“You’ve seen all kinds of movies, but you’ve never seen anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is wonderfully weird. It’s fabulously freaky… The story is strange… the scenery is smashing… the cast is completely crazy!”–ad copy from the extended 3 minute trailer
DIRECTED BY: Jim Sharman
PLOT: In this musical, Brad and Janet, a very square, newly engaged couple, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a rainstorm and seek shelter in a nearby castle. Inside, they find the building populated by a strange assortment of characters dominated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania.” Frank-N-Furter has created a blond bodybuilder named “Rocky Horror” for his own erotic enjoyment, and when the cast starts bedding each other jealousy rules the day—until a rival scientist in a wheelchair complicates matters even further when he arrives looking for his murdered son.
- The film was an adaptation of writer/actor Richard O’Brien’s hit stage show that began in London in 1973. The show also played Los Angeles with Tim Curry starring with a mostly American cast, including singer Meat Loaf as Eddie. The play opened on Broadway shortly before the film version debuted and was a flop, closing after a mere forty-five performances.
- Fox Studios wanted to cast popular musicians of the day in the main roles (including Mick Jagger as Frank-N-Furter), but the producers accepted a lower budget in order to keep the cast from the stage production mostly intact. Meat Loaf had recorded a top 100 single years before, but would not become a major rock star until 1977 with the release of “A Bat Out of Hell”.
- The film bombed on release, but gradually found cult audience through midnight screenings. As early as 1976 audiences had begun shouting their own dialogue back at the screen. This gradually developed into the unprecedented Rocky Horror audience participation ritual, where the audience is not only an active part of the movie experience, but the main attraction. Fans come to screenings dressed as their favorite characters, speak their own scripted counterpoint dialogue to the screen (being particularly rude to Barry Bostwick’s Brad) and bring along props (e.g., water pistols to simulate the rainstorm). In the more elaborate productions, amateur actors appear on a stage in front of the screen, dancing and pantomiming the lines during the musical numbers.
- Rocky Horror has shown continuously in theaters since 1975, making it the longest running theatrical release of all time. The film has taken in almost $140 million in receipts, making it the 215th highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation).
- MTV Networks has announced plans to remake the movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: No question; Tim Curry in full femme makeup and black leather and satin drag, dressed to make glam-era David Bowie look as macho as an NFL defensive lineman by comparison. The image will never leave your mind; for some, it will haunt your nightmares.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a rock n’ roll musical inspired by old sci-fi and horror B-movies about an alien transvestite. From the moment Richard O’Brien conceived the idea, there was no doubt that it would be weird; the only question was whether he could mold it into something that was even mildly watchable.
Original trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show
COMMENTS: Because we’re interested in weird movies here, not in weird sociological phenomena inspired by weird movies, we’re going to spend as little time as possible discussing the worldwide cult that uses The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a weekly excuse to shed inhibitions, cross-dress in public, and scream good-natured obscenities at the movie screen. It’s safe to say that many of the cultists who repeatedly fatten the coffers of Twentieth Century Fox by attending dozens of live showings are not defenders of the quality of the movie itself. Movie reviewer Adam Jahnke once suggested that “…the only way to truly enjoy [Rocky Horror] was to see it in a theatre, because at home, the movie’s many flaws become all too transparent,” which is a typical response from people who are fans of the experience but not the movie. Indeed, the very fact that the audience feels the need to supply it’s own entertainment at each screening suggests they find the movie a bit lacking. It’s hard to imagine similar rituals developing around, say, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, or The Blues Brothers; devout fans see these movies over and over without ever feeling the need to embellish the experience. (We could almost imagine a similar ceremony evolving from Plan 9 from Outer Space, but what devoted fan would risk talking over one precious minute of Ed Wood‘s delightfully whacked-out dialogue?) The Rocky Horror Picture Show is unique in that its most hardcore fans show affection, but very little reverence, for the work. Given the irreverent, free-spirited theme of the movie, this lack of respect is ironically appropriate.
