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DVD Reviews for 9/8: Many Are Cult, Few Are Chosen

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic takes an extra-lengthy look at a slew of upgraded editions--several of which are worth the double-dip--a modern action classic and celebrates the long-awaited release of a personal favorite. (This is being posted early because it is my mother's birthday tomorrow--feel free to send your best wishes in care of here--and I will be helping her celebrate.)

Once upon a time, 20th Century Fox, the studio that gave you “At Long Last Love” and “Freddy Got Fingered,” found themselves in the possession of a film they apparently didn’t really get and had no idea as to how to properly market it. As a result, it opened, played for a couple of weeks and then quietly disappeared from theaters. In the case of most films, that would have been the end of the story but not this time. Instead, the film was rediscovered by audiences when it hit the secondary markets and quickly developed into an enormous cult sensation driven by viewers who could recite virtually every line of dialogue by heart. A few years later, the same filmmakers, despite having expressed disappoint over the way the first film was sold, went back to the same studio with their follow-up film, a caustic satire that hilariously depicted the direction that America’s media-saturated culture was heading. Instead of conceding that they may have made a mistake the first time around in terms of the marketing and vowing to give this follow-up a stronger push, Fox essentially buried the film by delaying its release and then dumping it out onto a marketplace in such a half-hearted manner that many people didn’t even realize that it existed until it was too late.

I know what you are thinking but I am not writing about the current scandal involving Fox’s shocking and inexplicable (as it is easily the best thing they have put out this year) treatment of Mike Judge’s hilarious “Idiocracy,” despite all the money that his previous film, “Office Space,” made for them once audiences finally got a chance to see it. No, the film I am talking about is “Shock Treatment,” the 1981 rock musical that was the little-seen quasi-sequel to the cult blockbuster “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”–a film that so completely fell through the cracks that it is entirely possible that many of you reading this may not have even been aware that there was a follow-up to “Rocky Horror.” And yet, it exists and now that it has finally made its DVD debut, I can only hope that it will be rediscovered by a new audience that looks at it not as a failed pseudo-sequel but as a satirical gem that, despite a quarter-century passing since its initial release, feels as fresh and contemporary in its concerns as anything currently playing at your local theater.

In honor of a rare theatrical screening of “Shock Treatment,” complete with a live cast playing along with the on-screen action, as part of their annual Halloween blowout, Midnight Madness, the group that has been performing “Rocky Horror” in the Chicago area for too many years to mention, asked me to write a piece about the film for the program. While I have made a couple of minor cosmetic changes and expanded on a thought or two, this is essentially what I wrote about the film back then.

It’s worth noting in retrospect that, upon it’s original release, the cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was a flop. A transplanted British stage musical homage to trashy B-movies, it failed in its transplant to Broadway after a handful of performances. When the film came out, it also garnered rather poor reviews and sank like a stone. However, an executive at 20th Century Fox suggested floating it on the midnight movie circuit, where films like "Pink Flamingos" and "El Topo" were causing a stir. With nothing to lose, they did and the rest is history.
After the film became entrenched as a success, it was probably inevitable that a sequel would soon emerge. Typical for a movie that achieved success the hard way; it took six years for the film to emerge. When it finally did, under the nondescript title of "Shock Treatment," it flopped even faster than the original. However, the loyal fans would not save it. Rather, the fans of "Rocky", ostensibly the target audience, didn’t merely dislike it; they hated it with a passion. While the original continued to run across the country, "Shock Treatment" disappeared so fast that many die-hard fans don’t even know of its existence. It is never revived, never appears on cable and is a chore to find on video. However, despite its reputation, it does deserve a second look. It is a quirky, highly original film that also manages to work as an incisive comment on the whole "RHPS" phenomenon. In its own way, to these eyes, it is the rare sequel that actually manages to work better than the original.

The film, like the original, was the brainchild of actor/writer Richard O’Brien, who deserves credit for not giving a simple retread of the original, although that is how the project began. It was originally conceived as a linear sequel, involving Frank N Furter rising from the grave, Janet, newly separated from Brad, giving birth to Frank’s baby and other nonsense. This idea was scrapped, although many of the songs written by O’Brien were retained. The screenplay began to evolve in odd new directions, accentuated by the fact that none of the principals would appear in it (the only holdovers were O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell and Charles Grey). Again the script was overhauled, when a Screen Actors Guild strike forced the production of the film on soundstages to save money.

