Read a sample of Richard Stevenson’s prose and you’ll understand why it’s impossible to consider the author’s Donald Strachey novels, about a gay private eye working out of Albany, a triumph for queering the hetereocentric mystery world to which Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew belong. But Shock to the System, the second Strachey crime novel Ron Oliver has helmed for the screen, is some kind of victory for giving new meaning to the unintentionally hilarious. This may be the most appallingly staged yet insanely enjoyable film to reach screens since I Am Sam, except Shock to the System insults no one. Even its critique of gay conversion therapy, a treatment even most conservatives would agree is worthy of scorn, is barely there to pass for serious derision. This isn’t camp, but it’s close.
Chad Allen stars as Strachey, who infiltrates the gay conversion clinic of one Dr. Trevor Cornell (Michael Woods) to investigate the death of a young man who enlisted him days prior to look for an unspecified someone, and after getting in to deep, the detective sees his relationship to his politico husband, Timmy (Sebastian Spence), deteriorate. You’d need a chainsaw to cut through all the uproarious gay tension that simmers inside the clinic—or just outside, as in a scene between Strachey and a closet twit who hands him a compact disc (Confessions On A Dance Floor? The Barbra Streisand Album?) with information that might break his case. I don’t know what’s funnier: whether or not Grey (Stephen Huszar) is actually holding a gun behind Strachey’s back or the obliviousness with which Allen and the filmmakers regard the detective’s preposterous cock-teasery and the damage it afflicts.
It’s almost charming how seriously Allen dramatizes the pretense of Strachey’s unhappy homosexuality: The character goes undercover all right, but the performance is legit, rooted in the pain of a secret relationship from his days in the army. Allen’s waterworks after his character tells Timmy what happened to his military lover after their dishonorable discharge is uproarious because the only evocation of Strachey’s past relationship is a flashback that scans like a Chi Chi LaRue porn (call it Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). But Strachey is strangely asexual, even for a domestic gay, a total professional during a shower scene with requisite frontal nudity and a chase sequence through the halls and stairs of a gymnasium; given the quality of meat Strachey tackles to the ground, it’s amazing he doesn’t attempt to cop an inappropriate frisk.
The film is all mixed messages and it’s funnier because of it. Oliver’s intermittent attempts to give Shock to the System a noirish quality get the better of him, like shooting scenes at overhead angles that only make the characters appear as if they have stubby legs. This is to say nothing of the font face used for the opening and closing credits, as if the film were some Lost Generation saga and not some video cheapie that had ambitiously and miraculously eluded its straight-to-cable fate. Try as he might, Oliver cannot stifle the film’s TV-ness—impossible, really, as soon as you cast Morgan Fairchild as the society mom of one of your attractive gay corpses. Pity there was no room for Phyllis Diller or Carol Channing here, because then the film might have had a leg up on Scooby-Doo and the Creepy Castle.