A controversial French paranoid classic, the search for nudity on late-night television and the accidental discovery of world cinema: memories of the 1970s.
Settle down, dear reader, and let me tell you a story of Television Past, one so removed from the miserable realities of modern-day TV that it might as well have been from another planet.
In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, television was something of a rationed experience. It would start around nine in the morning, and end shortly after midnight. If you were watching the BBC, there would also be long breaks in the afternoon – the notorious intermission, when programming would simply stop. Daytime TV consisted of schools programming in the morning and assorted regional stuff on ITV in the afternoon. And that was your lot across the three channels until Channel 4 came along to expand things ever so slightly.
ITV in those days consisted of a collection of regional broadcasters, who would come together as a network for peak time viewing in the evening, but went their own way the rest of the time. As a child, many frustrating hours were spent trying to retune the spare channel on our TV to pick up the signal from HTV Wales, which was showing the Batman TV series and Return to the Planet of the Apes, neither of which were bothered with by Granada. The signal was annoyingly close – a fuzzy signal, sometimes just about managing to be in colour, not always with sound – close, but not close enough.
The regional broadcasters would have their own late-night strands, where the post-News At Ten slots would include US TV shows, obscure old dramas, even older music shows, concerts and documentaries, often imported from Europe (Beat Club and the James Last Star Parade), and movies. Late-night movies were a staple of the TV schedule, even on weekdays, and Granada TV had various themed slots. Most beloved was Appointment with Fear and its successor, House of Horror, both of which had animated openers to get you in the mood before the film started. As a child, the House of Horror animation – which I recall had a grizzled finger ringing a doorbell and dripping blood – was almost more exciting than the film itself, stoking anticipation for the thrills to come from The Abominable Dr Phibes, The Beast in the Cellar or Blood On Satan’s Claw.
But there were other Granada TV film strands too. For Adults Only was self-explanatory – or perhaps not, if you are thinking that there was a series of erotic movies being shown in the 1970s. While the title was both a warning to parents and a come-on to everyone else, the films in the slot were simply thrillers, dramas and other movies that were unsuitable for showing during family viewing time. Of course, as a kid, I only managed to see a few of these films once a portable TV had been installed in my bedroom, and every night became a furtive search for boobs on the black and white set at the end of my bed, the volume down and my finger on the Off button in case my parents walked in. Few of them delivered the goods, but another strand almost guaranteed naked girls. The Continental was, as the name suggests, the title attached whenever Granada had a European film to show at night (and note: none of these strands was shown with any sort of consistency – the various titles were just a convenient way of signalling to TV Times readers roughly what sort of film they could expect, and months, even years could go by between appearances). More to the point though, ‘continental’ was a codeword for sex in the 1970s – not for nothing was the seemingly mainstream Continental Film Review awash with nude photos from the latest softcore titles to play British cinemas. If a film appeared in The Continental slot, then there was pretty much the guarantee of tits.
One such film that appeared in this slot was Shock Treatment, and this French movie had the added pull of being a horror film – at least that was what the TV Times write-up implied. Mad doctors, strange experiments and the probability of bouncing boobs – no need to channel surf that night. And so, lying in bed that night, I turned on the TV – always with a louder click that felt comfortable – and got ready. The film started with French language credits – even the title of the film was in French! How exciting – everyone knew how naughty the French were.
An interesting aspect of British TV in the 1970s was that it was a law unto itself. The Broadcasting Standards Commission didn’t come into force until 1988, another of Margaret Thatcher’s bits of moral legislation after a determined campaign against smut on TV from the press and Mary Whitehouse, both using the lessons that they had learned during the Video Nasties campaign to stoke up public outrage. In the 1970s, there were no real controls on broadcasters beyond those that they imposed themselves. The watershed, now treated as though it has legal standing by regulators OFCOM, was at that time an informal agreement between the BBC and ITV that pre-9pm was family viewing time – though that didn’t mean that nudity wasn’t often seen during the daytime, either in feature films (the Carry On movies and other British comedies that had topless scenes) or documentaries. The lack of legislative or legal controls over broadcasters even led to one Saturday night chat show claiming that it might feature clips from Deep Throat when Linda Lovelace appeared as a guest to promote her misery memoir Ordeal; TV was not covered by the Obscene Publications Act. Obviously, it was just hype, but in theory, they actually could have done so.
