“Lost in time, and lost in space… and meaning”
A few years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released, the writer-director team of Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman were asked to create a follow-up to it. What they came up with was Shock Treatment. Unfortunately, it will always be crippled by its association with Rocky Horror. It was expected to be a phenomenon, but you can’t produce a phenomenon. Only audiences, over time, can create a phenomenon. The fans of Rocky Horror were full of unrealistic expectations and, understandably, very disappointed by it.
The film follows the Brad and Janet characters, a few years later, having some marital issues. There is no mention of the whole Frank’n Furter incident. In fact, the entire film takes place inside a television studio—which may or may not be a mental institution—in Denton, the small town where the first film began—which may or may not be in the heads of the people in this television studio. Brad and Janet find themselves on a game show, and it turns out that the whole world of the television studio, which might be a mental institution—notice all of the walls are padded!—is part of a big conspiracy and all sorts of crazy things happen.
It doesn’t uplift you with the same whimsical abandon as Rocky Horror, which was a light-hearted homage to 50s B horror/sci-fi films and embellished by some 70s camp. Despite its over-the-top gothic atmosphere, Rocky Horror is very silly and you can relax into it. O’Brien and Sharmon decided to be far more sophisticated with this film. Shock Treatment is true satire and because of the dark undercurrent you can never fully relax into it. The imagery is bright and sterile, and all the action is campy and ridiculous, but you’re always aware of the unsettling ideas lurking underneath the oddball spectacle—scary metaphors for ambition, greed, insecurity and mass media manipulation.
This came out in the early 80s, long before The Truman Show, and similarly, it’s an amusing and insightful satire on reality television and the creation of a phenomenon out of everyday people. Furthermore, it’s an exploration of how the media markets our own vanity to us. This film is strange and clever. It is a shame that it will forever be compared to Rocky Horror.
Shock Treatment (1981)
Director: Jim Sharman
Writers: Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman
Stars: Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O’Brien