Friday, October 25, 2013

Film Friday: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult classic. In fact, it’s the first film I personally recall ever being called a cult classic. We’ve said before that what causes a film to become a cult classic is that the film is original, smart and well written, but doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, so it ends up being rejected by general audiences who lack the ability to understand the film but then finds a home with smarter audiences who “get” the film. This time, that may be a bit of a stretch.
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 It was withdrawn.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 story begins with Brad Major (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) driving on a back country road in the rain. They get a flat tire and are forced to walk to a nearby castle. They are let into the castle by the creepy butler Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) and an even creepier maid, Magenta (Patricia Quinn). The frightened couple are told to wait for the master. As they do, they discover a group of weirdoes dressed in tuxedos and various accessories that appear kind of clownish. They suddenly break out into song and dance, singing “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.
Making the songs even better, they fit perfectly into the film. Too often, in musicals, once the song starts, the plot stops. Not here. These songs move the plot along and the characters maintain their personas. You can actually skip all the songs in Cabaret without affecting the plot. You can’t do that here. Again, this is rather unique in the world of musicals and that makes this stand out.

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.
Throughout the film, the lyrics constantly have these layers of meanings. On the surface, each song is about that particular moment in the film and advances the plot, but simultaneously, the lyrics are also about drug addiction or O’Brien’s struggles with coming to terms with being a transsexual. And then there is the overriding theme which hides in each of these lyrics as well, which is the idea of normal people looking for something new. Consider this lyric:
You better wise up Janet Weiss,
Your apple pie don’t taste too nice
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.

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.
Add to this that the film touches upon a series of taboo subjects (drug use, murder, cannibalism, homosexuality, transsexuality, and swinging, among other things) which is always popular with young audiences, but it does so in a safe and ultimately ridiculous manner that lets people enjoy the topic. In fact, the ridiculousness here is the key because it’s the difference between seeing a murder and joking about a murder. If Frank N. Furter was earnestly examining his feelings as a transsexual or his murder of Eddie had been taken more seriously, then this film would probably be unbearable. But he isn’t. Instead, he’s so far over the top that the black humor of the film crosses over into genuine humor. And what this does is make this a highly entertaining film for audiences who want a little abnormal in their lives... just not as much as Brad and Janet get.

That’s how this film found its audience and why this film has become a cult classic.

Thoughts? (Other than WTF?)

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love Rocky Horror. This is a Halloween favorite of mine. Excellent review.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, It's a fun movie.

Tennessee Jed said...

I never actually have seen this, and despite being of the right age, never attended an "event" showing. The 70's did represent the fruition of the anti-establishment counter culture established in the 60's. As such, the idea of a film where people could dress in costume, act up and talk back to the screen was a natural, particularly when combined with the aforementioned taboo subjects. Hell, David Bowie was making anonymously gay "rock theater" pretty hip about that time as well. The dress-up talk back phenomenon was revived for "Mommy Dearest" several years later. And whatever else one might say, it did propel Tim Curry to semi-stardom.

Outlaw13 said...

The best thing I like about this movie is that it allowed Drew Carry to use it in the opening of his ABC show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRyAwr4Yb5A

Dave Olson said...

I'll probably never see this movie. They say that the only way to experience it is in a theater, which is really the only way to see any movie, but that's another story. Anyway, if I were to see this in a theater, there would be other people watching it near me. They'd be talking to the screen, probably dancing in the aisles, and perhaps shooting me with a squirt gun. The first two would be annoying enough to make me grind my teeth to powder, but that last one would cause me to threaten death upon the perpetrators.

I'd love to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a theater someday, but I'm afraid that so many people would dress in costume, bring coconuts, and quote the movie...the ENTIRE movie...I wouldn't be able to enjoy myself. I guess I'll just have to splurge on the 72 inch HDTV and watch it in the dark. And among my DVDs and BluRays will NOT be RHPS.

PikeBishop said...

I was ten when this came out. I never saw it and always considered it "A moronic film that a bunch of mindless dolts made into a cult."

Years later as an adult I finally saw it, and I now think that it's "a moronic film that a bunch of mindless dolts made into a cult."

Sorry, don't get it, will admit that the songs are catchy and memorable, but the film just doesn't work for me.

ScottDS said...

I've still never seen it so I will reserve judgement. Everything I know about it comes from pop culture (you can't be a geek and be totally oblivious to movies like this). Seeing it at home might be preferable but it's no doubt more fun to see it in a theater, but the audience noise would probably drown out the dialogue.

I did, however, attend something called the Media Workshop the summer after I graduated high school. (Think movie camp.) There was a talent show and a few folks did "The Time Warp." It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. :-)

I'll get to this one day.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

The first time I saw Holy Grail was in a movie theater but it was in Tallahassee and there wasn't much of a crowd. No coconuts, no costumes. Just a lot of laughter.

I imagine if I saw a midnight show at the Nuart in LA (for example), it would be a more raucous experience.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I for one really enjoy going to Rocky Horror sing-a-longs. I even own a pair of leather pants that I only break out once a year. (And, no, they are not what you're thinking. They're a loose jean cut, but it's fun.)

Frankly, you haven't seen Rocky Horror UNTIL you've done the sing-a-long. Just to show you how involved (and coordinated) it actually is, here is a PROPS LIST and here is the most complete PARTICIPATION GUIDE I've ever seen.