Out of all of this came an odd tale. "Shock Treatment" has little connection with the original, save for some character names and the occasional aside (a groupie named Francine who constantly whines "Call me Frankie!!!") It takes place in Denton, which is conceived as a giant austere television studio (Its look is similar to that of the cult t.v. show "The Prisoner") Among the fanatic audience rushing for seats to the day’s entertainment is the unhappily married Brad and Janet, here played by Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper. Through machinations to convoluted to go into, normality is subsumed by chaos. Brad resists and is carted to a mental institution. Janet accepts it and becomes a media celebrity in this insular world, lorded over by the mysterious fast food magnate Farley Flavors (DeYoung again).

If "RHPS" was a cinematic embodiment of the seventies, chiefly in its focus on sexual ambiguity and freedom represented by folks like David Bowie and Mick Jagger, then "Shock Treatment" was a similar embodiment of the 80’s, the most narcissistic and materialistic decade in memory. Instead of songs about sexual release, the major number, "Little Black Dress", is about getting dressed. Janet’s major song is an ode to herself entailed "Me of Me". Other songs like "Bitchin’ in the Kitchen", rather than listing old sci-fi films, gives shout-outs to commercial products.

In addition, "Shock Treatment" works as a somewhat surreal examination of the media. Nearly every action that we see is observed by other people, be it the studio audience or one of the various villains. In addition, most of the action is also played out on television monitors, making the "reality" of whatever is going on seem more like television. In its own way, the film is somewhat avant-garde, and can be considered a prelude to more fully formed media satires such as "Natural Born Killers."

Finally, and most interestingly, O’Brien uses this sequel to comment on the fanaticism that "RHPS" has engendered over the years. The studio audiences that we see constantly joins in, cheering or catcalling every incident. When they grow restless, the performers whip them back up, and those who refuse to play along (Brad) are immediately castigated. In the end, the audience would rather enter the Denton Asylum (Dentonvale) rather than rejoin the real world.It is this particular stand, I believe, that earned "Shock Treatment" so much loathing among "RHPS" fans. In the same way that Woody Allen’s fans rebelled against the way they were betrayed in "Stardust Memories" (which, coincidentally, also featured a performance from Jessica Harper), they believed they were being made up to look like simple minded idiots. If I may mix a metaphor, cinema is like a church. To stretch the analogy, "RHPS" fans are pretty much like devout religious fanatics. You try suggesting, however vaguely, to a religious fanatic that his devotion might be misplaced and see what kind of reaction you get.

However, I don’t think that O’Brien is mocking the audience. Rather, he is trying to come to grips with an odd phenomenon that he helped inspire. Whether or not it was successful, it is interesting to see an artist deal with the implications of what he has wrought (the only other examples I can think of offhand are "Wes Craven’s New Nightmare" and Joe Dante’s "Gremlins 2." Like "Shock Treatment," they are both more interesting than their predecessors, and they both also flopped). In essence, the film acts much as the "RHPS" cult does, as a creative response to a work of art. The only difference is that O’Brien shows some qualms about the blind fealty that he has inspired and uses the film as a forum to grapple with them.

This is not to say that the film is perfect. Partly because of its structure, partly because of its genesis, it is a pretty disjointed film. Good ideas are brought up, only to be discarded. The character of Farley, described as a type of fast food messiah, is potentially interesting, yet nothing is done with him other than make him out as some kind of vague megalomaniac whose ultimate purpose is nowhere near as sharply defined as his suits. While I love many of the songs (especially the title tune and the climactic “Duel Duet”) and believe that the score, on the whole, is even better than "RHPS," I must admit that there are a few (especially “Farley’s Song” and “Thank God I’m A Man”) that are essentially filler. And while the film has a rousing enough finale, it does have a tendency to sag in the middle section–one of the same basic flaws of "RHPS," now that I think of it.

