of yet. Mike White has been covering the Toronto Film Festival, so has probably not had time to post the piece, which I had made some slight corrections to from the published version. [the piece is now online - see above link]

I highly encourage everyone to go to the site - hell, what would even be better would be to buy the issue! But in an age of "Director's Cuts", I'm going to post my ORIGINAL article, which went through some revisions before getting to the finished version.

This is actually a combination of the original draft (with a somewhat different opening) and a revision, which incorporated some additional material about another Richard O'Brien project that has some impact on SHOCK TREATMENT's genesis.


"The Sun Never Sets on Those Who Ride Into It"

An appreciation by L. Rob Hubbard

"Shut up Emily! And listen to a success story."

There are some films that fall in-between the cracks upon release - not finding favor with an audience at the time, they are labeled with the pejorative BOMB and disappear without a trace, leaving a bad, but fading memory in the minds of studio executives and theatre exhibitors. A good number of these end up in oblivion, but some, whether by midnight screenings in theatres, repeated showings on cable, drunken evenings with friends in front of the VCR or DVD player, or by osmosis, manage to gradually find their audience and continue to flourish.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is pretty much the example that comes to mind when it comes to Cult Film Success - almost 30 years have passed since the film was first exhibited, and it still draws an audience at screenings, and has practically become a cottage industry of sorts. It also managed to make a tidy sum of money for Fox - so it was inevitable that there would be an attempt to recapture the same magic - and the same response, expressed in audience receipts - that RHPS did. After all, any sort of sequel to RHPS had the advantage of a built in audience waiting for more exploits.

So, in 1981, SHOCK TREATMENT was released - to universal disdain from critics and audiences alike. To get an idea of the reception the film got, the following responses on provide a sense of deja vu:

"Was this supposed to be a movie? This has to be one of the most tasteless, most horrible 'things' I have had the displeasure to view. I can't believe I wasted a part of my precious life viewing such nonsense. this movie definitely has my vote for mankind's most horrible movie. Kudos to the director for such a profound lack of vision."

"Sorry to say that this movie is nowhere near the caliber of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which it tries so hard to be, but just isn't. I expected a lot, but somehow, ended up extremely disappointed. This movie failed to capture my attention no matter how hard I tried. I think that I would have had more fun watching paint dry on a wall than having to see this movie again."

"Any Rocky Horror fan who plans to sit down with this one should expect disappointment and disgust."

"Is there a point to this movie? Or even a plot? This has to be the worst movie of all time."

"Horrible horrible movie, very upset with it."

And then there was this pithy line from a review by one "Alan Smithee" in Cinefantastique, February 1982:

"... tantamount to making a gun control statement by shooting an N.R.A. member."

If the reaction of the general movie audience and ROCKY HORROR fans seems to be a tad harsh, it's nothing compared to what those responsible for the movie had to say. In the book ROCKY HORROR: FROM CONCEPT TO CULT, by Scott Michaels & David Evans, producer Michael White provides the following comment:

"We did another film called Shock Treatment, which would be fantastic if there were no dialogue and no story. If you just took the songs, which were great... "

The final nails in the coffin, so to speak, are hammered in by Richard O'Brien, whose opinion should count for something, seeing that he came up with the concept, co-wrote the film and appears in a supporting role. O'Brien's reaction to ST isn't particularly warm, as the following interview extract reveals:

"We made a follow-up film to Rocky, called Shock Treatment. The soundtrack was actually better, but the film was absolutely lousy, and when Lou Adler cut a trailer to the title song he took all the best clips and made the better movie."

and, to make his position totally clear, in this extract from an on-line chat session:

Marge Of the many films you have appeared in, do you regret any?

Richard O'Brien Yes. Shock Treatment. We should have gone with the first draft, which was monsters rising from the grave, as it was, we finished up with a muddy story and, apart from the sound track, I was, and still am, disappointed with the result.

Nation Have you heard of the recent resurgence of interest in Shock Treatment? Starting with floorshows in Paramus NJ, Albany NY, and now at every Rocky horror convention across the country, did you really expect it to take off like this?

