"The sun never sets on those who ride into it."

‘Shock Treatment’ (Jim Sharman, 1981)

ST poster

Having been a victim of ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome myself I can more than empathise with the myriad talents that fell on swords when they made ‘Shock Treatment’.

‘The Rocky Horror Show’ had been a terrific success on stage, but the film, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (Jim Sharman, 1975) had been something of a disaster on release. It’s not a particularly good film and lacks the vibrancy and fun of the theatrical experience. But lucky for the makers, Americans loved it! That is to say, some people up very late at midnight screenings with nothing better to do than dress up and throw stuff around the cinema loved it. While this obsessive behaviour never really penetrated the UK on the same level, it’s fair to say ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was a cult success.

Cosmo & SchnickThat a sequel was even considered is remarkable enough, that it ever got made is a near miracle, especially given the pig of a script they ended up with. Probably the guiding light that got it made was the fact that they had Richard O’Brien’s talent on hand. Why would you throw that away? As bad a film as ‘Shock Treatment’ is, and it is a bad film, but with many saving graces we’ll go over momentarily, there’s so much about it to enjoy. The songs are great, the performances are strong, the cast is an incredible snapshot of early 80s talent – there’s even Sinitta! So what went wrong?

First and foremost, the script is a problem. I’m fortunate to have an early draft of ‘The Brad and Janet Show’ by Richard O’Brien. It’s a wonderful satire on middle-America and a heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone stale. All that’s still in the songs, but it’s not really in the plot anymore. It feels like a producer’s script. Someone thought they could do it better and ballsed the whole thing up. I contacted O’Brien a couple of years back to look into publishing that original script in order to benefit a charity. He seemed open to the idea, but knew we’d have problems with 20th Century Fox which we did. That he replied at all told me that he still believed in that original idea.

What we’re left with instead purports to be a satire on American game shows and daytime television. It can certainly be read that way, but this would seem to be a retrospect description rather than the musical comedy they were aiming to make. Certainly it’s a very anti-American film which is possible why it failed to latch on to the success that ‘Rocky Horror’ enjoyed over there.

Janet & Brad

So our story centres on Brad (Cliff de Young) and Janet (Jessica Harper) Majors, the two spunky heroes from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ who have no settled down and married. However it’s not the two leads from said film because they had excuses not to be involved. In many ways this is the viewer’s gain since both Jessica Harper and Cliff de Young had terrific singing voices and in the case of Cliff de Young, is able to pull off the dual role of Brad and Farley with considerable ease.

Brad and Janet find themselves on a game show where Brad is left medicated and Janet is groomed for stardom, apparently with a view to making her sexually desirable again to Brad but in truth to allow his evil twin brother to seduce her for himself. Are you paying attention at the back there? There are other subplots but they’re not particularly thought-out so for me to go over them would achieve nothing. Suffice to say we have a number of peripheral characters who act almost like a Greek chorus (especially in the case of Betty (Ruby Wax) and Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray)) and are really only there to link the disparate scenes together.

To call this a sequel to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a mistake and was certainly the producers’ mistake. The leads could’ve been renamed and then all links to the previous production would’ve been discarded. Calling it a sequel pre-release lead to too many expectations. If ‘Rocky Horror’ had any success then it was due to Riff-Raff, Frank N Furter et al – with them out of the picture all you have is a knowing B-Movie.

Danube at DawnWhat the film does have going for it is a monster of a soundtrack with some of the best songs O’Brien has ever written. There’s a subtext to the majority of the songs which is a leftover from the original draft which makes them all the more tragic. Janet’s song ‘In My Own Way’ for example is, one assumes, O’Brien attempting to explain to his wife that his sexual interests extend further afield than just her. He quite literally comes out with the less subtle ‘Breakin’ Out’ and one day I’d love to hear O’Brien himself sing the narcissistic anthem that is ‘Me of Me’. The title track has a pounding drum line which is surely inspired by that years’ number one from Adam Ant, ‘Stand and Deliver’.

Then there’s the cast. Aside from the two leads there’s O’Brien and Patricia Quinn together again, camping it up in an incestuous duo. Charles Gray is back and partnered with Ruby Wax. Why this works is anyone’s guess but they compliment each other rather well and even sing a duet at one point. Think on that. A young Rik Mayall is making an early film appearance and Little Nell is back, this time playing a mini-skirted nurse.

The main draw though is Barry Humphries as Bert Schnick. Originally written for Jonathan Adams as the character was meant to be Dr Scott from ‘Rocky Horror’, Humphries more than makes the part his own, but perhaps lacked a firmer directorial hand. He clearly seems to be doing it with too much freedom, but the more fun he has is reflected on the viewer’s enjoyment.

Little Black DressThe choreography deserves a special mention too. These are not big dance numbers, but they are clearly intricately pieced together. From the opening sequence where the show is frantically preparing to go on-air, through to Janet’s endless wandering of corridors during ‘In My Own Way’, the garish Soho sleaze of ‘Looking for Trade’ and the outright headache that must’ve been ‘Look What I Did to My Id’ (where the cast dance with full-length dress mirrors) these sequences are natural and rarely seem stagey. Even ‘Lookin’ at an Ace’ doesn’t strictly feel like a song and dance number as Farley’s already established himself as a showman.

And what of those mirrors? There’s a lot of self-reflection in this film. Cosmo confronting Janet with a full-length dress mirror and explaining to her that she’s still a desirable woman, even though her self-confidence has taken a hit. The established celebration of self in ‘Me of Me’ and of course Brad and Farley’s slanging match at the end of the film, two sides of the psyche fighting each other. O’Brien’s duality is never more evident in this film, itself a far more honest example of the man behind the music than the more campy, friendly ‘Rocky Horror’. We know O’Brien is a transvestite and we know he’s a very camp bisexual man, but only when he turns the camp on. Off-screen he can be really quite rugged – he was a stuntman for some time after all! His duality is on screen here and perhaps the schizophrenic mess of a script is a result of that and not a producer’s intervention? Either way it would be a joy one day to see the original script produced into either a stage play or a film.

So we have to make do with second best. It’s not a good film, but it’s a fascinating film and that makes it highly watchable, as does the soundtrack and general glee on display. This was the last film O’Brien wrote, indeed it’s the last musical too. He contributed a song or two to ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ (Phillipe Mora, 1983) but otherwise continued to let slip little hints at a ‘Rocky Horror’ sequel that never happened, often titled: ‘The Return of the Old Queen’. It’s probably the bad experiences on this film that caused that, but it would be a terrible shame if we’d heard the last of him.

In closing, what follows is a a track O’Brien recorded for that Rocky Horror sequel that never happened. David Bowie would be proud. Go on, Dicky – finish it.

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