Don’t let this thematic talk lead you to believe that “shock treatment” is a sham. It really is a blast. The tunes might not be the legendary earworms you heard in “Rocky Horror,” but they do show O’Brien at his most lyrical and witty. Brad and Janet lament their declining marriage in a song called “Bitchin ‘in the Kitchen”, where they find inspiration in commercials (“Dear blender, oh won’t you help a first offender, oh toaster, don’t you put the burn on me. ”) After Janet’s fanatic father finds out that a friend of his has been caught up in a gay sex scandal, he sings a number about what defines a“ real ”man. One line says that “men should know about the right opportunities for tax evasion.”
It’s the kind of scathing satire of pompous American masculinity that wouldn’t seem out of place in a John Waters comedy. If there’s one weakness in this musical, it’s in the number of songs that don’t seem to relate to the story, even though they’re solid numbers. Janet sings a slinky number called “Looking for Trade” which comes out of nowhere and is shot like a De Palma movie. No complaints, of course, but that’s not really crucial to the narrative.
Rather than let the film stand on its own, Fox tried to retro-design another cult midnight hit. “Shock Treatment” was treated as an exclusive “only for true fans” event from the start, and it only came out as a special screening from midnight to Halloween 1981. It never received a first release in theaters. Fox executives didn’t seem to understand the problem with this method or how cult movies actually come about. As a result, “Shock Treatment” ended up being a bigger financial flop than “Rocky Horror”. Fans of the original film didn’t appreciate him either – not when all the things they loved about “Rocky Horror” seemed utterly missing from its “equal”. Even O’Brien would later refer to “shock treatment” as “an abortion”. His journey to anything remotely resembling cult status took a little longer than his older brother.
But people eventually returned to “shock treatment”. “Rocky Horror” is now probably too mainstream to be truly cult-friendly, but “Shock Treatment” has retained its rough underground feel. It’s a retro tale with a topical theme, a hidden gem with many layers yet to be revealed. It all depends on whether or not the audience is ready for a story about charismatic con artists and how eagerly we buy the dangers they sell. But with songs!