It does have other good points beside the creative ambitions already mentioned, the chief one being another nifty performance from the criminally underused Jessica Harper (a personal favorite). If her name appears in the credits, it usually means that the film should be at least interesting. She also seems attracted to ambitious musical flops; she also appears in Brian DePalma’s "Phantom of the Paradise" (1974) and the great "Pennies From Heaven" (1981). Although it couldn’t have been easy to step in the shoes of Susan Sarandon, she pulls it off here with a cheerful, sexy and high-spirited turn that makes the part all her own.

By design, "Shock Treatment" could not hope to achieve the same cult following as its predecessor. Any attempt to repeat the cult would have a deliberate, forced feel to it (perhaps this was O’Brien’s intent all along). In fact, it gave the "RHPS" cult something to thumb their collective nose at, much as regular filmgoers scorn the cult as an anachronism peopled by narcissists. (For all their talk about freedom or expressing yourself, the Rocky cult is fairly conservative. They dress the same and act the same every week; it’s like Deadheads with fishnets.) If you ignore the negative hype and simply treat it as a separate entity, you might find "Shock Treatment" to be an admittedly flawed, but interesting film worthy of attention.”

Not only has “Shock Treatment” continued to age well in the years since I wrote that piece, it has actually grown more and more relevant over time. Back then, of course, the words “reality television” and the notion that any ordinary boob could just be plucked from obscurity and have every facet of their lives broadcast before an adoring audience ready to idolize them simply because they are on television must have seemed to be the height of absurdity. Nowadays, you can hardly turn on the television today without encountering several variations on that particular theme. The idea of corporations so thoroughly dominating our lives that it becomes impossible to escape their grasp must have seemed like a paranoid fantasy back them–today it feels as if everything has a logo or some kind of sponsorship attached to it reminding you to buy and consume as often as possible. The thought that people would willing hide themselves away in a multimedia world rather than face real life surely seemed ridiculous in those days before people got on the Internet and discovered a way to be in constant contact with the world without ever having to actually go out and do anything. In devising his Brave New Cable-Ready World, Richard O’Brien captured a snapshot of the world to come that is so devastating accurate that newcomers to the film will most likely believe it to be a film of recent vintage instead of an early-1980's artifact.

As for the failed sequel tag that has been hung on the film since it came and went back then, the best way for one to approach the film is to look at it not as a continuation of the story told in the original, which it isn’t, and more as a separate-but-equal work that just happens to use a couple of pre-existing characters as an easy entry point for viewers. In O’Brien’s eyes, Brad and Janet are Everyman and Everywoman and are his vehicles through which he can examine contemporary culture and how it affects those influenced by it. In a way, “Shock Treatment” is to “Rocky Horror” as Lars Von Trier’s “Manderlay” is to his “Dogville”–both examine societal ills with a cast that includes a couple of central characters played by different actors in each film surrounded by a stock company essaying different roles in each installment. Hell, now that I think of it, the isolated soundstage setting of “Shock Treatment” does also prefigure Von Trier’s staging of his films as well. (At this point, I would like to suggest that this is just a sad example of a critic reading way too much into a vague coincidence and that you should proceed to the next paragraph without giving it a second thought.)

Hard to find when it first came out on home video–there was a murky videotape from Key Video, a company that got the films that Fox didn’t know what to do with (they also handled Dario Argento’s hypnotic “Inferno,” a film that Fox helped finance after the success of “Suspiria” and the abandoned) and a Japanese laserdisc that was the source of many a bootleg–and out of print for years, most fans of the film would have been satisfied with just a decent DVD presentation of “Shock Treatment.” Indeed, the film looks and sounds (despite a couple of audio quirks, including an end-credit fadeout that seems to be riling some fans) better than it ever has before–it is now possible to fully appreciate both the weirdo visual scheme and O’Brien’s effortlessly catchy lyrical wordplay–but Fox, to their credit, has also amassed a nice, if not expansive, set of extras. Although the key players behind the film are conspicuous by their absence, Mad Man Mike and Bill Brennan, presidents of the “Shock Treatment” fan club (yes, such a thing exists) offer up an entertaining commentary track that details the long and tortured production history that happily doesn’t bog down too deeply into geek minutiae. There are also a couple of short documentaries that offer up both a history of the film and an appreciation for the songs and a pair of trailers that indicated that no one had any real idea of how to sell the film to audiences. The only drawback is that Fox has not, as far as I know, reissued the soundtrack on CD to tie in with this release–a shame since I guarantee that anyone who encounters the songs is going to want to own such an item as soon as possible.