Richard O'Brien I'm not aware of Shock Treatment picking up a following. I'm sure that everybody looks delightful running around in white coats, and maybe one day I might get the opportunity to take in one of these performances. However, I'm not sure that I look forward to it.

Who loves you, Baby indeed? SHOCK TREATMENT has been pointedly downplayed in the ROCKY HORROR phenomenon, and would seem to be consigned to oblivion, except for the fact that the film has indeed gained a loyal following of fans of its own over the last 20 years. Being tied to RHPS has insured that the film gets at least a cursory mention in all things related to RHPS. And although the film has not had much exposure theatrically, it has had a consistently strong life on the home video market - and has spawned a RHPS type of cult activity in some areas - floorshows, costumes, props and an audience participation 'script', as well as web pages by devoted fans.

So why all of this animosity towards a film tied to a popular following? The answer to that is rather tricky....


It begins a couple of years after RHPS has become a sensation in midnight screenings. As Richard O'Brien states in an interview with Mike Conroy, he approached Michael White about doing a sequel; White was definitely interested, and O'Brien came up with the scenario ROCKY HORROR SHOWS HIS HEELS.

Picking up from the end of RHPS, Rocky Horror is alive - but Frank N. Furter is still dead. Brad and Janet have married, but bear the consequences of that night: Janet is pregnant and about to give birth, but the baby is either Rocky's or Frank's! Brad leaves Janet, having been 'converted' to homosexuality by Frank. He visits Dr. Scott, also 'changed' by his encounter. Rocky brings them Frank's body, insistent that Dr. Scott attempt to revive him. Meanwhile, Janet's parents are shocked to find out about Brad's leaving and Janet's Dad is concerned to hear of Brad's homosexuality. Dr. Scott determines the chemicals necessary to revive Frank, found in blood. With some of Brad and Dr. Scott's blood and electroshock, Frank is revived. The Transylvanians are summoned to Denton the next night to celebrate.

The next day, Frank, Rocky, Scott and Brad don little black dresses ('gay' apparel) and go to the hospital, where Janet has given birth. Frank immediately assumes control of the baby, upsetting Janet's Mom and Dad. Frank and the gang hit the town, sprinking a dust ('fairy' dust) that transforms people into transsexuals. However, Frank collapses - the blood supplied by Brad and Scott wasn't enough. He needs eleven pints of blood from young male virgins. Brad attempts to procure the blood, which he does from teen who are thrilled to help out a celebrity, but one of the eleven is not a virgin. At the party, Janet's Mom and Dad and various Dentonites are converted to Transylvanian lifestyles. At the hospital, two mysterious figures steal Janet's baby, tell her that the baby is dead and take her out of the hospital to the party.

Janet tells Frank that the baby is dead. He unmasks the figures, who turn out to be Riff Raff and Magenta. Suddenly Frank starts to decompose; realizing that one of the boys wasn't a virgin, he chases the boy. The townspeople revolt and attack Frank and overwhelm Brad and Scott; Rocky and the Transylvanians escape and Riff Raff kills Frank - again. Riff and Magenta drive off with Janet and the baby, who is clearly Frank's child.

This was a literal sequel to ROCKY, and it's quite possible that this version would've been welcomed with open arms by RHPS cultists, had this particular vision been undertaken. It was Jim Sharman, ROCKY's director of both stage and screen versions, who nixed any idea of going in that direction. According to O'Brien, "Jim Sharman said, 'I have no interest in doing that sort of movie: write a new story.' I (O'Brien) said, "I've no interest in writing another story - what I will do is adapt this as a framework. I have done 10 songs already, we are going to have 15 songs -- I have written 10 of the songs already and I have no interest in throwing all that away; let's use it as a framework, as a basis."

Eventually, both Frank and Rocky fell away from the story, which ended up having Brad as the main protagonist; however that took another twist while waiting to go to committee. O'Brien: "Jim said we made one mistake. I said, "What's that?" -- 'We should have made Janet the lead character'. I said, "Of course we should have done. Let's change the names around on all the dialogue." "You can't do that, " said Jim. "Yes you can. But of course you can't. It doesn't work that way." The script went through several more drafts - 5 total - before getting to a version that everyone signed off on.


"The false promise of a new dawn is usually followed by a most bloody sunset."

