Movie Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Perhaps no other film defines 'cult movie' as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With perpetual midnight showings and a dedicated fan base, this movie still taps into a segment of society largely ignored by mainstream filmmakers. Here's what all the fuss is about.
Some movies become classics because of the magnitude of their stars or the tremendous sense of history behind their creation. Others become legendary films because of their groundbreaking effects or controversial themes. Then there is the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ahem.
Perhaps no other film embodies the concept of a cult film as much as RHPS does. A good cult film should be unique in its genre, a rarity among its own peers. Certainly there had never been a rock musical spoof of the horror film genre before RHPS, and there hasn't been anything like it since. A good cult movie should also have a strong following among discriminating fans. With the continued popularity of RHPS midnight showings across the country, this movie certainly has such a following. More than anything, a good cult movie should have an impact on its audience that goes beyond the literal storyline. With its unorthodox examination of human sexuality and the underlying tones of sexual exploration, Rocky Horror did indeed impact a segment of society which had previously been kept in the closet. For all these reasons and more, RHPS has earned the title 'Queen of the Cult Movies'.
But just what is this movie all about? In the late 60s and early 70s, a brilliant but eccentric young British songwriter named Richard O'Brien was working in the fringes of the musical world. O'Brien was a troubled man, trying to reconcile his own sexual and social confusions with the realities of a conservative society. Inspired by a childhood fascination with Grade Z horror movies, O'Brien created a Science Fiction rock musical intended to spoof the often cheesy horror films. Originally titled 'It came from Denton High', the stage play was performed in a small, grungy theatre in London. Among the early performers was a flamboyant actor/singer named Tim Curry, whose performance as the anti-hero Dr. Frank-n-Furter soon became legendary. As the production became more polished, the title was changed to the Rocky Horror Show.
When the play became a surprise hit, Curry and several other cast members were invited to stage a new production in Los Angeles. Sitting in the audience was an ambitious studio executive, Lou Adler, who had already had several successes both in the music business and filmmaking. Impressed with Tim Curry's bravura performance and O'Brien's musical score, negotiations began in earnest for a film version of the play. Thus, the Rocky Horror Picture Show was born. Tim Curry would reprise his role as Dr. Frank-n-Furter, and many of the original London castmembers were also cast in the film, including O'Brien himself as the duplicitous servant Riff Raff. Two relatively unknown American actors, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, were cast as the naive All-American couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss.
The film was released in 1975, with a fair amount of studio-generated publicity. It failed miserably, and was pulled from general release. O'Brien and Adler were crushed by the failure of the movie. Then a very curious turn of events took place in New York City. A group of RHPS fans began asking for a repeat showing of the movie. The theater agreed to show the film after the regular showings were through, around midnight. Eventually, these fans would meet regularly at midnight to watch the film over and over again. According to legend, during a rain sequence in the movie one enthusiastic fan yelled out 'Buy an umbrella, you cheap b....' and the era of audience participation had begun. Modern audiences now know the entire script by heart, and have developed many varied responses to the actors' hopelessly inane dialogue.
The plot of the film itself is fairly straightforward, even if the execution of said plot can be a bit convoluted. A young Ohio couple, Brad and Janet, decide to visit the professor who introduced them. After their car breaks down on a deserted backroad, they decide to call for help from a castle that appears from nowhere. The castle turns out to be a front for aliens, lead by a lascivious and volatile alien scientist named Frank-n-Furter. Frank has been working on a Frankensteinish experiment to create the perfect man, Rocky Horror. Brad and Janet's sudden and uninvited appearance creates a problem for Frank and his assistants, Magenta and Riff Raff. Fearing exposure, Frank keeps Brad and Janet in the castle, and eagerly seduces both of them into silence. The plan almost works, until the professor, Dr. Scott, stumbles upon the castle himself, in search of his missing cousin, Eddy (played memorably by Meatloaf). Eddy had been captured by the aliens earlier, and was now dead.
Sensing that his days are numbered, Frank quickly assembles his captives for a final musical production number, but is sabotaged by his duplicitous assistants, Magenta and Riff Raff, who promptly dispose of Frank and return the castle to their home planet, leaving some confused earthlings in their wake.
The appeal of Rocky Horror lies more in the messages than in the medium itself. On the surface, RHPS is a mediocre movie with some great musical moments and some atrocious dialogue. Beneath this cheap exterior, however, is an honest attempt to deal with some important social and sexual issues. The movie's mantra is 'Don't dream it, be it' and many fans have taken that message to heart. The openness by which many of the Rocky characters live their lives has had quite an impact on some socially confused young people. Few movies before RHPS had explored the underlying issues facing homosexuals in a rigid society. Tim Curry's 'Frank' may have been portrayed as evil, but some fans could associate with his self-assurance and courage to live his life without bending to society's rules. In that sense, the movie does send out a clear message of tolerance for those who choose a different form of sexual expression.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is what it is- a campy spoof of the horror films we all grew up with. Go see it at midnight some time, and enjoy the audience along with the movie. Rent it on video and have a Rocky party. Watch it by yourself sometime, and try to go beyond the obvious camp and spectacle, to the decent little movie it tried so hard to be.