What Is The Rocky Horror Picture Show?For those who don’t know, Rocky Horror began as a musical by Richard O’Brien. In 1975, it was turned into a feature film. It bombed. Boy did it bomb. But like a Phoenix, it rose from the ashes and became wildly successful. How successful? The film opened in only eight theaters and only did well in Westwood, Los Angeles. It was withdrawn. Seven months later, on April 1, 1976, the film was shown at the Waverly Theater in New York City at midnight. This time, it caught on. By October of that year, people were attending the show in costumes and talking back to the screen. Fan groups formed. By 1979, it was showing twice-weekly in over 230 theaters. Since that time, this film has taken in $365 million on its original budget of $1.4 million... with no end in sight.
So what is it? Well, it’s a musical.
“The Time Warp.” As they finish, the master arrives. This is Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), and he’s uh... eccentric. To give you a sense of how eccentric he is, the song he sings to enter the film is "Sweet Transvestite From Transsexual, Transylvania."
The film gets weird from there. Dr. Frank N. Furter has built a “monster,” in the shape of a bodybuilder, who comes to life. He fights Meat Loaf (pre-Bat Out Of Hell), who plays Eddie, an ex-delivery boy on a motorcycle. Frank N. Furter molests both Brad and Janet, kills and cooks Eddie, throws a hissyfit or two, and in the end, it turns out that some of the characters are really aliens sent here for no reason you will be able to understand.
How Did This Become A Cult Classic?So this is the part where I tell you that while most people find this film strange and confusing, in reality, it’s a brilliant and wickedly clever film that has been widely misunderstood by general audiences. Yep, that’s what you’re expecting. Not gonna happen. Rocky Horror, as a film, is bizarre, confusing, confused and ultimately pointless. It feels like a campy comedy that pushed everything too far and became clinically insane. And to put a fine point on it, if this hadn’t been a musical, this film would be long forgotten.
But it was a musical. And therein lies what made this a cult hit, because these songs are unique, catchy, and a cut above what you get from most musicals. How? Well...
For starters, this is a rock musical and that makes it more accessible to a broader and younger audience than it would have been if this had been a more classical musical, and those are the very people who would run with a story like this. At the same time, the songs are nowhere near as pretentious or relentlessly negative as The Wall or Tommy. These are fun songs, meant to be enjoyed, not bitter, angry or depressed songs meant to exploit teenage angst. That fact alone makes this a unique musical. Moreover, the types and styles of songs vary a good deal, which gives the film a lot of reach. Indeed, there is something here for everyone to love, as compared to most musicals that stick with a single song style from start to finish.
In a related point, these songs are perfectly integrated with the action and the dialog to tie the film together in a manner much like the way The Fifth Element is tied together, where lines of dialog spoken by different characters (often in different locations) are jammed together to form meanings that the audience can pick up. Thus, for example, you may find one character starting a line and another character in a completely different scene finishing it. That gives the film an interesting, clever, quirky feel which cult fans seem to enjoy... it’s like being treated like an adult for once.
Further, the lyrics (and the dialog at times) are sharper than they appear at first glance. The rhymes used are clever, and the analogies, allusions and meanings are complex and deep. And each song has multiple layers of meaning. For example, the song “Over At The Frankenstein Place,” which essentially starts the film, has the obvious meaning that the characters see a light in a building and they believe that means someone there can help them. But the song is awash with deeper meaning as well. Brad and Janet actually sing: “There’s a light, In the darkness of everybody’s life.” Clearly, they are talking about something larger than finding someone to help change a tire. What they are saying is the theme of the film: this film will be about people who aren’t happy in their very normal lives and who want to try something new... and boy are they going to get it. Riff Raff then adds a lyric related to the use of morphine to find “light” in his life.
Here, Tim Curry sings this very aggressively at Janet when he’s trying to seduce her and she rebuffs him. On the surface this sounds like Curry is simply telling Janet that she’s not desirable. But there’s more here. The context is actually deeply sexual and there is a suggestion Curry is talking about oral sex and telling Janet she better be thankful for his attentions because she’s not going to get this from Brad or anyone else. Further, the word “apple pie” suggests “wholesome” to most people (as in “mom and apple pie”), which is what Janet is claiming to be and why she won’t have sex with Frank N. Furter. And what Curry is telling her here is not only that she’s not particularly desirable, but that her wholesomeness turns him off. This is the theme throughout as Brad and Janet delve into this bizarre, definitely un-wholesome world. Sadly for them, they are poorly equipped to handle it.You better wise up Janet Weiss,
Your apple pie don’t taste too nice
So what you end up with are clever songs that deal with a variety of truly bizarre topics and which offer multiple layers of meaning. The lyrics are edited together, as with The Fifth Element, to make you pay attention to get the full meaning. The music is varied and of a fairly high quality. The tone and songs are unique among musicals. All of this speaks rather highly of the film.
That’s how this film found its audience and why this film has become a cult classic.
Thoughts? (Other than WTF?)