Shock Treatment (1981)


UK. 1981.


Director – Jim Sharman, Screenplay – Jim Sharman & Richard O’Brien, Additional Ideas/Production Design – Brian Thomson, Producer – John Goldstone, Photography – Mike Molloy, Music – Richard Hartley, Lyrics – Richard O’Brien. Production Company – 20th Century Fox


Jessica Harper (Janet Majors), Cliff De Young (Brad Majors/Farley Flavors), Barry Humphries (Bert Schnick), Richard O’Brien (Dr Cosmo McKinley), Patricia Quinn (Dr Nation McKinley), Ruby Wax (Betty Hapschatt), Charles Gray (Judge Oliver Wright), Darlene Johnson (Emil Weiss), Manning Redwood (Harry Weiss)


In the town of Denton where television and reality blur into one, Brad and Janet Majors appear on the tv show ‘The Marriage Maze’ hosted by the blind Bert Schnick. The audience deems Brad to be an unsuitable husband and he is sentenced to a medical soap opera under Dr’s Cosmo and Nation McKinley for some ‘shock treatment’. However, this is part of a plot by sponsor Farley Flavors to win Janet for himself. Flavors then sets about promoting Janet as a musical superstar. As she takes the world by storm, she begins to forget all about Brad.

Shock Treatment is not, the publicity machine assures us, a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), “more a way a life”. Nevertheless, Shock Treatment was a disappointment that proved a good demonstration of all the reasons against taking a wild cult hit and attempting to manufacture the same X Factor a second time over. The same creative team (director Jim Sharman, writer/lyricist Richard O’Brien, musician Richard Hartley) have been reunited along with most of the original supporting cast (O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Charles Gray, Nell Campbell) playing if not the same roles then different characters. Noticeably absent are the three central performers from the original – Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick.

Sadly, though Shock Treatment is a noble effort, the confused satire on television and psychiatry holds nothing up against the wild outrages of the original. The themes lack focus and the film has none of the naughtily perverse kick that made the homage to science-fiction and Frankenstein movies wrapped up in a gender-bender glitter rock musical so endearing to cult audiences in the original.

Nevertheless, Shock Treatment has its small joys. The great and underrated Jessica Harper from The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Suspiria (1977) steals the show as Janet – her marvellously assured performance here should be counted as Harper’s finest screen moment. Her number Little Black Dress is one of the film’s highlights. (Why Jessica Harper subsequently vanished into obscurity and never attained greater recognition is a great mystery).

Unfortunately, what Shock Treatment conspicuously lacks is the presence of a Tim Curry at the centre of it – Curry had found himself typecast after Rocky Horror and refused to return for those reasons. The film compensates somewhat with Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage) in a genuinely bizarre performance as the blind tv host Bert Schnick. Even so, Barry Humphries never holds the whole show pinned to him the way that Tim Curry did in the original.

The songs are, if anything, better than those in the original – of course, the soundtrack for Shock Treatment has not achieved the same kind of cult recognition that the original did. The sets are drenched in the eye-numbing colours of tv commercials, which director Jim Sharman bumps and grinds his camera through with oddball stylism. There is one marvellous little musical number that comes with the camera continuously peeping in through the windows of the various characters. However, it all feels a little worn and forced.

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