Friday, October 31, 2014

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I've seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a TV two or three times, and in the theater three or four times. I was lucky enough to have a girlfriend and a roommate who were both well-versed in the live show, and shouted most of the audience lines while we watched a copy at home before doing the live version that same night.

The story is simple. Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) have just attended a wedding. Overcome with love - and being enough of an a--hole to write on a church door - Brad proposes, and Janet accepts. Next, the couple is driving on a stormy night, and their car breaks down. The only sanctuary is a spooky castle... the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter (a very young Tim Curry!). The ominous inside of this large manor houses a dangerous and beguiling collection of unusual nutjobs. Will Brad and Janet keep their lives, or their innocence intact? Will they even hold on to their dignity?

(spoilers on that last point: no.)

(but maybe they think they did)

More than most any film before or since, Rocky Horror is perhaps the easiest and best example of a glorious failure. The same elements that make it a cinematic misfire are what endeared it to audiences so strongly that it's still popular - and still in theaters - 29 years after its release. Movie creators may dream that their work's success could inspire such a following, but no one imagines that their work could fail so well.

And fail it must. If the movie had been merely mediocre, it just wouldn't have generated so much interest. Instead, all of those weaknesses became strengths and the profound way that lines and scenes are dumb or fall flat actually engages the audience all the more... But I don't want to discuss much the things tRHPS gets wrong. Those are obvious: script, acting, execution, and sudden, ill-advised changes in tone are just the flaws at the top of the list.

And discussing what's wrong here is not just a little boring, it skews too much toward a traditional film review. Above all, I'd never want to give this movie a "standard" review. Moreover, there's no point to doing that, as most people have (a) already seen this picture or (b) never would see this picture unless you forced them to...

But it's damn hard not to love the style of film that opens like this:

I'm reviewing this now because, while Rocky Horror isn't scary, it's still a perfect Halloween movie. Frank N. Furter is a mad scientist, that oft-repeated role in classic Hollywood horror. Moreover, Furter is also an alien, and Brad and Janet unwittingly stumbling into this convention of aliens is the perfect setup for a scary film. Both Eddie (Meat Loaf) and Rocky (Peter Hinwood) recall Dr. Frankenstein's Monster, each one making an entrance (and/or exit) that would build great tension... If either one had occurred in a good film.

All of the plots and character beats kicked off by Frank's appearance are straight out of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This fits beautifully with All Hallow's Eve: Frank's mischievous nature, his seduction of innocent Brad and Janet (while also trying to get off with Rocky (man, Dr. F must get sore)) - even the friction between Frank and his supposed servants, Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien) and Magenta (Patricia Quinn). This crew of ETs from the planet Transylvania are every bit the set of fairies that are seen in that Shakespearean play.

On a more obvious level, everyone save Brad and Janet are dressed in some pretty exceptional costumes. I mean, Furter is a transvestite who walks around in lingerie all the time, so I guess every day is Halloween for him, but... Hey, this film fits the holiday like a glove.

What I'm getting at is that each element of the film matches nicely with the spirit of the holiday, although the only true terror comes in the performances and the dialogue. The singing matches the theatricality of the occasion, even if it's one of the things that keeps this picture from being spooky or unnerving. And, honestly, I think the songs are great, a big part of what makes the movie so popular with people.

Most of the tracks are in the style of classic rock and roll songs - which, as we all know, is the devil's music - and so each tune has an instant nostalgic appeal for audience members. Even aside from the audience's mockery, the lyrics are actually quite good, and do a fine job of advancing plot as well as character.

I'm confident enough in my sexuality to say: Nice legs, Tim!

The demented sense of humor is really a highlight for me. Intentional laughs abound, whether it's the fourth-wall breaking narrator and his increasingly-silly appearances, or the constant stream of exchanges with double-meanings. And that style - demented comedy - informs the stuff audiences are likely to find repellent, like Dr. Frankenfurter's transvestitism, his attempts to create his own perfect lover, his trying to sleep with both Brad and Janet (separately, to make them cheat on each other), or the implied incest between Magenta and Riff Raff.

Despite what uptight people might want to believe, RHCP does not actually advocate any of this. It's using these elements for black humor and to keep the audience and characters off balance. It's more silly than erotic, and that's how you distinguish "sexual humor" from "sex-related demented humor." Only the most sheltered and small-minded person could be "challenged" or "threatened" by the sexuality in the one scene that I've posted here repeatedly, the "Time Warp" scene:

The "Time Warp" is telling in that the singers speak of how "madness takes its toll." That's the essence of demented humor - they're not "sexual" or "violent" or "non-conformist": they're insane, and unsettling - and they know and love those two things.

Honestly, my favorite part of the song is when all of a sudden Riff Raff stops chanting and just breaks out into "hey, I'm a professional singer!" Also, the way Columbia falls down, straightens her hat and keeps dancing.

What's really surprising is that the film was adapted from a wildly-successful stage musical, and featured most of the people involved with the theatrical work. You figure that Richard O'Brien would be able to take whatever made him go from unemployed actor trying to keep busy on Winter nights to writer/composer of Rocky Horror and translate that to the big screen. And the movie's director, Jim Sharman, was a theatrical director who created the original stage production! How the hell do these guys take most of the same cast from the London run, put them into a $1.4M motion picture, and completely screw it up? (if you're inclined, go here for interviews with the cast while they were making the pic)

And then, you look beyond the movie's "so bad it's good" status, and you look at what the film's fans have done with it. When I heard my then-gf and best friend rattle off some of the audience participation lines, I was sent into uncontrollable laughing fits. I could barely hear some of their words, I laughed so hard. It later turned out that almost all of my friends who were from small towns knew this stuff like I know the backs of my hands. This fun and cooperative and nominally-subversive experience was a mainstay of small town entertainment.

The jokes fans have added to the experience can be clever, cheap, quick, or tawdry, but they all feel like a natural part of the viewing experience. And when you hear them, you're witnessing decades of comedy that's been refined by nothing more or less than crowdsourcing. It's incredible.

And this is how Richard O'Brien gets to live on in film forever: anyone who doesn't know about his unemployed days, or the fact that he made this in his spare time will still know him as Riff Raff, the Igor-knockoff with one hell of a singing voice.

What's amazing is that this inferior film received even more support than most pictures get from their devotees, because the good people of towns all across the US did more than just buy tickets - they basically acted as script doctors. And their time-tested, collective contributions often surpass what the professional screenplay writers brought to the table. Thus, the unlikely success of Sharman and O'Brien is actually a group victory that includes everyone who helped come up with those lines, as well as all the people who attended all of those audience participation shows. I may have had the honor of seeing it in NYC's now-defunct Waverly Cinema, the same one that popularized the midnight performances, but I'm as much a part of its success as anyone who's seen it in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, or California.

The North American box office tally for The Rocky Horror Picture Show presently exceeds $139 Million. F--k you, quality film-making! It's all about the fans.


  1. What did elevate this movie from flop to cult favorite,in my opinion, was the cast(along with the infectious good humor in the film and songs). Tim Curry's charisma is in full effect here and his take on Frank N Furter is what makes the plot hum along.

    Richard O'Brien is not to be discounted,however-one of his best performances is in 1998's Dark City as a monster who longs to understand humanity yet only to crush it beneath his heel. Think Agent Smith from the Matrix films, only in a goth setting.

    1. Absolutely! Bostwick is the weakest link here, and even he is just fine in his role.

      I know Dark City, but I never realized Richard was in it! He is, of course, talented and all that - but the second I read your comment, I realized that he must be the guy who makes the cops sleep early on. His voice is quite distinctive!


Chime in!