Tuesday, September 12, 2006

You Need a Bit of, Oooohhhh...

A musical about emotional and sexual dysfunction, bogus psychiatry and the pitfalls of fame and fashion – all set within a Big Brother-like TV studio? No, it’s not a new reality series following the antics of Mr. and Mrs. Cruise, but the sequel (of sorts) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show called Shock Treatment…and it’s finally available on DVD. However its creators and fans all seem to insist on one thing in regards to the film's relationship to its cross-dressing older brother: It is not a “sequel” or a “prequel”…but an “equal”. It’s an assertion I will not argue.

I hadn’t seen the movie from start to finish in at least 10 years, and what’s most shocking is how well Treatment has aged; it was made in '81 and the DVD release marks its 25th Anniversary. I’ve never heaped scorn on the movie the way many seem to, but I’m also not sure I’ve ever found myself loving it as much as since giving it a spin over the weekend (and again last night with my kid).

Originally titled The Brad and Janet Show, Shock Treatment went through numerous revisions before ending up as it is today. At one point it was to be a direct sequel, featuring the return of Dr. Frank, who was somehow resurrected and stalking a pregnant-with-his-child Janet Majors in Denton, U.S.A. When that idea was scrapped and Frank written out of the script, it edged closer to the current version, although it was still intended to take place in Denton and revolve around Brad and Janet. Denton, Texas was in fact heavily scouted for location filming and only a SAG strike forced the radical reinvention of the script into what it eventually became – a prescient skewering of reality TV set entirely within the confines of labyrinthine television studio, located somewhere within the heart of Denton itself.

The story revolves around a much different (and now married) Brad and Janet than seen in Rocky. For starters, two different actors play the couple: The lovely Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria) takes over for Susan Sarandon (who allegedly wanted a cool mill to reprise the character – money the film didn’t have in its budget), and Cliff De Young fills in for Barry Bostwick (who was simply unavailable at the time). One might wonder how the film would have played had Sarandon and Bostwick both returned, but once you move past that, Harper and De Young make for more than adequate replacements. Certainly they’ve both got far better singing voices than their predecessors, a fact that’s rather important for a musical. (Personally, I find Harper to be considerably more sexy and fun than Sarandon and would love to have seen her play Janet in the original.)

The couple seem burdened by the events from the previous film – almost as if nothing’s been the same since that fateful night (although this is unspoken; indeed, there is nary a mention of their encounter with the Transsexuals from Transylvania). Brad is in the dumps – an unresponsive, deadened soul, blindly following his wife and almost asking “How High?” whenever she says, “Jump!” Janet’s been reduced to engaging in near passive-aggressive type behavior. She’s lost any and all confidence she may have discovered at the end of the last film and seems bored with her life and new union.

All this changes when they end up on a bizarre TV show called “Marriage Maze”, hosted by Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna [ironically sans cross-dressing]). Here, Brad is labeled an “emotional cripple” and sentenced to rehabilitation on yet another reality show, “Dentonvale”, hosted by Drs. Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn, reprising their incestuous brother-sister act from the previous film). Behind all the madness is Farley Flavors (also played by De Young), Dentonvale’s slick commercial sponsor, who harbors ulterior motives and a hidden past connected to Brad. Also onboard from the previous film are Charles Gray (The Criminologist) as Judge Oliver Wright, Nell Campbell (Columbia) as Nurse Ansalong (looking far sexier than she ever did in Rocky) and Jeremy Newson - the only Rocky actor/character reprisal - as Ralph Hapschatt. And keep an eye out for Rik Mayall (The Young Ones), Christopher Malcolm (The Empire Strikes Back, Absolutely Fabulous) and comedienne Ruby Wax while you’re at it.

Getting into the finer details of the plot would not so much spoil the movie, as possibly put you to sleep. Like its predecessor, what really makes Shock Treatment sail are Richard O’Brien’s catchy songs linking the absurd plot pieces…and the tunes are really, really good – arguably superior to Rocky Horror’s. No less than Sal Piro (President of the Rocky Horror fan club) admits to listening to Shock’s soundtrack with far more frequency than Rocky’s. YouTube’s got videos for most of the songs, although the sound quality doesn’t compare to the DVD release. Check out “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen”, “Little Black Dress”, “Lullaby”, “Look What I Did to My Id”, and the crowning achievement, the title tune “Shock Treatment”, a song I’d easily put up against “The Time Warp” any day.

The songs are lyrically far more complex and dark than Rocky’s innocent little ditties, which is as they should be. Whereas Rocky was a celebration of the sexual freedom and liberation of the ‘70s, Shock Treatment is a nasty little indictment of the equally unique excesses of the sterile ‘80s. What’s particularly noteworthy are the films' contrasting endings: Rocky Horror, for all its good times and great oldies, ended on a note of bleak finality; Shock Treatment, dark though it may be, finishes with our superheroes finding new lives, outlooks and senses of self. Through Shock Treatment, Brad and Janet at last discover the "home of happiness" that so eluded them in Rocky Horror, and if that film ever meant anything to you, you owe it to yourself to see these characters end up in places they very much deserve.

The new DVD is a swank little piece of work, marred only by a couple flaws. The sound oddly dips down for about 30 seconds during the final chorus of the film’s opening number, “Denton U.S.A”. Those who owned the film on videotape will notice that O'Brien's solo reprise of the title song – which plays over the end credits - fades out when the credits end; the VHS release allowed it to finish over a black screen, even when the credits were over with. But these complaints are minor as the rest of the sound and visuals are stronger than they've ever been. Supplementary features include two informative documentaries, two trailers for the film (domestic & international) and a commentary track hosted by Shock Treatment fan club Presidents Mad Man Mike and Bill Brennan – two guys who clearly know far more on the subject than I could ever hope to and treat the material with a shocking amount of respect and insight.

The movie is available as a standalone disc or - for those of you who never got around to picking up Rocky Horror on DVD - in a special [science fiction] double feature three-disc set that’s quite the bargain given the amount of material you get for your buck. Perhaps you need to pad out that Amazon order to get some free shipping? The Shock Treatment soundtrack will be a necessity once you view the movie.

Shock Treatment’s Current Status? Insanely Underrated.