Of course, although even its fans have doubts about Rocky Horror‘s ultimate merits, it would be impossible for a movie that was truly bad, or completely uninspired, to be the grain around which such a gigantic pearl formed. In fact, Rocky Horror (the movie) is a mixed bag; it’s made up of the good, the bad, and the ugly little secret.
THE GOOD: Tim Curry. In his film debut, the lanky Brit makes for an even cattier extraterrestrial matriarch than Zsa Zsa Gabor in Queen of Outer Space. There are only a few movies where the main character makes a delayed entrance onto the screen and immediately kicks the film into a higher gear. Orson Welles’ appearance in Touch of Evil is one, and Curry in Rocky Horror is another. All of the characters we meet prior to Frank-N-Furter are cardboard stock characters walking through a largely stock script; the prancing, posturing “sweet transvestite” is the first truly living character in the film. From the moment Curry appears, everything in the movie immediately revolves around him, and every character from that point on is defined by his or her relationship to him. Curry oozes a menacing, but intoxicating, sensuality. His every movement is languid and carefully planned; his every syllable is drawn out to maximize the lewd implications. He’s overwhelmingly sexual, even when he changes outfits from his Frederick’s of Hollywood party ensemble to a utilitarian lab coat. He’s a heterosexual male’s worst nightmare of a powerful, sexually threatening gay man; to make matters worse, women are attracted to Curry, as well. He’s one of the only characters in screen history who can prance about in high heels, a corset and fishnet stockings and still be unquestionably the alpha male. The production lucked into some very good young actors in Bostwick and Sarandon, who find the correctly restrained tone in roles that would be very easy to over- or under-play, but it’s safe to say that this film would be forgotten without Curry’s iconic performance.
“The Time Warp”. This dance number is Rocky Horror‘s show stopper (in fact, it features the movie’s only truly hummable melody). With its dancing chorus of bizarre, sunglasses-wearing Transylvanians, the stop-and-go editing where the dignified British narrator breaks in to instruct the viewer on the proper steps, and a break for a tap-dancing number, it’s a high point that’s exponentially better than the rest of the movie’s musical pieces. Coming as it does just after the opening scenes have been established and immediately before Tim Curry bursts on the scene, it helps Rocky Horror to peak early and attain heights which the movie can’t sustain, but it is one of a few exhilarating take-home moments.
The sets, costumes, and production numbers. The influence of stage theater is apparent in all three of these areas. There’s a clean, modish, pop-art sensibility to the art direction throughout the film that makes it constantly fun to look at, even when the onscreen action is lagging. The sets are genially decadent. There’s the decaying castle with it’s cobwebs, candelabras, and cardboard bats on the wall (the location was a British manor used by Hammer studios for several of their Gothic horrors). Frank-N-Furter’s laboratory is a pleasant contrast, in classical pink marble with fire-engine red railings. And the grand old theater where the final scene takes place, in front of a giant screen displaying the old black and white RKO Pictures logo with its signal tower emitting sparks, is another smashing locale. Considering Curry acts in drag through much of the movies, it almost goes without saying that the costuming is bizarre, but the minor characters do their best to supply a wacky alien backdrop—every costume is unique and has some weird twist to it, whether it’s an unexpected turban or Little Nell suddenly showing up in pajamas. A young, classically statuesque Susan Sarandon even performs much of the film in a skimpy bra and half-slip, one of the film’s few erotic high points for the heterosexual male. The production numbers are busy in the spirit of Busby Berkeley in his surreal moods, highlighted by a dive and group-grope in a swimming pool with a replica of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” rippling on the bottom. These visual details help take up the narrative slack in the film—and there’s a lot of slack to account for.
