There must’ve been something in the water in the 1970s. Something that made artists really stretch their creative muscles, throw caution to the wind, and push boundaries like never before. The decade birthed punk rock and rap. It was the decade of the auteur in cinema. Subway graffiti art proliferated across American cities as a means of expression, a reaction to crumbling urban centers and a pervasive post-Watergate cultural malaise.
The movie musical genre in the 1970s on into the early 1980s, is a perfect example of artists gleefully subverting norms—or nuking them attogether. Movie musicals of this period were bombastic, flamboyant, and epic affairs. Stuff like The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Tommy (1975), and The Apple (1980), to name a few. Opulent set pieces and raging libidos were di rigueur. It was glorious.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) might be the most popular example from that time period. While I’ve never been a part of the cult that formed around this movie, I’ve still seen it several times (haven’t we all?). I completely understand why the Rocky Horror cult exists. It’s long been considered the ultimate midnight movie, and we all know the stories of fans going to watch while dressed as their favorite characters. The movie is a sexually charged riot, anchored by one of the all-time iconic cult film performances by Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter. It all sprung from the demented minds of Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien (who plays Riff Raff in the film).
They struck cult classic gold, but could they do it again with their follow-up musical, Shock Treatment (1981)? Sadly, no. It was immediately declared an unmitigated disaster. Unlike Rocky Horror, which also bombed during its first run, Shock Treatment never found a second life as a profitable midnight movie and pop culture phenomenon.
Shock Treatment is incoherent at times and criminally dull at others, but there’s still some stuff to enjoy! I know, crazy, right?? Seriously though, one notable element is the always-wonderful Jessica Harper. It’s a blast to watch her sing and dance in this or another, much better musical, Brian De Palma’s truly bonkers The Phantom of the Paradise. Harper’s face was made for the big screen, and her big, beautiful, expressive eyes are impossible to ignore.
Shock Treatment also manages to sneak in a few decent musical numbers, including the title track (“You need a bit of…ooooh, shock treatment!”). There’s also some half-baked commentary on our media-obsessed society that works just enough to be entertaining. Returning Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn and co-writer O’Brien are their usual, delightfully weird selves. Then there’s Rocky Horror’s Columbia, the leggy Nell Campbell as Nurse Ansalong. She spends the movie maniacally singing, dancing, and gyrating all over the place in the shortest skirts in cinema history. When she sings, “You’re blinded by romance” the only appropriate response is, Hello, nurse!
I’m a sucker for movies that skewer our woeful societal attitudes towards mental health and our collective obsession with celebrity. Shock Treatment does these things, gleefully at times, even while feeling like a lot was lost on the cutting room floor. It’s still a suitably chaotic and crazed film, like every over-the-top rock musical should be.
Shock Treatment is available on an OOP Blu-ray from Arrow Video that’s now fetching over $100 on Amazon, but it’s freely streamable—and looking good in HD—on YouTube.
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