So in this context, the fact that Shock Treatment – a film that had caused some sensation on its original release and played British cinemas as Doctor in the Nude, distributor Anthony Balch feeling confident that he could sell the film as a sex movie – would turn up, unnoticed on late-night TV just a few years after its theatrical release in its original, uncut form is perhaps less remarkable than it might otherwise seem. For this viewer though, it was definitely an eye-opener. There are no sex scenes in the film, but the one scene with nudity is remarkably frank, with pretty much the whole cast – male and female – frolicking nude in the sea. Very nude. For young people today who have access to the most depraved porn at the click of a mouse, this might seem like small potatoes. But for someone in the 1970s, still a few years away from managing to slip his first copy of Mayfair inside a Melody Maker and successfully get past the checkouts undetected, this was sensational stuff. Nudity was everywhere in the 1970s, it’s true – but moving, full-frontal naked people in an actual French film – well, that was something else.
In truth, this one scene – coming a third of the way into the movie – is a single moment of fleshly excess in the film, almost perfectly positioned to hold the attention of an adolescent boy in the hope of seeing more of the same. There isn’t any, but the film has more than enough to satisfy elsewhere; come for the nudity, stay for the story. Alain Jessua’s film felt very modern when I first watched it, and it still feels current – perhaps even so now, dealing as it does with the immigrant experience, exploitation of the vulnerable by powerful elites and the pressures on middle-aged women by a society that worships youth and beauty. It’s a political film that plays on the themes of horror cinema. Essentially, it’s a story of vampirism with a clinical, modernist twist, not unlike the later Australian film Thirst, the German film Spare Parts, the Dutch film Blood Relations and the American film Coma among others – there is nothing essentially new here, even if Shock Treatment came before many of them. When I first saw the film, it seemed extraordinary and fresh. At the time, pretty much all the horror films that you would see on TV were period pieces – or, even if they were contemporary, they felt as though they were period pieces somehow, like the Amicus films that riffed on Hammer horror. Horror was dark, moody, gothic, even though some of the films were essentially the contemporaries of this film. Shock Treatment was stark, cold and very modern. It had what I would, over the new few years, come to recognise as very European – very French, in fact.
Hard as it is to believe, once upon a time you could see entire seasons of French cinema – classic films, most of Bunuel’s oeuvre and fairly new films – on BBC2 at peak time on a Friday night. You could watch the avant-garde experimental film Hitler – A Film from Germany over four weeks at Saturday night primetime on the same channel. If you were a kid who was remotely interested in movies, the late 1970s was a golden age – you would see films spanning the entire history of cinema, from all over the world, discovering filmmakers, film styles and international cultures. What an education. We might now have more access to more movies than ever before, but I doubt that teenagers now are getting the same education in classic cinema and world cinema that we had. Too much choice often results in people going for the easy options, and if you look at Letterboxd, you’ll see that many people seem unable to go beyond the last twenty years – apart from Star Wars it seems – in their viewing choices. Black and white movies are banished to the wee small hours and specialist channels that no one under forty is watching. Filmmakers like Godard, Bunuel, Rivette and others are restricted to blu-rays from boutique labels that will only be bought by people already familiar with the films. 24-hour broadcasting was the nail in the coffin of the late-night film and it has been downhill ever since.
Shock Treatment was the sort of film that you would have read about in Films and Filming, Continental Film Review, even Cinema X, where European stars like Alain Delon were feted and bare flesh admired. In the 1970s, a serious film magazine like Films and Filming would feature full-frontal nudity – male nudity at that – even on the front cover, and back then, it was common from movie press offices to hand out stills featuring the nude scenes from their releases, specifically to feed these magazines. It’s a concept unthinkable today, where actors fret about frame grabs and unauthorised images. In this film, Delon is the too-smooth doctor who – no spoiler here – is up to no good; Annie Giradot is the fashion industry executive whose husband has left her, leading to a mid-life crisis and the need to recapture her lost youth. This she sets out to do quite literally, through a rejuvenation process that involves the injection of animal blood. Well, that isn’t going to work, clearly, and the dark secret of the clinic’s real methods are to be discovered.