THE BAD: The plot. After a slow start, there’s actually quite a bit of it. Too much, in fact. We get Brad and Janet’s confusion and reluctance as they’re seduced into Frank-N-Furter style hedonism; the mad doctor’s creation of, and rejection by, Rocky (an uninteresting plot line: frankly, Rocky’s uninspiring character could have been done away with entirely); hunchback Riff Raff’s resentment towards his master and his attempts to subvert his plans; various sexual shenanigans and secretive couplings; a rival scientist searching for his rock and rolling, motorcycle driving greaser son killed by Frank-N-Furter; and suggestions that the sweet transvestite is a renegade on his own planet. It all plays as wearying, rather than farcical, and it doesn’t build to the kind of madcap resolution for which we might have hoped. Instead, much like the audience, two-thirds of the way through Frank-N-Furter gets fed up with all the plot-lines piling up, freezes the action by turning the players into statues, and launches into his big final number prematurely. In the end he switches uncomfortably from villain to tragic hero as he’s shot by two bizarre aliens from back home on Transylvania. It’s hard to find much satisfaction in this story and its limp resolution.
The music (other than “Time Warp”). This is probably the fatal flaw in a movie that proclaims itself a musical. With the exception of the big hit, all of the music featured in the film sounds alike and is forgettable. Cloying ballads like “There’s a Light” (sung as Brad and Janet approach the castle for the first time) can’t get out of our ears fast enough. With the exception of Meatloaf, most of the vocal performances are sub-par, as well. Little Nell’s Jersey-Girl-on-helium delivery is an acquired taste, at best, Johnathan Adam’s faux-German baritone is grating, and I would have thought there was nothing Susan Sarandon in a bra two sizes too small could do to kill a romantic mood, until I heard her open her mouth and try to sing. The lyrics are fine and even occasionally witty, but given the lame melodies, most of the exposition would have been better off spoken than sung. The hardcore RHPS fans probably had to attend those dozens and dozens of screenings to memorize the uninspired tunes; others won’t be able to hum a thing besides “Time Warp.”
The comedy. As you might have noticed, Tim Curry’s character’s name is Frank-N-Furter (like Frankenstein, only simultaneously evoking a hot dog). He’s a transvestite, and he’s from a planet called Transylvania—get it? The words sound alike, but they’re very different concepts. These name games are indicative of the level of humor employed throughout Rocky Horror. There’s an innocent naughtiness to the proceedings that may cause schoolgirls to giggle uncontrollably, but most adults will be mildly amused, at best. The silliness might be viewed as charming, but we go into a comedy hoping for a few genuine laughs, and there’s very few to be had here.
THE UGLY SECRET: No one likes to talk about it, but Rocky Horror is a film that appeals primarily to gay men and to women. The movie’s cross-dressing alien villain exaggerates the already outrageous camp appeal of a drag queen pageant. Homophobic straight men will likely be horrified and disgusted, but even the open-minded heterosexual male will find little here that seems aimed at him. The film’s straightest straight guy, Brad, is the butt of many of the jokes. He’s seduced by another man under false pretenses, sexually betrayed by his fiancée, and humiliated by being forced to wear women’s clothing. Even writer Richard O’Brien, in his DVD commentary, feels sorry for Brad: “I released people from their male and female polarized parameters,” he muses. “It’s very frightening for the Brad character, who’s lost in no-man’s land as a result of the changes. Janet… she gets her strength and her power, and he gets lost; the hunter-gatherer male gets lost, because she has her power.”
