At this point, you've probably seen the Glee episode. You've heard some drunken would-be weirdo try to belt out “The Time Warp” at karaoke (and, incidentally, fail miserably). You've heard the legends of late-night showings at certain key theaters throughout the country, where non-paid cast members will uncannily scope out the poor souls who haven't seen the film and mark their faces with a “V” using a nice tube of bright red lipstick. Oh yes, there will be a virgin sacrifice, but the details of this event are shrouded in mystery. You've seen the nice long sexy legs, the sexy fishnet stockings, the alluring corsets… and that's just on the men. Ever since the late 1970s, this bizarre cult ritual has been playing regularly in a theater somewhere in this country. This is the bizarre world of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, easily one of the most successful films of all time, and often described as the most visible and notorious cult film ever made. No history of cinema is complete without at least a brief rundown of this bizarre little footnote, so it's time, my dear students, to devote a week of CraveOnline's Free Film School to that one ever-standing tentpole of midnight cinema. It's time for Rocky Horror.
Before I get to Rocky Horror proper, let me give you a brief background of the phenomenon of the Midnight Movie. 12am screenings are pretty commonplace these days: most theaters will sneak a high profile release into their screens the night before their release on the off chance that a passionate audience will make the late-night trek to see Breaking Dawn, Part 1. This wasn't always the case. Back in the early 1970s, most mainstream movie theaters would stop their operating hours at about midnight so the poor, long-suffering employees could go home to their families. Even if the theater was showing a big hit (like, say, Jaws), it was considered tacky to remain open for a later show. Late-night hours were reserved for strip clubs and porn theaters. Some of the smaller theaters, drive-ins and grindhouses, however, were often pleasantly gauche enough to run slightly later shows for their increasingly drug-addled audiences, who were interested in seeing the sexploitation and genre films of the day. It must be remembered that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a golden time in this country's exploitation movie history, as cheap, gory, sexy, shlocky movies were produced by the score, and were easily proliferated in small-time movie houses all over the country. This was a time of thrown popcorn, open marijuana use in theaters, and when going to a weird movie in a bad part of town was a thrilling and slightly dangerous prospect.
It was in 1970 that a Chilean filmmaker named Alejandro Jodorowsky made his seminal cult film El Topo, a frustratingly oblique and unabashedly psychedelic acid western. El Topo was largely shown in museums, and was greeted with entirely mixed responses. Some critics praised its brilliant surreal imagery. Most people were alienated by it's strangeness and brutality. Jodorowsky will warrant a Free Film School article of his own someday.
El Topo, however, was much enamored by a young cult film enthusiast named Ben Berenholtz, owner of The Elgin theater in New York City. He ended up booking the film at his theater during normal operating hours, and was greeted with a wave of indifference and alienated viewers. Not willing to give up on this oddity so quickly, he managed to book the film after hours to attract a less savory crowd. Midnight and 1am screenings began in earnest. That seemed to do the trick, as El Topo ran for months. This was back when people were allowed to smoke in movie theaters, and marijuana use was not exactly looked down upon. Word on El Topo began to spread. It became a phenomenon. A single, stubborn film nut managed to invent an entire new atmosphere for movies, and created the idea of a Midnight Movie: the oddball film that you wouldn't dare see in daylight, but would be only too pleased to see in the dark of night.
Soon, small theaters all over the country started trying out the Midnight Movie experiment, usually with grand success. Some older camp classics started making the rounds. Reefer Madness (1936) was openly mocked by a new generation of stoners. George A. Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was resurrected, and shambled along for years at midnight screenings. In 1972, John Waters' shocked the underground world with his confrontational, stylish, and utterly deplorable rococo trash classic Pink Flamingos. That same year saw Perry Henzell's reggae film The Harder They Come. Second-run theaters became more daring in their programming, and cults began to form.
Which brings me to 1975, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one of the Midnight “big six.” Rocky Horror started its life in London as a stage production written by one Richard O'Brien, where it played like a big-budget musical drag burlesque. The story, about an innocent couple who stumble into an old castle containing transvestite space aliens with hedonistic dreams of artificially-created sex slaves, was a broad, campy send-up of England's more mannered “Old Dark House” movies. It was a great success on stage, and it didn't take long for O'Brien to adapt the show for the screen. He wrote the songs, the screenplay, and left directing duties to a peer, Jim Sharman.
All stories of the film's production are pretty miserable. People worked long hours under chilly conditions in a real-life, unheated English castle. Much of the crew worked for free. A lot of the cast were first-or-second-time actors, some of whom were reprising their stage roles. Most notable amongst the latter was British actor Tim Curry as the mad alien transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a wild, gnashing, flamboyant role that Curry has made his own. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is one of the most recognizable characters in much of film history. Also in the cast were O'Brien himself, rocker Meat Loaf, and future Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon.
Man, the film was strange. In addition to the pansexual transvestites-from-space angle, there is also the oddball sci-fi conceit of making Frankenstein monsters for your sexual exploitation. Rocky Horror himself (played in the film by the studly blonde model Peter Hinwood) is little more than a muscle-bound Charles Atlas type that the peacock Dr. Frank-N-Furter made for his own sexual games. Eddie (Loaf) was also a rough trade motorcycle tough created for the same reason. The innocent couple of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Sarandon) played witness to all this, and ended up getting seduced, both by Frank. The story was punctuated by energetic and rather catchy song numbers including “Sweet Transvestite,” “Hot Patootie,” and “The Time Warp.”
