- Year: 1981
- Director: Jim Sharman
- Starring: Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O’Brien
Most of the sequels I have chosen for this list are follow-ups to universally-loved films, films you will see near the top of almost every Greatest Movies list. I wanted to include the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, because while Rocky Horror is not a movie on the caliber of the others here, it’s unquestionably the biggest cult film of all time. I mean, there’s no competition. Rocky Horror has had midnight showings consistently since its release in 1975, meaning it technically has the longest-running theatrical release in history.
As for me personally, I’ve seen Rocky Horror and enjoyed it. I don’t plan on dedicating my whole life to it like so many fans do, but I completely get the appeal. It’s goofy, campy, overblown and has great music. So what would a sequel to the biggest cult film of all time look like? Would it pander excessively to its own base? Or it would it try to spread out and reach a wider audience?
Writer and actor Richard O’Brien originally claimed that Shock Treatment was not a sequel or a prequel, but rather an “equal,” which I find a bit odd. It doesn’t feature all of the same characters, but since Brad and Janet are still the main characters, wouldn’t that make it a sequel? O’Brien seems to have mixed feelings about the thing today, though, since he has more recently referred to the film as an “abortion.”
The characters of Brad and Janet return, although they’re played by different actors, and actors Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell and Charles Gray return, although they’re playing different characters. Confused yet? Tim Curry sadly does not return, which some have said is due to him doubting whether he could do an American accent (Anyone who’s seen him try one will concede his doubts were fair). Meat Loaf is also absent, but this was probably just so he could show up in a third film and the audience could shout “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
A few years after the events of the first film, Brad Majors (Cliff De Young) and his wife Janet (Jessica Harper) are still living in the town of Denton, Ohio. However, Denton has now been converted entirely into an enormous television studio, run by the fast food mogul Farley Flavors (De Young in a double role). Everyone is either a character on a show, or is in the studio audience. The opening song “Denton USA” shows the sort of brainwashed, ’50s town this has turned into, and it sounds like a mix of a commercial for an amusement park and a game show theme.
A commercial shows a teacher going over the Five F’s of Denton with her students—Farley, Flavors, Fabulous, Fast and Food—revealing a logo that gave me a pretty good laugh.
Brad and Janet are selected to be contestants on the game show Marriage Maze, hosted by the blind German Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries), who’s sort of like if Dr. Strangelove entered The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Brad and Janet have been having marriage issues, because he’s too boring and dorky (It’s played up a bit more than the original film), so the Marriage Maze decides he gets to live in the medical soap opera Dentonvale for a week, where he will receive psychiatric treatment. Janet thinks this might be a bit extreme, but Schnick insists it is the only way.
When shown the prizes they can win on Marriage Maze, Brad and Janet start singing to them about how modern technology is ruining their lives in “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen.” Here’s the wonderful thing about a Rocky Horror sequel—You could literally put anything on the screen, and it won’t be too weird. Beyond the general weirdness, it’s just a great song. I applaud anyone who can sing “Oh toothpaste, don’t you put the squeeze on me” or refer to as an alarm clock as a “micro digital awaker” with a straight face, and Jessica Harper does it fabulously. She really has the perfect voice for the kind of pop rock music in this film, and even though this is probably going to get me killed, I far prefer her performance as Janet to Susan Sarandon’s in the original.
Susan Sarandon is a great actress, but Brad and Janet in the original were just the normal people surrounded by all the weirdness. Here, they serve similar roles, but they are far more jaded than they were before. Her character is a bit more interesting on paper, but it’s really Jessica Harper’s performance that makes her the best character in the thing. She has a such a powerful presence, helped along by her equally powerful singing voice, and she completely steals the show.
Brad is checked into Dentonvale Hospital, run by brother-and-sister Cosmo McKinley (Richard O’Brien) and Nation McKinley (Patricia Quinn). They encourage Janet to sign a contract regarding his stay, and she says she’ll sign tomorrow.
Janet then sings the touching ballad “In My Own Way,” which can easily be enjoyed outside the context of the film.
Meanwhile, Janet’s parents are quizzed about Brad’s family, where it’s revealed he was adopted. As a prize, they get to live in a dream house on Happy Homes for a week. While on the show, Janet’s father (Manning Redwood) sings an ode to his patriarchal views in “Thank God I’m a Man,” a Johnny Cash-esque growler that also samples the “Hallelujah Chorus” for over-dramatic effect.
Meanwhile, Janet is being groomed to be a model and the face of Farley’s upcoming show Faith Factory, on which he claims sanity will be restored. “Farley’s Song” is an overblown villain song, and while it’s obvious (painfully obvious) that it was written for Tim Curry, Cliff De Young does a good job with it. He definitely plays Flavors with just the right amount of smarminess.
While Janet is preparing to become Miss Mental Health, we discover that Schnick is actually not blind at all, as he peeps at her in the shower. Unsurprisingly, Schnick and the McKinleys are in on Flavors’ evil plan to take over Denton and force them all to get his shock therapy.
Janet is fitted for a little black dress, and in a song appropriately titled “Little Black Dress,” Richard O’Brien tries to do the “Time Warp” again. Look, it bothered me for about half-a-second that they’re trying to basically do the same song, because once the song started, I was totally into it. It’s almost self-parody, seeing as how the song even has ridiculously simple instructional lyrics (“Well first you go rip rip rip/Then you go snip snip snip”), but even if I should care, I don’t. Jessica Harper has such a strong voice, and everyone is clearly having a blast in this scene.