THE BRAD AND JANET SHOW (the original, and O'Brien's preferred, title) was conceived to be shot naturalistically, on location in the U.S., with a sizeable cast. Designer Brian Thomson, quoted in the book ROCKY HORROR: FROM CONCEPT TO CULT by Scott Michaels & David Evans, comments that in location scouting for the film, Wichita, KS came closest to doubling for exterior Denton, until producer John Goldstone suggested Dallas, TX.

The film was budgeted at about $5 million from Fox and was a 'go' until trouble hit in the form of the SAG Strike of 1980 which delayed shooting and which caused Fox to pull out of its commitment. In this atmosphere, attempting to find a way to salvage the work that had been done, O'Brien and Sharman played with the idea of perhaps adapting it for the stage and filming the stage show, which was the seed for reconceiving the project, now called SHOCK TREATMENT. The budget came down to $4 million (with Thomson garnering a credit for "additional ideas" on O'Brien's and Sharman's script) and the film was shot on soundstages in London in the fall of 1980.


SHOCK TREATMENT is the continuing adventures of Brad and Janet (Cliff DeYoung & Jessica Harper), years after the events in RHPS, in the town of Denton. Now married, they find themselves again caught up in the machinations of another charismatic individual and his associates.

The entire film takes place within the studio of local television network, DTV. Chosen as contestants for the popular game show “Marriage Maze”, hosted by Denton’s popular television personality Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries), Brad and Janet are revealed to be having problems in their marriage, and Brad is railroaded into 'treatment' at the local asylum - and popular soap opera program - Dentonvale, run by Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn) with support staff Ricky (Rik Mayall) and Nurse Ansalong ("Little" Nell Campbell).

Schnick and the McKinley's are in the pocket of the network's sponsor, fast-food magnate Farley Flavors (also Cliff DeYoung), who is readying the debut of a new show, "The Faith Factory" and who has designs upon Janet. She is groomed into a media superstar to supposedly make Brad find her more desirable, but also as the figurehead to sell Flavor's "Faith Factory" (with its slogan 'Sanity For Today') to the public. Only DTV personalities Betty Hapschatt (Ruby Wax) and Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray) seem to notice that something slightly nefarious is going on and attempt to get to the bottom of things.


When the film debuted in late 1981, it was met with hostility and disdain, especially from the core "Rocky" cult. Despite the recurring phrase of casting ST as "not a sequel, or a prequel, but an equal," the film alienated the audience who came expecting another slightly naughty romp through B-movie land and instead got... something else.

If ROCKY HORROR was O'Brien's look at changing sexual morés in changing times as filtered through the world of 1950's B-movies, then SHOCK TREATMENT can be considered as his take on the more adult concerns of the roles of men and women in society and how everyone is eventually manipulated into those roles and how easily the mass media aids in that manipulation. It's also more of a personal puzzle, with some interesting insights on fame and celebrity. ST is the work of someone with more than ROCKY on his mind, and therein lies the conundrum that the film finds itself in.

Very little of "Rocky Shows His Heels" made it to ST, other than the ideas of Brad and Janet having marital troubles and the entire town of Denton becoming involved in the action. Comparing the drafts of BJS and ST, there are no major differences between them, as far as the major set pieces go - much of the dialogue survived intact when the project morphed into ST.

The main difference between the two is scope: Whereas BJS clearly took place in a natural environment, opening up the town and citizenry of Denton, U.S.A., ST takes place in a hermetically sealed world - within the confines of a television studio with its staff and a studio audience, who come in from 'outside'. No exteriors are ever seen, except for a misty limbo outside the studio doors. Once the audience enters, they remain in their seats for the duration, their attention given over to either the monitors or the show that is being broadcast, with documentary crews roaming the aisles and stages to gather footage.

Everything is observed either by someone, or by a camera -- a kitchen discussion that Janet has with her parents is observed by the audience as the current soap opera playing out on the screen. Action switches back and forth from 'real life' to television screens - and even the private activities in the sleeping quarters of the Dentonvale staff plays out as cheap television drama during the musical number, "Lullaby". Reality and entertainment, it seems, do not have distinct boundries in this world... they seem to blend seemlessly into each other.

