“I’ve Just Come to Tell You How Fabulous I Am”: The Shock in Shock Treatment (1981)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is perhaps the most beloved horror musical of all time. It’s a controversial catchy cult classic. I could talk about the film at length (and I will on Friday) but that’s not what I am interested in today. I was just setting up some context because I want to talk about the sequel, the shockingly unpopular Shock Treatment. It is not well-known despite its relation to RHPS, in fact, I have yet to meet a person in real life who has seen it. That is a true shame. The film was released under vastly different circumstances than its older sibling, but those circumstances are what make it so unique and timely. It is difficult, and arguably wrong, to compare the two films because they are so radically different, although they do share actors and characters. In fact, comparing the two is why Shock Treatment is so divisive with fans, as many expect it to be a direct continuation of RHPS, which was never the case. That’s why the tagline for Shock Treatment is “it’s not a sequel… it’s not a prequel… it’s an equal!”, which is how the film should be approached. It is a bizarre creation in its own right, and not dependent on RHPS.   

“From The Creators Of The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

No one expected RHPS to become a global sensation, let alone a film we continue to watch and adore 45 years later. Once it took off on the midnight circuit in theaters, the film became insanely popular, with fans showing up to multiple screenings in full costume. It wasn’t just a film; it was an event. This left Hollywood confused, a little frightened, and anxious to recreate RHPS’s seemingly ‘magic’ formula. They didn’t quite understand what made RHPS so popular, but they wanted to recreate that popularity again, and quickly. Creator Richard O’Brien also wanted to create a spin-off with a similar tone and some of the same characters. However, because cast members like Tim Curry were not interested, the project became more of a logistical nightmare. O’Brien hated the final product but has suggested that its music is a bit more complex and interesting than RHPS. Since its initial failure, the film was staged in 2015 and received some good reviews. It has taken some time, but people are finally appreciating some of the unique qualities of this ‘failed’ follow up, even garnering a small but devoted fan base.

Unlike RHPS, Shock Treatment was created as a film, not a play. As such, a lot of its material directly parodies Hollywood and mass culture in way which might have been lost on stage. Although it was released in 1981, the film predicts the way we treat television and reality stars today. It suggests that people, both stars and audience, are fueled by an innate need to either be entertained and to entertain. The only world we see in Shock Treatment takes place in a giant television studio which has merged with the suburbs. The entire town has become a television set, and people live in the audience bleachers.

Brad and Janet, played by different actors than in RHPS, arrive at the studio on the brink of a divorce. After Janet sends Brad to a mental institution show, where he is drugged and ‘treated’ on live TV, she becomes the new It girl of the studio. It is certainly a strange story, but its representation of lust, commercialized self-improvement, and narcissism, remain increasingly relevant today. While RHPS parodies 50’s B-movies and Frankenstein, Shock Treatment parodies our contemporary society, aspects of which were still developing in the early 80’s. It foresaw reality TV as a form of drug, not just to the mindless audience but to its principal actors, who become addicted to their audience.

“What An Ideal Couple… More Than Anyone Else in Denton, They Represent the Old Values”

In the song “Bitchin’ in The Kitchen”, Janet and Brad sing about their struggling relationship using TV ads. They frame their relationship as if it were a commercial, asking the objects why they are so unhappy, and why their marriage cannot be as pristine and orderly as the things they see on TV. Although they are surrounded by these modern objects, they continue to fight, as the title “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen” suggests. This song introduces the main dilemma between Brad and Janet: how to live in an imperfect and human relationship while surrounded by a capitalist, object-oriented, and ultimately artificial world. The characters in the film try to turn Brad and Janet into objects using drugs, first turning Brad into a lunatic and then Janet into a self-obsessed mindless doll. We eventually discover that the doctors and nurses in Brad’s show, the one’s helping Janet, are not doctors at all, but actors. This is just one way the film implies that TV brainwashes us into believing anything, and that everything on TV is for sale, even people. The mental health advocates in the film are guilty of causing more trauma to make money. Ultimately, Janet and Brad escape this world, but leave the citizens of Denton behind in the studio.    

While the film’s criticism remains topical, it also surprisingly functions as a version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. There is a short scene where Betty Hapschatt reads Coleridge’s epic poem to a sleeping Judge Oliver Wright. They are suddenly interrupted by a security guard who holds up a dead albatross and shouts “Does this bird belong to you?”, which causes Betty to scream. It is my favourite moment in the film because it comes from seemingly nowhere and is never addressed again. The film doesn’t even identify the poem by name, so the reference is left to those who are already familiar with Coleridge’s prose.

“Suspicion of Tradition’s So New Wave”

For those unfamiliar, the epic poem concerns a mariner who randomly kills an albatross bird and plunges the rest of the crew into a world of misery, death, and fear. It includes supernatural imagery, aspects of sublime horror, and a critical reading on the relationship between mankind and the environment. Sublime horror also appears in Shock Treatment, as the natural world is nowhere to be found. The sublime is an experience beyond words, one where the subject is overcome with the unavoidable horror that they are insignificant in the face of the natural world and universe. There is a lot imagery for this concept, and it’s often depicted as some massive mountain or forests, even as traumatizing supernatural phenomenon.

This quick reference to sublime horror and Coleridge is funny and out of place, but it additionally enhances the film’s broader critique. Betty knows that the dead albatross represents bad luck and a symbol for mankind’s greed and thoughtlessness. The movie suggests that modern culture has marketed human emotion and personality, to the extent where individualism is just an economic persona. Even the film’s villain is proof of this, as Brad’s evil twin wants to become the dominant self or individual, and he and Brad compete for the right to have an identity. This is exactly what romantic authors like Coleridge were terrified of: the notion that technology would absorb people’s worship of the natural world and warp their sense of self into something selfish and corrupt. Betty refuses this system, hence the fact she is reading an old poem in the middle of a TV studio. She is essentially looking back at a natural world which no longer exists, which explains why she is so afraid of the bird. It is also meant to alert the audience that they should be close reading the film as they would close read Coleridge’s work.

Like the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Shock Treatment depicts shocking material to diagnose and treat its audience, or to remind them of what is important. It tries to shock the audience into making a change, and to be more aware of the way contemporary culture operates. Finding the albatross tells the audience that things are about to get a lot weirder, and a lot more horrifying, but that ultimately our protagonists will escape as the Mariner did, albeit by leaving everyone else behind. The audience in Shock Treatment is the same as the crew in the poem, as both media warn us to avoid random and impulsive behaviour, like killing the albatross or watching mindless TV. The nuances of this symbolism and critique are reason enough to watch Shock Treatment. I have not even gotten into how good the songs are. Like its characters, Shock Treatment should not be compared solely with RHPS, but rather viewed as an individual and self-aware film. As the fighting between Brad and his twin suggest, identity should not be a competition.

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