In a subplot, Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray) and Brad and Janet’s friend Betty (Ruby Wax) are investigating Farley Flavors and company. Betty was the one getting was married in the opening scene of the original, and her now ex-husband Ralph (Jeremy Newson) is the only returning character played by the same actor. Oliver and Betty soon discover that Cosmo and Nation McKinley are merely character actors and not doctors, and that Farley Flavors is actually Brad’s twin brother, separated at birth. He’s jealous that Brad has a good life while he’s had it tough, so he plans to bring down Brad, steal his wife, and corrupt the whole town as revenge.
This could have been really funny, since it’s playing with a ridiculously cliched twist, but the subplot to unveil it is just boring. Charles Gray and Ruby Wax really don’t add much at all to the film, and even though the place these scenes are headed is important, it feels like filler.
Meanwhile, Janet’s star is on the rise and she is growing increasingly vain. Her ode to vanity, “Me of Me” is the most ’80’s song in the film, but it is still quite good and fits in with the rest of the soundtrack. Brad is serenaded about the wonders of shock treatment in the irresistibly fun title song, which even features a lyric about being blinded by science a year before Thomas Dolby would sing about it.
The hospital staff sings and dances to the enjoyable “Look What I Did to My Id,” even though it’s entirely irrelevant to the plot. As Faith Factory begins, a live band plays the rocker “Breaking Out,” which, again, could have been a hit outside the context of the film.
Janet is promised a new car if she agrees to be the spokesperson for Flavors’ new wave of sanity, but Betty and Oliver break Brad out and bring him on stage. Janet sees the error of her ways, and since she never signed the hospital contract, Brad has to be let go. For a minute, everyone stars inexplicably speaking in rhyme, and while it comes out of nowhere, the forced rhymes are somewhat enjoyable (“choose her”/”you sir”). Brad confronts his own twin in “Duel Duet,” and I have to hand it to Cliff De Young here. Flavor and Frad have different appearances, mannerisms and singing styles, and it’s a very well done song.
Although they both sing to the other that “The best thing you could ever do is die,” neither one actually kills the other. Flavors has Brad, Janet, Betty and Oliver held at gunpoint to be taken to prison, while he convinces the entire audience to get his shock treatment. However, Brad easily distracts the guard, who gleefully goes to get shock treatment himself. The four now have the studio to themselves and sing the ridiculously cheery closing number “Anyhow, Anyhow,” while dancing around the empty audience seats.
During this song, we get a brief reprise of “Denton” from the crowd of patients awaiting their shock therapy, and it fits in wonderfully. It turns out the band from earlier had been hiding in the car the whole time, so they all pack in (and on) the car and drive away from Denton for good.
Ultimately, I’m pretty conflicted in regards to Shock Treatment. One one hand, the plot’s just boring. For being a sequel to a total mindscrew of a film, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s goofy, sure, but nowhere near as wacky as Rocky Horror. I kind of wish it had gone full-blown in its weird vision.
On the other hand, the music is fantastic. Every song is good, and many of them are great. The soundtrack is at least as good as the original, and I think I may like it better. Songs like “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen,” “Little Black Dress” and “Shock Treatment” are just so catchy, and Jessica Harper is a phenomenal singer. I have to admit it’s easy to zone out when songs aren’t being sung, so thankfully there’s a lot of them.
Oh what’s that, internet commenter?
Of course it’s satire. It’s just not good satire.
Alright, soapbox time. Sometimes, movie fans will get up in arms when someone doesn’t like a movie that’s one of their favorites. Many seem to think that using the “This is satire” argument universally means it’s a good film that the reviewer just doesn’t understand. Satire is simply making a comedic statement on the current state of affairs, so it can be done well, and it can be done poorly. There are plenty of films that satirize our obsession with television, and some are good like Network and The Truman Show, while others are EdTV. Simply making satire doesn’t mean it will be great. Could you argue this film predicted the rise of reality television? Sure, but so did a lot of films. It’s not like this film was the only one to ever have that kind of idea. It’s not done terribly, but it’s just not done particularly well.
Let’s get to the final score.
Story (9/30 Points)
The sadistic game show is an interesting premise, and this plot could have worked. Sadly, it’s boring and far too sane to be a Rocky Horror follow-up.
Returning Characters (11/15 Points)
Jessica Harper is incredibly charismatic as Janet Majors, making her a far more interesting character than she was before. Brad is locked up most of the film, and while they make him a bit too stereotypically nerdy, he’s still somewhat likable. The returning characters of Betty and Ralph don’t stand out even a little bit.
New Characters (8/15 Points)
Barry Humphries goes all-in as bizarre game show host Bert Schnick, and Cliff De Young gives a convincing dual performance as Farley Flavors. Richard O’Brien is rightfully creepy as Dr. McKinley, and Patricia Quinn and Nell Campbell are having fun, but there are a lot of side characters who don’t add much. The lack of Tim Curry is felt.
Experience (16/20 Points)
I love the songs, all of them. After watching this once, they’ll be stuck in your head for a while, and that’s a good thing. Any time the story was getting boring, a great song would start up and I’d be invested again. However, the sets are pretty boring due to a small budget, and it shows.
Originality (9/20 Points)
Better television satires have been done, and it doesn’t even play with its own ridiculous “evil twin” plot. They really could have had some fun with that, but it’s basically played straight. However, it’s not just being Rocky Horror again, so I’ll give it that.
FINAL SCORE: 53%
As I said above, I’m not a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, but I had some fun with this film. The story is pretty dull, but the songs are so much fun that they somewhat make up for it. Unlike many sequels in this series, I am at least glad it exists, and while I may not feel the need to watch it again any time soon, I will definitely be listening to the soundtrack some more. With songs this good and a performance as good as the one Jessica Harper gives, this is by no means the “abortion” Richard O’Brien made it out to be (The only thing not carried to term is Charles Gray’s American accent). It will never have the following the original does, but it’s fairly enjoyable on its own terms. If you want to watch it, it will be worth your time. If not, please at least listen to the soundtrack.