Retro-View: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The first time I encountered “The Rocky Horror Show” was around 1975, lost in the record section of Sears or Penney’s, flipping through soundtracks as was my young wont. I was alternately intrigued and frightened by the garish cover of the original stage album seen left. It scared me the way glam rock scared me, the way David Bowie’s Man Who Fell To Earth alien persona startled me or Alice Cooper freaked me out with his classic ’73 TV special WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE featuring Vincent Price. And the way I was disturbed by images of Beef from Brian De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), the film that should have been THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, but wasn’t — even though they came from the same studio within a year of each other and even share a spiritual star in Jessica Harper, who would go on to appear in the unfairly maligned sequel, SHOCK TREATMENT (1981). While PHANTOM has its own cult, I’m in neutral. I dig the stylish gothic humor of the film and the manic energy De Palma brings out in his cast, particularly Gerrit Graham as Beef, who no longer scared me after I finally saw his hilarious portrayal of the fey horror rawk star. Although I’m a Paul Williams fan, I’m not particularly engaged by the film’s music, yet I do think Williams is terrific as the devilish Swann. And one of the ’70’s most fantastic movie images has to be The Phantom throwing an electric lightning bolt at Beef, electrocuting him on stage. There’s much to admire in POTP and it’s certainly the yin to TRHPS yang; talk about the perfect science fiction double-feature…But at the time, I had no idea what this Rocky Horror Show thing was about.
The second time I encountered Rocky Horror was in a perfect 1976 issue of Cinefantastique, (the New Yorker of American genre magazines) volume 5, number 2, with a cover story on LOGAN’S RUN (and an amazing, apropos take-down of the film to boot that would not be written today). In one of CFQ’s typically in-depth reviews, I saw my first images of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and Ross Care, the reviewer, called it a “…psychedelic Hammer film,” still the best description I’ve ever heard. Care obviously gets Richard O’Brien’s B-movie template (only a true geek could have written this musical) and neatly sums up everything right about the movie. Given that the review was published long before the cult began, it’s prescient in his attempt to explain the pleasures of the film:
“Trying to write about Richard O’Brien’s THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW is like trying to describe a lava-lamp: it’s fascinating, amorphous, tacky and ultimate impossible to get a bead because as soon as you change your angle of approach, it appears to be something different. But if you can imagine a weird absurdist concoction, brewed up from equal parts of ’30’s Universal and RKO horror movies, ’50 science fiction films and rock ‘n’ roll, spiced with a liberal dash of The Joy of Sex propagandizing…For those receptive to cultish charms, TRHPS can be a very special experience and one so well-realized it is almost impossible to appreciate all its assets in one viewing.
Cut to 1980 and I’m walking with my elementary school troops under the tunnel from Old Sacramento to the Showcase Cinema, an archetypal repertory theater that of course was the city’s home for the Saturday midnight screening of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. I was a classic “virgin” and all that implies for the film and I was risibly excited, plus a little buzzed from the passing of beer and smoke. I was the paranoid of the group, always on the lookout for parents or police, and I was a little apprehensive about my first ever midnight movie screening. The late 70’s/early 80’s was the apex of Friday/Saturday midnight cult films, and on any given week you could choose from a few local theaters or drive-ins to see DAWN OF THE DEAD; EL TOPO; THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME; ENTER THE DRAGON; PINK FLAMINGOS; WIZARDS; ERASERHEAD; etc.
But TRHPS is the still the king and queen of the witching hour screenings, with the audience also becoming part of the show. After the film stiffed in general release, Tim Deegan, a 20th Century Fox marketing maven, wisely noted the returning patrons and started midnight shows to accomodate all the freaks who would come out at night, dressed up as their favorite character, singing along, throwing things at the screen and shouting out comments to every scene. In those days, the studios had more leeway to open films in a unique, limited manner to help find and build-up an audience. Novel idea. Here’s the fun original trailer and a rare clip from the old Tom Synder show analyzing the film’s popularity in the wake of STAR WARS. And yes, wasn’t that a time. It sure was that Saturday night as we joined the line of outrageously costumed revelers. Boys and girls in white lingerie, bald wigs and fishnet stockings. I never felt more like a virgin.
