Saturday, August 10, 2013


I don't enjoy seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the big screen. There, I've said it. At one point, it was a fun experience bringing "virgin" friends, but that was long ago. These days, I prefer to enjoy the film at home, on DVD, far from the hurled insult humor and juvenile and sexualized cast re-enactments. Because believe it or not, despite its reputation as a bad movie deserving of this midnight treatment (even among its fervent followers), Jim Sharman's colorful melange of perverted horror movie in-jokes and outrageous musical numbers is a well-made and truly marvelous genre-blending, gender-bending classic. Initially conceived as a stage musical by British actor-songwriter Richard O'Brien (who also plays Riff Raff), both O'Brien and Sharman, as well as original cast members Tim Curry, Little Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn, made the transition from stage to screen with the support of producer Lou Adler and 20th Century-Fox.

To recap the story of Rocky Horror Picture Show (hereafter shortened to RHPS): Brad and Janet, a conservative couple from Denton, Ohio, find a road journey cut short by a flat tire. They walk through the rain to a mysterious castle, where butler Riff Raff and maid Magenta introduce them to Dr. Frank N. Furter, a tranvestite mad doctor who has created life itself in the form of muscle man Rocky. Frank's former lovers Columbia and Eddie are thrown into the mix, and so is Dr. Scott, a wheelchair-bound scientist who tries to save Brad and Janet from Frank's dastardly plans. The storyline actually becomes far more complex than expected, but it's all part of the fun.

I will be bold here: anyone who continues to assert that RHPS is a bad movie is ignorant. All of the humor is intentional, and it works. In the end, RHPS is a cheeky spoof of a multitude of B-movies, from the "old dark house" genre to This Island Earth, with a generous splash of twisted sexuality that has no doubt contributed to the film's following. The songs are killer, with the "Time Warp" trying to introduce a new dance craze, "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" singing the praises of abandoning chastity for balls-to-the-wall sluttiness, and "Sweet Transvestite" the perfect introductory number for the outrageous Frank N. Furter. I've always had a soft spot for "I'm Going Home", Frank's swan song, but there really isn't a dud in the bunch.  Even the songs usually omitted from soundtrack albums, Rocky's "The Sword of Damocles" and the ensemble piece "Planet, Schmanet, Janet", are superb.

You can't even fault the film for technical flaws. Beautifully shot, nicely edited, and with an ever-impressive set design, this is not some cheap-jack production, or if it was, it surely doesn't like to show it. The mostly British cast is of course highlighted by Tim Curry as Frank, in a performance that in a more liberal year should have won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He's just that good. Visiting Americans Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon equip themselves very well within the campy proceedings, with Sarandon especially fun as the corrupted innocent Janet, and rocker Meat Loaf makes a brief but strong impression as Elvis-wannabe biker Eddie. His song "Hot Patootie" is nothing short of spectacular.

Many have continued to say that RHPS is the original cult film, or the ultimate cult film. Well, if a film enters the mainstream and is loved or enjoyed by just about everybody...that cult seems to have transformed into a religion, or at the very least ceased to be a cult. Everyone knows about the midnight screenings and it's a rite of passage for many young people getting in touch with their sexuality or just hoping to fit in. In my opinion, to continue to be a cult film, there should be resistance to it from the general movie-going public while it is embraced by a minority of followers. No one resists RHPS anymore. It's part of the pop culture lexicon.

Your enjoyment of seeing RHPS with cast re-enactment and audience participation entirely depends on two things: the cast and the audience. Truth be told, both will likely be filled with high school and college drama and/or improv students who, desperate for attention, enjoy being loud and in the spotlight. This is part of the problem. The youthful reverie of contemporary RHPS screenings surely cannot be what they originally were like in the 70s and 80s, when the tradition began. There is almost non-stop yelling at the screen of mostly unfunny barbs at the expense of the cast and the film, with some tasteless pop culture nods tossed in for topicality. Some jokes land, most just seem childish and desperate. There are just as many inside jokes between cast members and recurring audience members, which don't add to the "fun" at all. Was it always like this? I always leave RHPS screenings with a splitting headache. This also begs the question: what is the purpose of making fun of a comedy or a spoof? All the laughs are right there on the screen. Perhaps it's a desire to interact with or contribute to the humor within the film, but I don't think that's the case with the RHPS audiences.

It's interesting to note how the Rocky Horror revelers intensely dislike the film's sequel, Shock Treatment (1981). This may be one of the most underrated and unfairly maligned sequels in film history. In many ways, it surpasses the original with its humor, and the score is equal to, if not better than, the RHPS score. However, perhaps it's best that it remain a true cult film, enjoyed by a select few. I imagine it would suffer the same cruel fate as its predecessor if the midnight movie crowd got a hold of it.

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