The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Director: Jim Sharman
Screenwriters: Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray
Only one film has been in constant theatrical circulation since its release, and that’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 47 years on and this affectionate high camp musical spoof of mid-century American B-movies is still going strong, and has transcended initial critical dismissal to be embraced by a devoted cult movie audience who will happily dress up, sing, dance and riff along each and every time they watch it.
So pick out your best fishnets and sing along if you know the words: “It’s astounding, time is fleeting, madness takes its toll…”
Newly engaged couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) stop off at a castle during a storm to use their phone. There, the couple get caught up in the machinations of mad scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) from Transexual Transylvania, who has created a musclebound man in his laboratory.
As an immediate indication of the film’s self-awareness, the first thing you see in the opening credits, apart from Patricia Quinn’s disembodied red lips, is that the cast and characters are introduced to us by the archetypes they represent and their pre-determined plot purpose (“Janet Weiss – A Heroine”, “The Criminologist – An Expert”, etc.) before Charles Gray’s smooth, drawling narration takes over to ease us into this strange story.
Rocky Horror is an extremely clever semi-parody of cheap 50s sci-fi movies presented in the form of a slightly seedy rock ‘n’ roll musical. The film has undeniably become a cultural phenomenon over the years largely thanks to its fanatical fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. It revels in references to Universal horror movies, 1930s through 1950s low-budget sci-fi and schlock pictures which are scattered throughout (the opening number alone name-checks Doctor X, The Forbidden Planet and King Kong among many others), plus it reuses one of the filming locations and many of the sets from Hammer productions as a nice bonus. Then there’s the unique tone, aesthetic and revolutionary attitude to sexuality that permeates the whole thing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is most commonly described as a poster child for “camp”, that is to say it goes in for gaudy costume design, flamboyant song-and-dance numbers and intentionally hammy dialogue, like a drag catwalk show (the likes of which were documented in Paris is Burning) viewed through the prism of the love of genre storytelling. The film is fully aware of what it is and who it’s for, and is not afraid to scream it from the rooftops.
Barry Bostwick has an earnest Adam West Batman thing going on in the cadence of his voice, and it’s his deadpan performance and Susan Sarandon’s wide-eyed and heartfelt turn that makes for such an entertaining contrast with the other far more flamboyant players. This buttoned-up, middle-class couple inevitably go through something of a sexual awakening (Frank teaching both of them to “give in to pleasure” and Janet losing her virginity in song form with “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me”). It is perhaps this aspect that is the most interesting to explore.
Tim Curry is a powerfully sexy force of nature as Frank, and very likely responsible for kick-starting many a change in sexuality or transition gender identity. It’s the unshakeable confidence with which he does everything, from strutting and thrusting in heels to the magnetic way he belts out his musical numbers like a rock star to the awkward humour he brings to his incongruous Received Pronunciation dialogue apparently inspired by the Queen. Everyone in the ensemble gets their moment to shine, but it’s always been Curry’s movie.
Curry saw the film as “a guaranteed weekend party to which you can go with or without a date and probably find one if you don’t have one, and it’s also a chance for people to try on a few roles for size,”. The film has grown far beyond the confines of the screen, the social aspect of dressing up and interacting with sing-along screenings and live performances acting as a liberating first step to discovering your true self.
A film has to have a decent budget and talent behind it to look so intentionally cheap. It’s all really well shot by Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) and appropriately atmospheric in the gothic horror-inspired scenes, but the props and costumes are never not kitsch and pulpy as a nod to the kind of films Richard O’Brien was so fond of growing up.
The creative mind behind the whole ‘Rocky Horror’ project (stage and film), O’Brien should be commended for bringing together such an eclectic range of ideas as one (relatively) coherent entity. He is obviously an avid film fan, but he’s also a talented musician with a real ear for a memorable tune and of course he portrays the decidedly creepy “handyman” Riff Raff.
To go from “Time Warp” straight into “Sweet Transvestite” with scarcely a pause for breath, can really take it out of you (particularly if you’re singing along), but what a wonderful 15 minutes of queer cinema this passage of the movie is. The soundtrack is full of ridiculously catchy and funny rock ‘n’ roll bangers with remarkably few duds among them.
You’re carried along quite happily supping this odd filmic cocktail for at least the first hour of the film, but in its final act (from “Eddie” onwards), after all the plot twists are revealed, Rocky Horror loses something. It’s not a long film, but this passage which seems to take itself a little more seriously makes it feel much longer. By this point everyone but Tim Curry seems to be running on empty, most of the fun has dissipated, and so we drift towards a rather damp and unsatisfying conclusion.
That said, you’ll hardly care if you see The Rocky Horror Picture Show as it was meant to be seen – with a group of friends, perhaps dressed up, for the first or the fiftieth time, and participating in everything without inhibition, especially the Time Warp. After all, “It’s just a jump to the left…”.