The theater air was thick with smoke (in a world where you could) and antici…pation. I was aware that I wouldn’t be “seeing” the film without the audience antics, but I hoped I would be able to get a sense of the movie without the performers. Fortunately, the Showcase screen was a biggie and the audience didn’t block out key portions of the images as I feared. The crowd chanted “lips, lips, lips” in a rhythmic chorus then exploded into wild applause when the tinny burlesque version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare sounded. Suddenly, the crowd roared again as the theater is almost swallowed by the close-up of those famous red lips crooning “Science Fiction Double Feature,” the wistful and lovely sonic ode to the genre. The singing lips tell you right away that this will be a bizzaro fucking film. I can imagine an uninformed audience perplexed in the local theater on opening day, wondering what the hell this thing was about. Basically, the story is about Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, two engaged, repressed All-Americans from the town of Denton, USA, who end up with a flat tire and a one-way ticket to a foreboding castle, the Earthly portal to Transexual, Transylvania and discover a mad sexual scientist…but with song and dance.
Of course, I love musicals. I’ve never understood how some say they can’t get into them because people just start singing. Well, yes, but if you can accept a universe of space aliens in a space war, folks breaking into spontaneous song and verse seems palatable. For the record, my top favorites are SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952); WEST SIDE STORY (1960); HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1967); and yes, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. One obvious key to the film’s continued success is simply that it is a great musical. O’Brien wrote outstanding, engaging songs, each incorporating a mash-up of baroque rock and kitsch sensibility. Leave it to an Englishman to perfectly capture the lyrical iconography of the repressive 1950’s coca-cola, rock-n-rolla, comic book, sci-fi monster era. That ironic yet loving genre pastiche is exactly what PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE lacks. I think almost every tune is terrific and each serves to propel the story and theme forward. For example, Brad’s opening salvo at a marriage proposal, “Dammit Janet” is apropos for Barry Bostwick’s square interpretation and it was wicked clever to have Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell and Tim Curry as the church staff and chorus. It’s so subtle you would never know they all show up in major roles unless you became a repeat viewer.
For reasons not difficult to grasp or incomprehensible to fathom, “The Time Warp” is my personal favorite musical number of all time next to “America” from WEST SIDE STORY. It has one of the catchiest choruses ever and the song exports all the film’s strange charm and energy into this show-stopper among show-stoppers. I still get chills when Richard O’Brian as Riff-Raff wails out “…like you’re under SEDATION!” I’m also entranced by Magenta’s orgasmic voice pleading for “Oh fantasy free me!” as she beckons Brad and Janet to follow her. There’s something about that moment, with the music cresting and her body gliding, that really pulls the audience into the film, promising them an eternity of Saturday Night decadence where you can be who you want to be forever, the pop psychology paradigm of the 70’s. It’s that liberated sensibility that transcended era or style to make RHPS the cultural phenom it remains.
Jim Sharman’s inexperience as a film director serves him well here, as the staged numbers are more raw and naturalistic. I’ll be bold and say that Sharman is an inspired director, having Brad and Janet step backward out of the room smiling at the “rich weirdos” during “The Time Warp.” He subtly shows the rivalry of the characters like when Columbia stumbles during her joyous tap-dance and she trades a sharp glare with Magenta. Sharman has fun with the staging, and since he knows the show intimately, he’s successful more often than not. It’s hard to believe the pauses for audience comments weren’t intentional as they fit so well. I love it when Brad says, “Didn’t we pass a castle back there on the road a few miles?” and the audience cheers over Janet’s unsure face.
TRHPS has lots of dark humor, a very 70’s ragged stylization that makes this one of few good musicals of the era (only CABARET can beat out TRHPS). It’s not overtly political, except for Nixon’s resignation speech on the car radio, another nice touch that. Even the sets by Terry Ackland-Snow (BATMAN; ALIENS; THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS) are a witty amalgamation of pop gothic burlesque design, especially the amazing “floor show” backdrop of the classic RKO Pictures globe and tower — it doesn’t get more meta than that. In his CFQ review, Ross Care aptly called this “the best film Ken Russell never made.” Although I do find the climax of the film a little too sad and incomplete; Brad and Janet should end up in each other’s arms as they struggle on the ground, and the downbeat ending goes against the grain of “Don’t dream it…be it.”
