Monday, December 7, 2009

Shock Treatment (Jim Sharman, 1981)

A veiled attack on square values, mindless consumerism, the fleeting nature of fame, and totalitarianism in general, Shock Treatment may seem like a silly, inconsequential musical on the surface, but underneath the sticky glaze beats a thoughtful heart, one that oozes a lurking satirical pungency which caught me completely off guard. Catchy songs with rhyming lyrics, disco-flavoured grooves and an overall glam rock temperament float through the air like a capricious deluge of projectile vomit in this film about a secret sibling rivalry, television as a force for communal pacification, mental hygiene, and the over-medication of the masses (pills are painless). While that might sound like a lot of stuff for one thing to be about, I've actually only just begun to claw at the soft underbelly in terms of listing and arranging words that convey what this endeavour entails in the grand scheme of things. You see, the amount of subtle genius going on in this misunderstood masterpiece is insurmountable, and any attempt to unlock its many layers would be foolhardy. If your brain is unaccustomed to the discombobulating macrocosm that is nuance, then I recommend you train your simplistic gaze in the direction of Nell Campbell's exquisite gams. Unclothed and in a perennial state of brassy exhibition, these limber appendages will occupy the muscles in your cerebral cortex in a way that will provide the necessary sustenance to properly satisfy not only your most primitive needs, but also quell the depraved beast that lives inside of all of us.
Of course, I was able to enjoy the film's many subtle nuances and the blatant leg show simultaneously. Partly because I'm excellent at multitasking (I'm crocheting a cozy for my boyfriend's cock as I type this), but mostly because I seem to stubbornly like everything that others deem crap. This contrarian position never fails to give my hapless aura a warm coating of smugness that beats any kind of high or conventionally obtained orgasm.

Now, does Richard O'Brien's brain-sick musical furnish this coating? Yes and no. Yeah, sure, it doesn't have the same oomph that other film he wrote and starred in had. But then again, that film's success seems based solely on hype and trans* inquisitiveness. This particular enterprise, however, earns its bacon through sheer diligence.
On top that, the glorious art direction literally seeps gaudiness, as every frame is saturated in a garish shellac that invigorates the eyes and threatens the bowels. The costumes, especially the ones worn by the female characters, induce seizures through their overt chromatic splendour. (The shade of green used for the nurse get-ups was quite pleasing.) And the plot involving a Lawrence Welk-style television station called Denton, where celebrities are made overnight, was eerily similar to today's instant stardom/reality television universe.

Proving that exposed nipples, genitals and their crack-based cousins aren't necessarily needed when creating a work of erotica, Shock Treatment seemed determined to set some sort of leg fetish record, as it wonderfully utilizes the popular accoutrements that are used mainly for walking upright and kicking inflated balls. Seriously, the absurd amount of exposed stem in this film was mind-boggling. It comes as no surprise that the primary culprit of this leggy surplus is Nell Campbell. Playing Nurse Ansalong, a prompt care giver working for Dr. Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn), the squeaky voiced actress/singer/overall fabulous person is pure, unadulterated sexiness from beginning to end.

The way she would confidently stomp through the padded hallways of Dentonvale, bursting open its many doors with an indifferent aplomb, was a thing of heart palpitating beauty. Never have I seen a performer so keenly aware of their own prowess as a leg-wielding banshee than I did in the form of Nell's hem-challenged nurse.

Cementing her place as one of the coolest actresses in the history of recorded time, Jessica Harper is cuteness personified as Janet Majors, the bland housewife turned vixenish diva, who allows Brad (Cliff De Young), her equally bland husband, to be committed by the omnipotent Farley Flavors (Cliff De Young) after appearing on a cheesy game show hosted by the visually impaired Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries a.k.a. Dame Edna). Sporting a pink cheongsam like it were a deadly weapon, the wide-eyed Miss Harper shines bright during all her musical numbers.

In fact, her two solo songs, "In My Own Way" and "Me of Me," were, I thought, the best the film had to offer music-wise. And not one to let Nell Campbell have all the sexy fun, Jessica amps up the titillation factor through a series of thigh revealing outfits that will ruin countless trouser creases.

The aforementioned cheongsam was a flat out gorgeous piece of clothing, and the shiny ensemble that Richard O'Brien puts together during the aptly named "Little Black Dress" was totally bewitching.

Speaking of being totally bewitching, her name may be Claire "Toeman," but I think she should change it to "Legman." If you look carefully, you'll notice that Claire Toeman is putting on a bit of a Nell Campbell-esque leg clinic of her own as Brenda Drill, one of the DTV dancers. Usually dressed as a cheerleader and almost always standing next to the equally leggy Sinitta Renay, Miss Toeman's shapely, mouth-watering stems are gorgeous beyond belief.    