All of this entertainment is for the studio audience, a cross section of types, whose main function is to observe the programming. They also are very vocal, when stirred up by empresarios such as television host Bert Schnick, and also swayed by any form of celebrity. Most of the animosity from members of the ROCKY Cult has stemmed from some belief that the audience in ST is a negative comment on the cult.

O'Brien has commented in interviews that at the core of ST, "it is a story that delves into marriage, into manipulation. We explore the characters in a controlled setting, seeing what makes them go, what motivates them. We see how people can use each other, what they do, how they change. We see a woman trying to find those things which she thought marriage would give her but hasn't. We see what happens when a man becomes uncentered. It's a story about people unable to face their own problems taking too much advice from other people."

One gigantic problem with ST is that there's no sense of what the problems are in Brad and Janet's marriage - like the audience, they just appear out of nowhere, and neither Janet nor Brad ever state what their problems are. It is always someone else telling Janet that Brad is an 'emotional cripple' as Brad is trussed up and drugged up, unable to speak for himself.

In the "Rocky Shows His Heels" treatment, one of the plot points is that Brad and Janet's marriage fails because Brad becomes homosexual, his impulses awakened by Frankenfurter. By the time it became BJS, that idea was largely abandoned (although some remnants are implied in the scene with Janet and her parents, and the song, "Thank God I'm A Man"). Instead, in BJS, Janet is working long hours at the television station (under manager Everett Scott - who became Bert Schnick in ST) and making a name for herself while Brad, obviously unemployed, watches television amid drinking and smoking and doing housework at home, emasculated by Janet's rising status at the station.

That bit of info, which was eliminated in ST, would have greatly helped to define that theme further and to clarify Farley Flavors' character - who is revealed to be the twin brother of Brad, separated at an early age by adoption by different families when their parents died - Brad, going to an 'Uptown' family (and favorable status) and Farley going to 'Downtown', his success measured in terms of wealth, fame and opportunism. Farley is the flip side of Brad, of what a 'successful' Brad would be - only Janet really registers the resemblance between the two men in her stupor.

In ST, Janet is slowly seduced and manipulated into becoming a sensation, supposedly to help Brad desire her more, but actually making her more into Farley's fantasy woman - she's sexed up and presented to the public as the Next Big Thing, who flip out over her and bolster her celebrity status. But it ultimately doesn't make her any happier - her handlers isolate her from any meaningful contact and drug her into numbness, into the perfect representation of "Miss Mental Health" at the debut of The Faith Factory - a mute, poseable doll.

Also of note is the metaphorical manipulation of society - the audience - by the so-called "character actors", the McKinley's, Schnick, and Flavors. Flavors' characterization seems to be a combination between a televangelist and a politician, and considering the time the movie was conceived and shot (in the wake of the 70's malaise and the beginning of the Reagan "Morning In America"), seems to be a distinct and deliberate choice. "Madness vs. Sanity" are the choices offered up - the 'madness' of Brad (material 'failure') vs. the 'sanity' of Farley (material 'success') and his Faith Factory show, which will offer the audience everything they could want: "Innocence, decency and the illusion of a happy ending," as Farley states. Ultimately, the Faith Factory is revealed to be a sanitarium, which IS the station, the audience still part of the show, only straightjacketed and 'normal', while the 'mad' outsiders ultimately escape to whatever is outside. The closing song, "Anyhow, Anyhow," originally had several opening verses (found in the BSJ draft) that shines some light on the moral of the story:

JANET: Was I a victim of his heart
Or a victim of his schemes
Did he love me or resent you
Like a player in his dreams?

{Crowd roars. Images from 'inside' punctuate the following.}

BRAD: Why don't we all get out of here
There's nothing left to lose?

BETTY: No. We have the power to think and feel
We have the power to choose.

{Crowd roars.}

OLIVER: There's a cancer here among us
And it's gnawing at the heart
We can shake off the fetters
Of quacks and go-getters
And the way to begin -- is start!