As for the cast, they all stand out in their own special way, with each acting as a surrogate for the active audience. In another decade, Tim Curry would have nailed a Best Actor nomination for his dynamic, utterly singular performance as the sweet transvestite scientist. A hybrid of Mick Jagger, Mae West and Curry’s own theatrical charisma, his Frank N. Furter is one of the most unique creations in the history of musical film and theater. His face changes emotion every few seconds, from bitch to bravado to petulance to beyond. What a moment in his classic introductory number when he throws a cup of water at the camera and sings conspiratorially to the audience, “Well you got caught with a flat/Well how about that?” Okay, I’ll try to be straight: he’s the only dude I’ve ever thought sexy. Period. Without Curry, I can’t conceive of there even being a film, much less a cult. I always find it funny to watch his bemusement when asked about the film years later. He still seems mystified by the response. Or perhaps waaaay over it. But props to Ridley Scott for understanding that Tim Curry had the vocal, emotional power to become the greatest cinematic devil for his underrated LEGEND (1985).
Dominated by Curry’s sexually transgressive persona, this is one of the few musicals with a decidedly erotic bent; just watch Susan Sarandon’s dirty little number ,”Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me.” Hot stuff. Bostwick is the perfect Brad Majors (“Asshole”) and Meat Loaf’s Eddie the archetypal 50’s greaser. Plus he can sing lyrics that you can not because of their tight phrasing. Nell Campbell is darling as Columbia, the tap-dancing groupie and Eddie’s former lover. Plus, Quinn and O’Brien are a deviant delight as the brother/sister couple, especially at the end in their glam FLASH GORDON MEETS THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN garb. As The Criminologist (aka The Man Without a Fucking Neck), Charles Gray, veteran of Hammer and James Bond, brings ironic weight to his pretentious role and he’s a heady hoot. Especially when he does “The Time Warp.”
After the screening I recall walking back liberated under the Old Sac tunnel, feeling like I had reached a cinematic rite of passage; I loved the film and went back about 5 times in the next couple years. My sister discovered the film with her friends and we wore out the turntable playing the soundtrack. On a tech note, I’ve been fascinated by the music mix in the film as it often sounds as if the cast is actually singing in the room. The orchestrations are mixed different than on the available soundtrack but I’ve never heard others comment on this sound oddity. I was just happy there was a photo on the back cover of Sarandon being groped by Rocky. I also learned the shout-out lines tho I rarely shouted out until I discovered my very own line which I’ll share with you all now. During “Hot Patootie” when Meat Loaf roars “Whatever happened to cosmic light/Came into my life, I thought I was divine…” you can insert the word “Christian” right in there. Nobody else will get it. But it’s in the spirit of the show. I even bought the Roxy stage version LP, finally coming full circle to that once-scary album cover.
If you want a real understanding of how transformative the TRHPS experience could be, just watch the scene from FAME (1980) featuring the ultimate fan Sal Piro and the Waverly Theater group that helped propel the cult movement across the nation. Although I didn’t end up dancing with my shirt off in the aisles that night, I could have if I wanted and it woulda been fine. I enjoyed watching others respond to the film and music. My own friends with me that night were metalheads who read comics, played Dungeons & Dragons, painted miniature lead figures, smoked weed, drank Cold Duck, got to third base and could kick ass if need be. And they were secure enough to hang with one of the gayest movies ever made. We were like the Marvel Comics version of a Gus Van Sant film.
Although the film only cost 1.5 million dollars, it’s made over 150 million since its release, and is still going strong at theaters across the country. If you’ve never seen this with a regular cast of players, you’re missing out on one of the 20th century’s most unique cultural events. GO. At least you can say you did and have an opine. As Frank N. Furter sings, “Dig it — if you can.” There’s something elegiac about the film, its nostalgia for a simple, repressed drive-in movie era combined with a libertine’s passion for excess. And when civilization falls, you can bet somewhere as the weekend clock tolls at midnight that THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW will be playing and they’ll be doing the Time Warp again and again…I wanna go…to the late nite, double feature, picture show…