Written by Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman. Directed by Jim Sharman. Starring Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Charles Grey, Nell Campbell, Ruby Wax and Barry Humphries. 1981. 92 minutes. Rated PG. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $19.95.

For more information on "Shock Treatment," the original version of the article excerpted above, a slightly embarrassing photo of the author and much much more, please go to the Midnight Madness website


ALL THE KING’S MEN (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): According to something I just saw in the New York Times, Sony apparently decided against offering a new transfer of this 1949 adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren novel of Southern politics and are basically rehashing the version that came out five years ago. However, they were thoughtful enough to tack on a brief commercial for the upcoming Sean Penn remake that instigated this reissue.

ARMACORD (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Criterion, on the other hand, knows that if they are going to reissue a title from their collection, they had better make it worth the effort and their quartet of reissues are all more than worth the double dip. This new version of Federico Fellini’s 1974 childhood memoir features a brand-new transfer and translation, a new documentary on the filmmaker and the hometown that inspired the film and plenty of interviews, sketches and assorted bric-a-brac.

THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY (Koch Home Video. $19.99): Richard Burton is Leon Trotsky–what more needs to be said? Actually, I’ve never seen this 1972 Joseph Losey oddity but it has the reputation for containing one of Burton’s most scenery-chewing performances (especially during his death scene) so I know I’ll be checking it out.

BLADE RUNNER (Warner Home Video. $19.95): No, this isn’t the much-rumored three-disc megaset that is supposedly set for release next year. This is merely a rehash of the previously-issued 1992 “Director’s Cut” with an improved picture. Unless you are a desperate fan who must possess any item related to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, you should probably just hold off until next year.

BRAZIL (The Criterion Collection. $59.95): When Criterion released their mammoth 3-disc version of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 future-shock satire, it contained everything that a fan could possibly want (a commentary from the always-amusing Gilliam, documentaries chronicling Gilliam’s struggles to get it made and then released by Universal and the startling Universal-mandated recut–shorn by nearly an hour and featuring an impossibly lame “happy” ending–that was shown on television to universal scorn, no pun intended) except for an anamorphic transfer. Finally, they have corrected in this reissue and for those who already bought the previous version and are leery of spending the cash, they have also thoughtfully released a cheaper ($29.95) version containing only the new transfer of the film.

BROKEN TRAIL (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): Though some may have bemoaned the fact that Walter Hill, the director of such great genre works as “The Warriors,” “48 Hrs” and “Streets of Fire,” was now reduced to directing movies for cable–not just cable but AMC, a network that went to hell the minute they put “Grease” into heavy rotation–they stopped it when they got a look at the film, in which Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church play a couple of cowboys who are forced to interrupt their delivery of a herd of horses to protect a group of five abandoned Chinese women from some no-goodniks, and realized that it was the best thing that he has done in years.

DISTRICT B13 (Magnolia Home Video. $27.98): All of you out there who are trying to convince yourselves that “Crank” is the epitome of contemporary action nonsense should check out the latest bit of pop-art giddiness from Luc Besson–a thrill-a-second riff on “Escape From New York” in which a rough Parisian neighborhood has been transformed into a walled prison that a pair of reluctant heroes must infiltrate in order to disarm a nuclear bomb set to blow in just over an hour.

FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.99): Having stepped out of the game for nearly two decades to run a couple of his own studios, Roger Corman returned to the directors chair in 1990 to helm this intriguing adaptation of the Brian Aldiss novel in which a scientist from the future (John Hurt) is zapped back in time and pressed by Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) to use his advanced knowledge to help him with an experiment of his own. Unfortunately for Corman, in what appears to be a depressingly familiar refrain this week, 20th Century Fox didn’t much like the film and essentially buried it after a token dump release. Admittedly flawed but it has its moments and it is interesting to see what Corman could achieve with a budget over five figures and a talented cast.

