Efren’s Cult Corner: A series that explores cult films with small cult followings.
By Efren Ponce, Contributor
When thinking about movies that have withstood the test of time and have gone on to garner massive popularity over the years, it’s impossible not to mention the crazy, joy-filled thrill ride that is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Since its release in the ‘70s, there has consistently been at least one screening per year of the now-iconic movie musical that starred comedy actor Tim Curry and an Oscar-winning Susan Sarandon. The movie gave us great music from writer and composer Richard O’Brien, most notably songs like “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite.” It continues to be performed on the stage and has even been revived on television as well. What many Rocky Horror fans may not know though is it actually has a lesser-known younger brother, 1981’s “Shock Treatment.”
As has become typical in Hollywood, the successful original film led to a second installment not long after. Everyone but the main actors returned, so in many cases it’s considered more of a pseudo-sequel that isn’t an official part of the “Rocky Horror” canon, and with good reason.
“Shock Treatment’s” story suffers from having no clear plot, and the film received poor reviews as a result. While the first movie was bizarre in many respects, it was easier to follow than its successor. The sequel goes from addressing drag culture, xenophobia, and mental illness, to sexual intercourse all within its 90-minute run time, and Richard O’Brien has gone on to share his disdain for the final product. Despite all its poor qualities, though, there’s a lot to take away from Shock Treatment as a whole and viewers should focus more on the messages it has in specific moments rather than only focusing on its not-so-cohesive storyline.
The opening number, “Denton, U.S.A.,” tells a story of a small conservative town in Ohio through a television commercial that seems picture-perfect in every way at first. One song claims they’ve got “happy hearts and smiling faces…and tolerance for the ethnic races.” Right away, they set up a sprawl of suburbia where tolerating diversity makes it one of the happiest places to live in. We can see how O’Brien’s lyrics reflect the conservative America of today by positing it as the more “liberal” America of yesterday, and vice versa. In an age where immigration is a taboo subject in more conservative regions of the country, Shock Treatment manages to reference the fictionality of suburban Americans embracing the integration of prominently White America. The haunting reality of the light shed on the nation in the movie then is still relevant now.
One of the characters later shares his hate for immigrants and Denton T.V., showcasing the advertisement, is revealed to have a swastika-esque logo, so it’s very clear O’Brien is drawing parallels between fascist Germany and the Republican midwest. Despite being a great place of utopic shelter for some, Denton, Ohio doesn’t seem to function for anyone else. It speaks to today’s economic system, all told through energetic pop numbers.
Treatment of mental illness in society is another relevant subject matter present in the movie. The main characters, Brad and Janice, are at the center of a reality show that seeks to “fix” marital relationships. Their conversations are broadcast for all viewers, and in one of the quirkier songs of the movie, Brad & Janet talk to different kitchen appliances about their reservations about each other. The song’s raunchy title is mainly representative of our focus on materialism to distract us from addressing issues rather than being communicative and facing those issues head-on. A large cause of the disconnect between couples is attributed to differences in priorities, but an easy fix the reality show provides is sending Brad to an insane asylum, telling him (complete with a title drop) “You need a bit of…ooh, shock treatment!” He, of course, gets false diagnoses thrown on him and doesn’t get the help he needs, which is simply marriage counseling with Janet. O’Brien highlights the falsehoods that television shows can perpetuate about addressing certain personal issues. He also touches on the poor efforts done to listen to patients to provide accurate assessments of the help they need and also the stigma of seeking help from a counselor, marital or otherwise.
For all its imperfections, if you’re into watching films with messy plots and songs prone to getting stuck in your brain, Shock Treatment is a delight that serves as an important window to the world envisioned by an ‘80s songwriter. It may not have as strong a fan base as its predecessor, but taking into account the valuable themes of the movie, it’s worth the watch.