17 September, 2011

New Forest Film Festival: Shock Treatment

When Shock Treatment came out, I considered avoiding it on principle.

As much as I enjoyed the lopsided delights of Rocky Horror, I have had a fractious relationship with it. I spent a summer as an usher assisting janitors with the toxic post RHPS cleanup into the wee hours, and then a couple of years later permanently damaged a knee doing the Time Warp. (the whole sordid tale is here: ) As it was hyped, Shock Treatment seemed like a tacky attempt to cash in instantly on the eventual success of Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I was wary that a new Rocky Horror, without a developed fan interactive script to prop up the saggy parts might be pretty tedious (try watching the last 3rd of RHPS on video -- alone).

Then a friend who actually saw it told me it was rubbish, so I left it.

Then came the New Forest Film Festival, not just the chance to see the movie, but to Q&A Richard O'Brien, the impish chrome dome creator.  By now there was an air of mystery and nostalgia to the film.  Would it benefit by today's lowered standards?  Would it be charmingly retro?  Would it just be good enough to have a half decent musical with some of the outrĂ© sensibilities of Rocky Horror?

It sounded like something that my wife might enjoy.  Then I was short listed for the Festival's Critic of the Year competition, with the winners revealed at the Shock Treatment screening and awards presented by Richard O'Brien himself.  Along with comp tickets for the short listees.  It had become a must see.

O'Brien was a bit late, so Mark Kermode aptly presented the critics award.  O'Brien makes an entrance and uses his full on lovey actorly projection to present the film competition awards.  The subsequent Q&A covers the film, about which O'Brien issues a pre-emptive apologia, and some of his other mostly theatrical projects.  He's really sweet, he maybe went on a bit too mea culpa about Shock Treatment.  He calls it deeply flawed, he's very self-deprecating about his own performance in it, and he hints about an unhappy shoot during which familiarity had bred contempt, the director had become unapproachable and others became lost in their own ego trips.  He does rate the songs which he touts as "better than Rocky Horror."

There were some enthusiastic fans of the film who came in full mufti.  An oddity to the rest of the audience, unfamiliar with the characters, and not really geared up for their interactive script, ala Rocky Horror.  They soldiered on with their responses for a few minutes, but abandon their attempt either through embarrassment, or kindness to the bewildered majority as there is too much going on, the film is hard enough to tune into without the added backchat.  It was hard not to feel sorry them with their sincere earnestness, but I was glad they shut up.

Shock Treatment is by any estimation, a mess. It throws you in the deep end, there's a lot to take in, a soap opera's worth of characters and plot strands, and the film doesn't really give you any time to do it. The satirical and fantastical conceit, that a small town, obsessed with fame, exists within a television studio, not in a hidden camera fake town like the Truman Show way, but literally with cameras, lights, sets, townspeople as studio audience, social luminaries and wannabe climbers as talk show celebrities way, is all done with such breathless bravura that it doesn't pause to flesh itself out in a sensible fashion.  Just when it finally starts to make sense and give you some reasons to care about the characters, it ends.

Having had my originally low expectations lowered even further, by Richard O'Brien himself, I actually enjoyed it.  Despite his protestations, his performance is fine, but there's not much to his character. O'Brien had said he was proud of the score, and on only one listen, I'd say he has every right to be.

It might have been more workable if it had something to make the "Brad" and "Janet" characters sympathetic, something more than sharing names with RHPS characters. Maybe a single number at the beginning introducing them at a happier time and showing how they end up in TV hell.  As it stands it doesn't really have clear protagonists, and the outstanding ensemble, Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, Ruby Wax and RHPS alums Patricia Quinn and Charles Gray with minor turns by Rik Mayall and Sinitta, aren't given much more to do than to be loud and hit their marks.

To suggest that it's prescient about reality TV and today's celebrity culture is stretching the point a bit, its satirical barbs are aimed in that direction, but it's unclear what it wants to say about it. The scattershot verve does manage to carry it along most of the way, although it does run out of steam a couple of times. Once you forgive the lulls and other obvious flaws, it's enjoyable. and the best musical film I'm likely to see this year, this side of The Muppets.

It is drenched in visual style and striking production design.  Along with the songs it's perhaps best enjoyed as a collection of vintage music videos.  MTV in the '80's glory days.  Nice song, Nice video, Shame about the Plot.

[For good measure here's a YouTube clip someone else made of the beginning of Mark's Q&A with Richard O'Brien:

My "backstory" with Richard O'Brien can be read in:
My Life in the Movies: Richard O'Brien , Unintentionally My Nemesis
And the O'Brien free presentation of the Film Critic of the year award:
New Forest Film Festival: And the Winner...]

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