Thursday, September 14, 2006

Random Movie Report #10: Shock Treatment

It never rains, but it pours. Today I picked up two new DVDs that should inspire me, I've got a follow-up on an older review to do, there's a certain space opera trilogy that I apparently need to buy again for the sake of historical preservation, and there's a related video game that I might pay some attention to. But first things first.

SHOCK TREATMENT, the ultra-obscure 1981 follow-up to the legendary ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, has finally been released on disc in time for its 25th anniversary. It's a wonderful oddity, as different from ROCKY HORROR as ROCKY HORROR was from everything else before it, and reflects its times as aptly as its predecessor. It's less sexual, more cerebral, and a fairly cynical satire on contemporary culture. If ROCKY is about the sexual revolution, SHOCK TREATMENT is about what happened when Madison Avenue co-opted that revolution.

The entire film takes place in the studios of DTV, the TV station that dominates Denton, hometown of Janet Majors (Jessica Harper) and her husband Brad (Cliff De Young). The honeymoon's over for the two, with Brad not really fitting in around town and generally being depressed. So, with seemingly all of Denton spending their days and nights at the studio, they appear on "Marriage Maze", a therapy game show hosted by blind German therapist/showman Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, pre-Dame Edna.) Brad is declared an emotional cripple and promptly sent off to "Dentonvale", the local medical drama starring mental health specialists Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O' Brien and Patricia Quinn, respectively.) But it's fast food flyboy Farley Flavors (De Young as well) who really runs things, and he has his eyes on Janet. At his direction, Cosmo and Nation convince Janet that Brad will only get better if she improves her image, and she'll do that by becoming the glamorous spokesmodel for Flavors and the McKinleys' new venture, "Faith Factory", a drive-thru approach to mental health. As Janet is groomed to become a star, "Denton Dossier" host Betty Hapschatt (Ruby Wax) and local intellectual Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray) start to suspect odd things are afoot and the station, and set out to unravel the mystery.

An interesting note: a LOT of critics seem to have made what is, to me, a fairly obvious mistake in interpreting the story. Many reviews describe the movie as "a parody of game shows" and being about a couple trapped in a game show. I think they missed the transition from "Marriage Maze" to "Dentonvale" and the other shows, and the whole thing is more about TV in general. I rarely say that critics are objectively wrong on something, as all art is partly subjective, but I think they were asleep at the switch here.

SHOCK TREATMENT had a troubled history. Richard O'Brien originally set out to make a more direct sequel to ROCKY HORROR, with Frank coming back to life and Janet giving birth to his baby, among other things, but Tim Curry's understandable refusal to reprise his old role led O'Brien to instead sketch out what became the plot of this film. A strike by the Screen Actors Guild forced the film to be shot in England, where, in the absence of any American-looking exteriors, the story was again changed to take place entirely in the studio. As a result, the film is a strangely claustrophobic and oppressive experience (and it's pretty easy to tell that much of the casting wasn't done in America), which would be more of a negative but for the fact that it fits the material so well. A note on the DVD transfer here: this is one of those movies where subtle changes to the contrast or color balance can harm the experience (other films where I've observed this are 2001, BATMAN, and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.) On video, SHOCK TREATMENT looked just a bit too sterile, but that's been fixed here, and the picture is full of rich colors and solid blacks. It seems they actually went to some trouble to get the picture quality right, and the film, properly presented, is downright beautiful.

Of course, the quality of a musical at least often depends on the quality of its songs, and SHOCK TREATMENT has an excellent assortment. Fast, often short, and with a unique peppy modern rock sound, the songs- with lyrics by O'Brien and music by O'Brien and Richard Hartley (who did the incidental music on ROCKY HORROR and would handle the scoring entirely for the songs the pair contributed to THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE)- are cheesy, catchy, and fun, highlighted by clever wordplay and a relentless beat. A number of little themes and leitmotifs seem to recur throughout, at least to my untrained ear. The soundtrack album is worth tracking down.

One thing the film shares in common with its predecessor is a broad, far-from-realistic approach to dialogue and acting, which is appropriate, but unfortunately the writing is kind of stilted. It sometimes gets into kinda-neat puns and alliteration and word play, but there's a sense of it being too clever for its own good. A lot of five-dollar words are thrown around, sentences are built very formally, and it all starts to sound like some weird fusion of Jack Kirby, George Lucas, and Groucho Marx.

The film's second half loses a bit of focus and isn't as fast-moving as the first, but the strength of the film's atmosphere counts for a lot. There are also some good jokes, including a couple of obvious-but-fun literary references. The cast is charming, everyone overplaying and doing pantomime-esque turns to memorable effect. Jessica Harper does the best job by far, with a beautiful sultry singing voice that gets quite a workout. Cliff De Young also earns points for making Brad and Farley radically different in looks, mannerisms, and voice. Nell Campbell is very cute as Nurse Ansalong, though she doesn't get much to do.

At first glance, the film's satire goes after some easy targets: consumerism, small town America, television, etc. But it's quite skillful in its approach, working on levels of both plot and visuals. Everything is enclosed, boxed-in, or on screens, and though a number of things are touched on or evoked- fashion, psychiatry, religion, suburban life, sex- the overall point seems to be how all of these things are packaged and presented by Madison Avenue. Everything becomes the lowest common denominator, a shapeless mass that's hard to escape. It's more sophisticated than it looks.

SHOCK TREATMENT may be the most best of the post-RHPS wannabe cult musicals that came and went in the late seventies and early eighties, fitting into the same obscure niche as pictures like THE APPLE and FORBIDDEN ZONE. It doesn't have the kind of "don't dream it, be it" vibe that made the original resonate so highly, and it's dated some, but it's sharper and better made than you'd expect. Now, with what has to be its widest release in any format, maybe it'll finally get its due.

Original Book and Lyrics by Richard O'Brien
Music by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley
Screenplay by Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman
Directed by Jim Sharman

Grade: B+

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