GOJIRA (Sony Wonder. $21.98): Godzilla fanatics, still smarting over that disastrous American remake a few years ago, should be overjoyed with this two-disc set comprising both the original 1954 Japanese version, which has a successful revival on the art-house circuit a couple of years ago, and the recut American edition that chopped out 30 minutes of footage (mostly dramatic stuff that made the film’s anti-nuke stance even more obvious) and replaced it with 20 minutes of Raymond Burr standing around and incessantly yapping.

JACKASS: UNRATED COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): In order to promote the upcoming sequel, Paramount is releasing this 2002 gross-out hit with four minutes of additional footage reinstated. Considering how grotesque the film proper was, the notion of seeing what was deemed unworthy of appearing the first time around chills me to the bone.

KINKY KONG (E.I. Independent. $19.99): A DTV soft-core film based on you-know-what and aimed at you-know-who. I mention it only because I firmly believe that if one is giving the opportunity to mention a title like “Kinky Kong” in public, one should take advantage of it.

LOST-THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Touchstone Home Video. $59.99): The biggest unanswered question surrounding the second season of the increasingly perplexing TV hit–why are they going out of their way to kill off the fabulous-looking babes on the island?

MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (Image Entertainment. $14.95): You probably haven’t seen cult filmmaker Alan Rudolph’s 1994 biopic on the life and wit of writer Dorothy Parker but you really should, if for no other than to see Jennifer Jason Leigh deliver the performance of her career to date as Parker.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (Koch Lorber. $29.98): Although it didn’t receive even a fraction of the attention as other recent politically-oriented documentaries, Rachel Boynton’s chronicle of how famous political strategist James Carville and his team helped shape Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada’s campaign for the presidency of Bolivia is a startling document that should be seen by anyone concerned with the world political scene.

PLAYTIME (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): For this reissue of Jacques Tati’s epic-sized yet strangely intimate comedy in which the perils of modern technology are examined by setting his most beloved creation, the bumbling Mr Hulot, loose in an enormous indoor mechanized city, Criterion has made a new transfer from the recently-restored 70mm version that was re-released a couple of years ago and stocked it with plenty of extras, including an introduction from Terry Jones, a 1967 short film written by and starring Tati and a slew of documentaries chronicling the history of both the film and the man behind it.

PRETTY POISON (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): In his best non-Norman Bates performance, Anthony Perkins portrays a man recently released from a mental institution who tries to impress sexy teen Tuesday Weld with stories of his alleged CIA exploits, only to discover to late that she has some hidden secrets of her own. A great that maintains a perfect balance of suspense, genuine emotion and pitch-perfect black humor–unfortunately, Fox (here we go again) didn’t get it and dumped it into such deep obscurity that it is only now making its American home-video debut in any format. Unlike many such hard-to-find cult favorites, where the idea often turns out to be better than the reality when they are finally seen, this one more than lives up to its reputation.

THE SEVEN SAMURAI (The Criterion Collection. $49.95): Of all the Criterion reissues being released this week, this three-disc behemoth is by far the best of the bunch. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 action classic, the inspiration for any number of films (most obviously “The Magnificent Seven”) and fillmakers (George Lucas and John Milius are just two of many who have sung its praises) has been given a new transfer and is now spread out over two discs in order to provide a better visual presentation of the 207-minute epic. The set retains the informative commentary from Japanese film expert Michael Jeck and adds a second one from fellow scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie that goes into even more detail on Kurosawa and his work. If that weren’t enough, the set also includes a 50 minute television documentary on the film that was created as part of a series devoted to Kurosawa’s films (other films in this series can be seen on Criterion’s other Kurosawa titles), a new documentary charting the influences Kurosawa utilized while making the film and a two-hour “video conversation” between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima that was done for the Directors Guild of Japan. If you have even the slightest interest in film history, this set belongs on your shelf as soon as possible.

UNITED 93 (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Look, this speculative recreation of what might have happened on the plane that didn’t hit its intended target on 9/11 is undeniably gripping, non-exploitative and about as well-made as anyone could have hoped for from such a film. That said, I would appreciate it if someone could drop me a line and explain what kind of replay value this disc could possibly have.

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originally posted: 09/07/06 12:16:49
last updated: 09/20/06 04:14:24
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