Women and gay men can be turned on by Tim Curry’s aggressive sexuality; only straight males feel threatened by it. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy between the two groups to laugh at straight men, to strip them of their power. That’s not to say regular guys can’t enjoy Rocky Horror, or even agree that long-privileged hetero men deserve to be taken down a notch; it’s just that they’ll have to work a bit harder at it. They say Rocky Horror is a love-it-or-hate-it film: I would wager heavily that the “love it” camp is composed overwhelmingly of women and gay men, while the “hate its” are made up of mostly Joe Six Pack types.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It is the one film that cannot even be discussed without mentioning its fans–for they have changed it from being an undistinguished campy movie to an entertaining multimedia show.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies
“One of the nice things about watching Rocky Horror on video is that you can actually enjoy the movie as a movie; without the competition of crowd noise, RHPS can be seen as a pretty good film… A fast-paced pastiche of camp, science fiction, rock music, horror, and more camp…”–Keith Phipps, The Onion A.V. Club
“You either celebrate it for its campy decadent brilliance, attune to the liberating sense of alternate sexuality and find its very weirdness a life-changing experience, or else none of it makes sense and you dismiss the cult simply because you can’t understand what people find in the film.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review
IMDB LINK: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show – The Official Fan Site – Probably the largest site for fans of the movie (more particularly, for fans of the audience participation experience)
Cosmo’s Factory – Another RHPS fan site. “Rocky Radio” podcasts are available here
Zenin’s Rocky Horror Picture Show Archive– Yet another fan site; a lot of content, but uses outdated, frames and does not appear to be currently updated
Audience Participation Guide for The Rocky Horror Picture Show – everything you need to know to attend a showing in your area
Queerios! Austin Rocky Horror Picture Show Cast – A history of one audience participation troupe based in Austin, TX
The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Emergence of Recreational Evil – overwrought but provocative article arguing that Rocky Horror was both an expression and a critique of a “culture of simulated fantasy and cynical sexuality”
DVD INFO: Marketers faced a tough problem when trying to figure out how to produce a DVD for a movie whose fans mostly love it for live performances. Their answer was to create a DVD packed with perhaps more special features and surprises than any ever issued.
The 2-disc Anniversary Edition is the definitive collection; the original release is no longer available separately, but can be purchased as part of a 3-disc set that also includes a disc devoted to the flop sequel Shock Treatment (1981) (buy). Disc one of the Anniversary edition features elaborate menu animations and two different versions of the film (the U.S. release and the U.K. release, which contains the short closing song and different closing credits). Fans will love the chatty commentary from Richard O’Brien (writer, “Riff Raff”) and Patricia Quinn (“Magenta”). The first disc also contains a feature allowing the viewer to access video of an audience participation revue at the appropriate time during the movie; audience prompts which tell the viewer what to say or do at a live performance; and a feature whereby a live audience’s reactions to the film and chanted counterpoint dialogue will play on the rear surround sound speakers. In additional, there are DVD-Rom extras: a trivia challenge, “Riff Raff’s Story Lab”, a jukebox, and a screen-saver. Accessing these features require additional software and an email address. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also an Easter egg containing a third “Wizard of Oz” version of the film–the first part of the film takes place in black and white, and bursts into color when “Time Warp” begins.
The second disc contains two deleted musical scenes, numerous outtakes, an hour’s worth of interviews with O’Brien, Sarandon, Bostwick, Quinn and Meatloaf recorded for a VH1 showing of the film, a VH1 produced “pop-up video” for “Hot Patooite,” an alternate end credits sequence, a thirty-minute documentary on the Rocky Horror phenomenon, two theatrical trailers, karaoke-style “sing a long” versions of “Toucha Toucha Touch Me” and “Sweet Transvestite,” and a photo gallery.
This first disc is also available for purchase separately (buy; I believe all the features available on the first disc are available on this version, but buyer beware).
UPDATE: Rocky Horror was released on Blu-ray in a collector’s edition including a 35th anniversary booklet (buy) in October of 2010. The features from the 2 DVD set are ported over and now fit onto one disc; there are also new BD-Live feature. That set has been discontinued, however, and in 2011 20th Century Fox began selling a new Blu-ray (buy) with most of the same features listed. I believe the only difference between the two offerings is that the commemorative booklet has been discontinued (but don’t quote me on any of this; as always, seek the advice of your local RHPS society before making any Frank-N-Furter related purchases).
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Evan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)