Of tangential note, but an important one, is another Richard O'Brien musical which took place between ROCKY HORROR and ST - T. ZEE, which opened on the London stagein 1976 and only lasted for 38 performances and lukewarm reviews, despite a cast that included O'Brien, Warren Clarke, Paul Nicholas, Belinda Sinclair and Arthur Dingham. T.ZEE was a take on the Tarzan myth, taking place in a futuristic, apocalyptic Los Angeles... two 'normal' anthropologists and T. Zee, a dim 'natural' man, discover a L.A., now an underground kingdom of the Sunset Strip; a depraved amusement arcade populated by "Winners" and "Losers" (with doors onstage that they enter and exit from), made up of former show business lawyers, extras and t.v. personalities.

It's worth noting that, during this period, O'Brien had experienced a number of career highs and lows - there was the success of ROCKY HORROR on the British stage. However, most of his other work didn't meet with much critical or financial acclaim... ROCKY did do well in a Los Angeles stage version, but flopped when an Off-Broadway version was attempted; and of course RHPS was still building its success as a midnight movie, after having flopped horribly in domestic release.

Ultimately, ST is linked with ROCKY HORROR, not in a literal way (cast, crew, characters), but in examining society and conformity, and the role of the outcast. ROCKY HORROR's popularity is due to the attraction that the Frank N. Furter character has for the audience - someone who is sexually free-spirited and unbound by the conventions of society. It's ironic that, ROCKY HORROR ends with the free-spirited character killed because his "lifestyle's too extreme" and the two main characters in a state of spiritual limbo... and it is a popular success. SHOCK TREATMENT ends with the main characters escaping from a spiritual asylum into The Unknown - and freedom... and it's a miserable 'failure'.

SHOCK TREATMENT has been pointedly downplayed in the ROCKY HORROR phenomenon, and would seem to be consigned to oblivion, except for the fact that the film has indeed gained a loyal following of fans of its own over the last 20 years. My own feeling is that the negativity that people have towards the film stems from one unmistakable fact: the film is not ROCKY HORROR SHOW II, and that is what people were expecting and wanting. Coupling it with ROCKY does a disservice to both films... this includes attempting to give ST the ROCKY treatment with props, shouted out 'spontaneous' quips, and acting out the film. It might be fun, but the attempts I've witnessed to impose this behavior onto the film (the shout outs) were disastrous.

SHOCK TREATMENT, in retrospect, fits in snugly with several films made and released in the early 1980's that took the satirical path in examining the public's interest and obsession with media, television specifically, and celebrity. [If you're interested, those other films would be THE KING OF COMEDY, WRONG IS RIGHT, VIDEODROME, LOOKER, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, and the British and American versions of MAX HEADROOM.] Most of those films also did poor box-office at the time, but some have since been re-evaluated and re-appraised. ST deserves no lesser treatment for tackling the same subject matter in a manner more unorthodox than these other films.

SHOCK TREATMENT is a more mature work than RHPS - it's as clever as ROCKY, but there aren't any sci-fi/horror references to catch and the humor is much drier, going for the obscure pun or the oblique reference (such as the Orpheus and Samuel Coleridge Taylor jokes) - and in terms of its satirical look at manipulation through the media of television and the cult of fame, was years ahead of its time. With shows like "Oprah", "Dr. Phil", "Ricki", "The People's Court", "Judge Judy" and all the endless variations on a theme; the career and cult of celebrity around people such as Madonna, Britney Spears or whatever flavor of the moment; the rise of the "reality show" from "Survivor" to "Cheaters", and the current political process, ST could have been made 2 years ago instead of over 20. It also did not take the easy path of retreading over old ground, which is its best feature and also its worst sin. It could be ripe for rediscovery by people who can look past the ROCKY cult and judge it on its own merits.

But that may not come anytime soon. Despite it being a prime candidate for DVD release (it has gone through two VHS releases and laserdisc release in Japan), there are no firm plans for such a release to take place. One could speculate that ST is still an "embarrassment” for the ROCKY people; although it does have a following, it still isn’t known by the mainstream public and it is not as readily accessible as RHPS. It seems that, in this game, only the ‘winners’ count.

At this stage, it appears that O’Brien is only willing to stick with the winners; after a string of disasters on the theatrical stage (the aforementioned T-ZEE; DISASTER, a take on disaster films involving an impending collison between two giant icebergs and a Caribbean island; and TOP PEOPLE, which ran less than a week), O’Brien kept working as a character actor, appearing in films such as FLASH GORDON and REVOLUTION.