Delon and Giradot were both big names in French cinema, lending a degree of respectability to what might have been otherwise dismissed as a disposable movie by snotty critics. Genre films, even glossy, well-crafted genre films, were not a respected art form at the time. Of course, the sight of two icons of cinema frolicking nude helped create headlines – had the actors been unknown, it’s unlikely that the film would have caused as many headlines. This was, we might remember, only a few years since nudity (male nudity especially) had been allowed in mainstream cinema. What makes the nude scene here so interesting in retrospect is just how removed it is from eroticism. The nudity is matter-of-fact, defiantly unsexual in nature – it’s like the bare flesh and wholesome romping of the 1960s nudist film, just with pubic hair and penises. It’s also far from the sexy young things of the softcore movie – everyone here is middle-aged, as you might expect if you’ve been paying attention to the plot; people seeking to recapture their fading youth. If Giradot’s character had seen this film, perhaps she would have been reassured – people were still excited to see her and people of her age strip off. As the audience for MILF porn shows us, there is a misconception that people are only attracted to svelte young things.
The other shocks of Shock Treatment are less these days – it’s a narrative that we’ve seen repeated several times, and slick modern medical horror is no longer such an alien concept. The moments of violence – brief but brutal – also no longer seem especially gruesome. In Britain, the film is now considered suitable for anyone over fifteen by the censors, a once-controversial movie no longer even qualifying for the highest age rating.
Yet that nude scene… that still seems as though it would startle. In Britain and America, audiences are still oddly prudish and the increasing lack of nudity on-screen would probably make this scene even more sensational. In 1979, I managed to sneak, underage, into a showing of Love at First Bite, which had an entirely inappropriate second-feature, the colonial drama East of Elephant Rock. This plodding film was sat through with impatience by a packed house, until one scene that saw a naked man, tackle a-flying, jump out of bed, at which point the entire audience erupted in shock. Male nudity in mainstream films, even then, was odd and uncomfortable for mainstream audiences. Four decades on, it is probably even more uncomfortable, and the sheer frankness of this scene – five minutes of naked people jumping up and down in broad daylight – would almost certainly discomfort modern filmgoers more than it did at the time. Cinema today is a family-friendly affair, or else it is so caught up in #metoo ramifications that sex scenes and nudity alike are banished to the most niche movies, art house affairs where viewers will sit through even the most explicit scenes with a stoic silence, no one daring to move or even cough lest it be seen as a sign of enjoyment.
In that sense, the frank nudity of Shock Treatment both removes the modern relevance of the film’s themes and makes it as unsettling an experience to watch as it was at the time. It would be wrong to reduce the film to this one moment because it is much more than that – but the mere fact that the Severin blu-ray – a disc from a label not exactly a stranger to outrageous cinema – still mentions the scene on the cover blurb perhaps speaks volumes about how oddly revolutionary it still feels. The film is much more than this one moment – it’s an engrossing, vital study of power and corruption, insecurity and exploitation, and it holds up as well now as it did in the 1970s. As a classic conspiracy thriller spliced with medical horror, the film deserves to be remembered less for the sensational moments and more for the creeping sense of unease that develops.
Until the new blu-ray came my way, I hadn’t seen it for decades – not since I recorded it on VHS in the 1990s when it turned up on Channel 4, back when Channel 4 still showed movies like this and wasn’t in a contest with ITV to see who could reach the bottom of the barrel the fastest. Yet the film seemed very familiar, as though I’d watched it in the last year or so. That it so effectively burned itself into my memory is testament to its effectiveness and its potency. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Reprobate readers are not the sort to be startled by a bit of bare flesh – though God knows, you can never be sure – and I imagine that this film will be something that you can enjoy without shifting uncomfortably in your chair at any point. The fact that I really can’t say that about the general populous – and given that we have commercials on TV right now based around families of embarrassed, distressed adults and teenagers desperately wanting to change the channel when animals begin to mate on wildlife shows, I think I can’t – shows how little we’ve really progressed, or maybe regressed in the years since this film was first released.
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