The multi-talented Jessica is quietly becoming one of my favourite thespians thanks to her consistently interesting work in offbeat fare like The Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, and now Shock Treatment. Which, despite having failed to attain iconic status of its more popular sister, is a worthy addition to my long list of unfairly maligned films.



  1. Wow, this is one of my most-watched films (it's so addictive, it's a bit of a problem sometimes) but no one else ever seems to talk about it. I love the songs and eye-popping color palette, and think Cliff De Young did a marvelous job portraying two characters ("Duel Duet" is my favourite scene). Thanks for the thoughtful and observant (especially regarding the film's legginess) post!

    It's weird how spot-on O'Brien really was about that whole instant-reality-show-star thing.


    I thought you might enjoy this blog.

    That's some impressive multitasking. :)

  3. Alex: No problem. I thought the film's "legginess" was just as important as the songs and the choreography.

    Karim Amir: Cool blog. They sure do like the term "fuck yeah" over at Tumblr.

    Anyway, I love the pic of Markham St. from 1924, as it almost looks exactly same as it does today.

    Speaking of T.O., did you hear about the Carlton Cinema closing? It was an aging art-house multiplex named after the street it was located on. I saw countless movies there over the years; everything from Orlando and Monsoon Wedding to Russian Ark and Crumb.

  4. I remember watching this film when I was a younger. I was the only one I knew who enjoyed it. All my buddies hated it. They just didn't get it. Cool to see a post on it.

  5. Man, you've seen a shitload of movies.

  6. I've neither sen nor heard of this before now, but it looks and sounds like 20 hard miles of hot road.

  7. Bitchin' in the kitchen
    and cryin' in the bedroom all night!

    Great, great songs (I always said better than Rocky Horror), and I especially love the song Lullaby (tho they're kinda like children - hard to pick a favorite)

    I used to have the biggest crush on that red-headed cheerleader...

  8. I think I'm the only person in the world who prefers this film to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It's visually stunning and the soundtrack is fantastic, especially "In My Own Way" and the excellent "Breaking Out." Good to see this film finally shown some love!

  9. I know that this will be sacrilege to "Rocky Horror" fans who read this, but I honestly think that Richard O' Brien got it right with "Shock Treatment". There's a definite theme to this film that gives a humorous black eye to the restraints of status quo conformity and the overindulgence therein.

  10. I'm sort of ecstatic to finally see a positive review on this film. I'm sick and tired of people hating on it so viciously - I often think Rocky's responsible for all the venom Shocky seems to receive. I think it does have a fairly weak plot, but the dialogue and the themes are great, the performances fully entertaining/engrossing, the art direction is a charm and the songs are pretty much all aces (even if I will always prefer Rocky's music as a whole).

    It will forever be a mystery to me why this film is so reviled. Do I prefer Rocky? Yes. Is Shocky a worthy movie in its own right? Absolutely.

    Besides, Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn have tons of sexual chemistry!

    1. Am I the only one surprised they never wound up together? O'Brien really got friend zoned, huh? I always expected the two of them to get hitched, move in together, pump out a couple little weirdos. If they were twin boys, and I was Richard, I would name them Riff & Raff.

  11. I agree. Shock Treatment is an underappreciated film ahead of its time, years before "The Matrix", "The Truman Show", etc.

    1. Weird. I always alluded the feeling of this film as a sort of the Twilight Zone type, than Matrix. Contrary to what the others here are pretending not to get, I actually understand why this film wasn't as popular as it could have been. A couple years before Shocky came out, Richard was referring to his story before Shocky as a full-fledged sequel to Rocky, where Rocky survived, and found Dr. Scott to try and revive Frank. Meanwhile, Janet wound up pregnant with Frank's baby (remember the bedroom scene), and Riff Raff & Magenta have stolen the baby to prevent the kid from becoming the heir to their home planet's throne (Frank was the Prince of Transsexual, and his mother is the Old Queen, who's dying of old age). So when this film came out, instead of the promised film "Rocky Horror Shows His Heels," they already knew there were major changes made, but they didn't know they abandoned any and all of the plot they were promised, so it never lived up to expectations, because they were led to believe something else. It's not Richard O'Brien's fault, it was the result of the Screen Actors' Guild taking a strike, and ruining the chance to use the full plot and all locations (O'Brien found out there really IS a Denton, USA, and it's located in Texas). As a consequence, they had to record in London, just as they did in Rocky. Only difference is O'Brien had no idea there really WAS a Denton in the US when he wrote Rocky. He just made the name up. Interesting, huh?