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Shock Treatment: The Rocky Horror sequel we got (and the one we didn't)
Musical sequels rarely happen, and they almost never work. The stage is not necessarily a platform that lends itself well to creating a franchise in the same way as film or literature. This is a medium that thrives on standalone storytelling, and the musicals that do well enough to the point where their creators get ideas about sequels seldom truly need one. They work because they're complete narratives with satisfying endings, so adding a "and then this happened" coda wildly misses the point. See The Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies for hard proof of that. Musical sequels also risk the wrath of their die-hard fandoms. Why screw with perfection or risk tainting that which came before you?
And that brings us to arguably the most iconic cult musical of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's been 45 years since the film premiered, thus igniting the spark that would inspire decades of devoted fans and generations of LGBTQ+ pop culture. There's not much to say about Rocky Horror that hasn't already been said. It's inspiring, it's hot, it's a glamorous punch in the face that woke up countless young people to a whole new world beyond their narrow understanding of sex, desire, and gender roles. All these years later and Rocky Horror remains beloved with audiences old and new. How do you even try to top that?
You make Shock Treatment.
After The Rocky Horror Picture Show became an unexpected hit on the midnight movie circuit, where it remains a staple to this day, creator Richard O'Brien approached producer Michael White with the idea of making a sequel. The first take on this idea was called Rocky Horror Shows His Heels and featured Frank N. Furter and Rocky back from the dead with Janet pregnant with the former's baby. Since Tim Curry had no interest in reprising the iconic leading role, O'Brien changed track and worked on a new script called The Brad and Janet Show. This version contained many elements of what would officially become Shock Treatment.
The story of Shock Treatment centers on Brad and Janet Majors, an unhappily married couple who you may recognize from another movie. They now reside in Denton, USA, a town taken over by a charismatic fast-food magnate named Farley Flavors who has encased the entire community within the walls of a television studio that's part Big Brother, part The Stepford Wives.
The movie was plagued with problems from the beginning. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick were unavailable to reprise their roles, so they were replaced by Jessica Harper and Cliff De Young. Jonathan Adams didn't want to return to play Dr. Scott, so the part was cut from the script. A 1980 Screen Actors Guild strike meant the cast and crew could only be available for a tiny period of time and couldn't shoot outside. That led to the genius decision to have the entire story take place inside the TV studio.
Shock Treatment seemed destined to fail upon release. Rather than distribute the film to theaters in a typical manner, 20th Century Fox decided to send it out on limited release on the midnight movie circuit, essentially believing it would become an instant cult hit in the way that took Rocky Horror years to achieve. It turns out that seriously restricting access to your movie doesn't warm audiences to its success. To this day, Shock Treatment is dismissed by many Rocky Horror fans as a pale imitation of the original.
Over the decades, however, Shock Treatment has won over some viewers, and it's now its own stage show, complete with O'Brien's approval. O'Brien's tagline for Shock Treatment described it as "not a sequel ... it's not a prequel ... it's an equal!" He would later recant that statement and has criticized the movie frequently over the years, even going so far as to deride it as "an abortion." No offense to O'Brien, but he's completely wrong on this front and his original pitch was dead-on.
The movie works best when you think of it as the Sliding Doors of Rocky Horror: Imagine if Brad and Janet's car had never broken down and they'd never made their way into Frank N. Furter's life. They would have been free to have the good clean-cut 1950s white-picket-fence marriage demanded of them by the times. So the Brad and Janet we see in Shock Treatment have never been swayed by the growing counterculture or even seem aware of alternatives to their staid existences. Essentially, they're primed to be manipulated by a corporate entity, much in the same way that post-war advertising campaigns coaxed a generation of Americans into the suburbs with all the latest time-saving appliances to keep housewives busy.
The movie's scathing take on reality TV and celebrity culture feels eerily prescient given that the concept of the former was almost entirely foreign in the mid-1980s. Every moment of Brad and Janet's lives in Denton is now entertainment for the masses, who act as a live studio audience for the ups, downs, and questionable medical experimentations of their marriage. There are even commercials shoved in between the unfolding moments of drama. Everything in Denton is a commodity to exploit and package for resale to the masses, including the shock treatment of the title, which is sold as a concept so exciting and glamorous that residents cue up for it, already strapped into their stylish straitjackets.
Rocky Horror fans didn't seem enthused at the time for a sequel that didn't include all of the elements that made the first one so unforgettable. Where Rocky Horror is frantic and sexually thrilling, Shock Treatment is more clinically detached. Maybe it was just a bit too ahead of its time, a sort-of sequel that had the misfortune of being too different from its predecessor. And though O'Brien seemed to regret this in later years, he has since warmed to Shock Treatment.
But fans wanted an actual sequel, one that would include more familiar faces or at least the lascivious style of the first movie. Jump to 1991 and O'Brien began work on this direct sequel, entitled Revenge of the Old Queen. The only remnant of this project that remains to this day is a first draft script that you can find on Rocky Horror fansites. Judging what this sequel would have looked like based on an unpolished screenplay is obviously not the same thing as comparing Rocky Horror to Shock Treatment, but there are fascinating things to note about this unmade film.
It takes place over a decade on from the events of Rocky Horror, with Riff Raff back on planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. He is summoned before his almighty leader, the Old Queen, to return to Earth and locate Frank so he can take his rightful place on the throne. Sadly, Riff Raff hasn't gotten around to telling her about how he murdered her son. Back on Earth, our main hero is Steve Majors, a UFO investigator and the brother of Brad. He makes a shocking discovery from an old file labeled "The Denton Affair" which reveals that the story of a now-popular movie in his world, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was based on real events that involved his brother.
Brad, by the way, is never seen in this movie because, following his encounter with Frank, he became a go-go dancer in Las Vegas, then fell to his death from a trapeze while wearing nothing but six-inch heels and a rhinestone choker (admitting this news to people upsets Steve greatly but entertains practically everyone else). Steve wants revenge, and so he goes on a journey to find the aliens who he thinks ruined Brad's life. Said journey involves intergalactic travel via a shower stall, mass murder, and the revelation that Janet had a child with Frank — a singer called Sonny — who is now the heir to the throne of Transsexual.
It's easy to see how the script for Revenge of the Old Queen would have pleased Rocky Horror fans looking for more of the same. It captures the sexually libertine mood and focuses of the first movie as well as a fun meta-narrative that's practically designed to appeal solely to those hardcore viewers who know the story by heart. There's also a lot more sex and drugs on display, with the hedonism levels turned up to new heights. Some lyrics are included, but a lot of gaps are left for where O'Brien would later plan to include songs, and some are seriously witty, such as when the Old Queen sings of Frank, "My one and only son was more libidinous/ Than any honeybun including Oedipus."
It's a scrappy effort, as all first drafts are, but the potential was there. Still, as with all beloved stories, the chances are that no sequel could ever fully live up to the expectations of generations of fans. The story of Brad, Jane, Frank, and company is complete in Rocky Horror. Sure, it would be interesting to see what happened next, but nobody was clamoring for it. That's what makes Shock Treatment worth your while: It's the flip side of this tale. One road leads to decadence and freedom while the other forces you into the smothering confines of societal expectations. Paired together, the films are a startlingly good time capsule of a time and mood in American history that thoroughly exposes the lies behind the well-polished fantasy of suburbia. What more could fans ask for?