So in one sentence: It's a '70s musical about transvestites from space.
The film was, as most cult films seem to be, a big flop on its initial release. Many cite its under-performance as a result of the cities in which it played. Rather than stick to college towns, it usually opened in suburban theaters, and only played during matinees. When it flopped, theaters dumped it quickly. It became a buzzed oddity that only grindhouse enthusiasts would talk about.
Soon, though, it started to make occasional passes through the second-run theaters, and people started to discover this completely weirdo little film. People would, without being prompted, return again and again. Some people started to re-create the costumes at home. Over a decade of careful evolution and quiet cult passwords, The Rocky Horror Picture Show started to pass into Midnight Movie lore, often playing at theaters every week at midnight for many years on end. Audiences began singing along, re-creating dance moves (at one point, the film teaches the viewer how to do The Time Warp), and it wasn't long before the long traditions of drag shows and camp gay live performances started to creep up on stage in front of the movie. A man named Sal Piro, seeing all this happen, codified the film's cult status in 1977 by founding a Rocky Horror fan club. By then, entire casts were forming to devote themselves to a mirror performance of the movie as it unspooled live in theaters.
Is the film good? Not really. The cast is largely appealing, and they do their best with some truly odd lines of dialogue (“Do you think I made a mistake, splitting his brain between the two of them?”), but the film is badly paced, and the story comes to a rather tragic conclusion (Frank is killed for being too extreme, and Brad and Janet are corrupted and depressed by the hedonism they've brushed against). The film's real power lies in its mannered and intentional boundary-pushing depravity. In 1975, homosexuals weren't seen on screen too often outside of sissy and villain roles. That we had a mincing bisexual transvestite as our gleeful antihero was a big step. There are all manner of (non-explicit) sexual acts in the film: a gay marriage, a few murders, and even a scene of cannibalism. Richard O'Brien has said that he was, despite the extreme subject matter, making a legitimately entertaining musical for fun-loving audiences. In a way, he was successful, but it's clear that his theater chops didn't necessarily translate to the screen that well.
But should you care if the film is good? Not necessarily. To this day, theaters around the world still show the film on some sort of regular basis, and you only go to see the film as half of the show. The rest of the show is created by the cultists themselves, and the elaborate rituals they have set up around the film. Indeed, in Rocky Horror parlance, anyone who has not seen the film in a theater yet is considered a “virgin,” and must be sacrificed before the altar of the film. The cultists have managed to turn this oddball little film into a rite of passage for the savvy. There comes a time in every teenager's life when they must take the plunge, and see Rocky Horror for the first time.
Rocky Horror has become something of a scene. You can go to the movie once and leave it there, or you can join the cult, and return, week after week, to become a proper obsessive. You can arrange your life around it. Many of the kids who go these days buy special outfits and learn new makeup tricks just so they can show them off at the weekly show. It's like an Elk's club, but with less community service, and more sex. Oh yes, there is sex. There was a time when sex was openly and regularly had in movie theaters. It's not so common anymore (most theater have cracked down on the illegal stuff), but back in the dangerous days, it was a regular sight.
Full Disclosure: I went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time shortly after my 17th birthday, and I fell in love. All through college, I went to various theaters, and saw the film over 100 times. I was a boy obsessed. I memorized the noisy callbacks for the screen (you are encouraged to shout at the screen, and chant along with many of the long-standing traditional jokes). I threw the confetti and the toilet paper. After college, I stopped going (I guess I kind of outgrew it), but I still have a dear spot in my heart for the teenage adventures I had. Most people have heard of the film and, more than that, have heard scuttlebutt about its notorious rituals. No other film really has this sort of cult clout. Other films from the time are watched obsessively, memorized and debated endlessly (heck, look at Star Wars from only two years later), but only Rocky Horror seems to be parading along with the same power.
Do the kids get it? Probably not. The people born in the 1990s and later don't seem to care too much as to who is gay or not, find musicals to be hokey and old-fashioned. What's more, they cannot possibly be shocked by the tame material presented under the film's “R” rating, when they have instant access to hardcore pornography on their smart phones. The film used to be an iconic experience of the queer community. Now it's more of a place where hipster kids gather out of tradition. But the true messages of the film cannot be seen when you're watching quietly at home on video or through a streaming service. When you're in a noisy theater with hundreds of screaming fans, the experience is decidedly different. The kids can bring in their own level of outsider debauch.
Here is why Rocky Horror, I think, continues to live on: It provides an experience that cannot be recreated anywhere else. Home video (in all its formats) allows one to see some of the greatest films ever made in the safety of your home. But seeing Rocky Horror – truly seeing it – can only be achieved with the live cast, the shouting, the raucous carnival atmosphere that only a large group in a public place can provide. In an age where theaters are closing, and viewer indifference to cinematic purity appears to be on the rise, it's important to remember that some things cannot be provided at home. Some things are just better in the theater.
Homework for the Week: Find where it's playing near you. Drive over state lines if you have to. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh. Anyone who is remotely interested in movies should see the film at least once. Twice would be good too.