In the 90’s, his career revitalized when he hosted the British game show ‘The Crystal Maze’ from 1990 to 1994, and his 1995 stage show DISGRACEFULLY YOURS, in which he played the Mephistopheleian host of “Club Inferno” and released a solo album, “Absolute O’Brien”. He also had substantial roles in the movies DARK CITY and SPICEWORLD and recently had a successful run as The Child Catcher in the London stage version of ‘Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang’.

Also in the ‘90’s, ROCKY HORROR’s 30th anniversary came around, and with it, programs on VH1, AMC; re-releases on CD and DVD… and interest in stage revivals and a possible remake of the movie. There has always been an interest in a direct ROCKY HORROR sequel, and since SHOCK TREATMENT didn’t fit the bill, it seemed a return to basics was called for.

A script for a film sequel entitled ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW PART 2 – THE REVENGE OF THE OLD QUEEN was written by O’Brien… taking place on both the planet Transylvania and Earth, it picks up with Magenta dead and interred and a grieving Riff-Raff being summoned by the Transylvanian Queen to return to Earth to retrieve her son, Frank N. Furter – whom she’s not aware is dead, and Riff intends on not having her find out that bit of information. On Earth, Steve Majors, the brother of Brad, is the head of a government agency investigating alien incursions (the hook being that the events of RHPS were ‘real’), and he picks up on Riff’s trail when he returns to Earth… there’s also the questionable behavior of his nephew, Sonny, whose method of dress and behavior brings to mind, ‘absent friends’. Time travel comes into play as The Queen also travels to Earth and Riff and others make a trip back to the past, to the concluding events detailed in RHPS to set things right.

REVENGE OF THE OLD QUEEN never got greenlighted; O’Brien then began writing a stage sequel entitled ROCKY HORROR: THE SECOND COMING, which made it to a first draft, but is now currently on hold; no word if it will ever see the light of day. Until that day arrives, ROCKY fans will have to content themselves with endless screenings of RHPS.

For those a bit more adventurous, who have a taste for satire, especially one with bite, SHOCK TREATMENT remains poised for discovery by a new audience, one who can appreciate its ties to RHPS, but who won’t let that connection totally influence their reaction to it.

"The subject is committed... as are we all."

Researching for this article was a big undertaking and I'd be remiss in not acknowledging those who wrote before, from which some quotes were pulled - obviously Richard O'Brien was not consulted.

"Richard O'Brien and SHOCK TREATMENT” Mike Conroy, Fangoria #15, October 1981

"Rocky Horror Picture Show - II" Alan Jones, Cinefantastique Vol. 11, No. 1 Summer 1981

Midnight Movies, J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum, Harper and Row, 1983 ISBN 0-06-015052-1

The Shock Treatment Network -

"Richard O'Brien's 'Rocky' Road To Stardom" Howard Waldrop

"You Need A Bit Of Shock Treatment" Peter Sobcynski

ROCKY HORROR: FROM CONCEPT TO CULT by Scott Michaels & David Evans

"Look Who's Talking: Rocky road to fame and fortune: Richard O'Brien" Taken from The Independent


I especially want to mention Donny O'Bryan and his SHOCK TREATMENT NETWORK site, which is invaluable to all fans of the movie. He's been pretty dilengent on all things ST - his site has cast interviews. I also recommend his blog, which has all current news on ST events.

Contrary to the end of my article, it seems that ST may be getting some love in 2006...


Anonymous said...

Hey, I found this blog by chance and I'd just like to say what a great article this is (very interesting and particularly informative). I saw Shock Treatment for the first time a few months ago and I cannot stop watching it. Something about it just stuck with me. Here's hoping that it eventually gets released on DVD and that it starts getting the love it so deserves.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I found this blog by chance and I'd just like to say what a great article this is (very interesting and particularly informative). I saw Shock Treatment for the first time a few months ago and I cannot stop watching it. Something about it just stuck with me. Here's hoping that it eventually gets released on DVD and that it starts getting the love it so deserves.