But you've got to go in with the right attitude. A sing-a-long is not, nor is it intended to be, a night at the cinema. First clue, these things are almost always done at midnight. And they are usually done at indie movie houses that encourage their audiences to be raucous. I knew a couple who somehow managed to stumble into Rocky Horror ignorant of all that--despite all the signs and almost common knowledge of what RHPS has become. And this was a supposedly with-it, hipster, culture-savvy liberal couple. Needless to say, they hated it, but they got no sympathy from me.

Some other films you haven't seen until you've done the sing-a-long include:
The Sound of Music (this one is almost as involved as RHPS)
The Muppet Movie
Annie
Grease (costumes, too!)
Singin' in the Rain
The Wizard of Oz (you guessed it, costumes again)
Moulin Rouge! (I've seen costumes, but ~eh~)
And several of the early Disney Renaissance films

tryanmax said...

P.S. I've heard tell of Dirty Dancing sing-a-longs, but I can't quite wrap my head around that. I'm imagining a lot of people in leg warmers.

tryanmax said...

Dave, FYI, squirting directly at other audience members at RHPS is frowned upon. The idea is to shoot in the air to simulate the rain storm. This is also what your newspaper is for. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This definitely catapulted Tim Curry to the top and he has delivered in a lot of films. I'm amazed at the range he has managed.

This is definitely an "event" that fit in with the times. If this film had come out in 1984, it would have been ignored probably because everything was more uptight. If it had come out today, it would have been dismissed as a "manufactured cult hit." So timing is everything. But the wave this one caught shows no signs of subsiding. I thought it might after it went mainstream a couple years ago, but it ultimately went right back to the cult-fans only. So I think it will continue forever, quite frankly.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, LOL! I haven't seen that. That's funny.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, You are correct. If you went to see this in the theater, you would be surrounded by people who see this as a participation event. So if that bothers you, then you don't want to see it there.

On that point, I know what you mean. When I was in college they showed "The Blues Brothers" down at the student union and half the audience was quoting the dialog and it drove me nuts. But in that case, it wasn't supposed to be a participation event.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, It's not a good film, it's a good musical. And more importantly, it's a unique musical, a unique musical which found an audience that found a pretty unique way to enjoy the experience. In that regard, this really is a film that is "owned" by audiences rather than the filmmaker.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, If you're into film and film culture, then this is one of those you should see. As you note yourself, it's all over the popular culture.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, There's a sing-along for The Muppet Movie? That's just wrong. LOL!

As for RHPS, I think you can enjoy the film without the sing-along, but you do lose the event feel. And you're right, if you go see it in theaters, you need the right mindset.

I ran into the issue of having the wrong mindset with MST 3000 when I was younger. Most Commentarama visitors know what MST 3000 is, so I won't explain, but I knew people who stumbled upon it and actually would say things like, "It could have been a good movie if they hadn't tried to talk over it the whole time." At the time, that was a bit shocking that they had completely missed the point, but I've since discovered that some people simply can't process a dual experience like that. Oh well.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, in fairness and in regards to the dual experience, it should be noted that there are people who practice the participation at home. For my part, I do make a point to watch it at home a few nights before the event as a fresher.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, There is definitely a learning curve for participation. But you don't have to participate to enjoy the spectacle. The issue I mention with MST3k really was that those people just couldn't process two conversations at once -- the one on the screen and the corollary conversation being aimed at the screen.

SciFi Terry said...

Excellent review. I agree completely. The film is poor, but the music is great. It's very catchy and fun.

Koshcat said...

Yeah....

I've tried to see this movie a couple of times and I just don't get it. The songs are catchy but there really is no plot. If there is anything to take from it, it seems to warn people about the dangerous of free sex and drugs. Swinging may sound like fun but you may also end up with a cannibalistic transvestite and that is just too much salami flying around for my tastes.

Critch said...

Theatre of the absurd...I first saw this in Memphis in the late 70s; fan participation and all...it was a hoot....to be young again....I really beleive you have to see this on the big screen. Great review.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Terry! I agree. It's a strange film that would never work without the music, but it's a pretty good musical.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That is exactly the danger of swinging... cannibal transvestites. LOL!

As I say in the review, this really isn't a good film, but it is a good musical. So take it at that level. And it's definitely not for everyone, that's for sure.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, Thanks! "A hoot" is a great way to put it. This is pretty much pure fun and that's about it. Not really a lot of depth. What's most interesting really is the history of how it went from total failure to smashing success just because it found its audience.

wahsatchmo said...

I'm sorry to say it, but you really do have to go the audience participation events to enjoy Rocky Horror to its fullest. I watched it on VHS with my girlfriend 20 years ago, and I thought it was amusing. But going to the Valley Art Theater with my buddy on Halloween made everything come to light. You had people in full costumes acting everything out in front of the screen. The audience sang along, changed the lyrics in funny ways, called out the "virgins" (those that had never been to an event) to participate, etc. It's quite a fun experience, and it brought out the music to a much larger extent, which as you say is the best part.

I do love the way Tim Curry drags out "Weisssss" in that song. And Barry Bostwick's overblown "Dammit! Janet!" gets real catchy, real quick.

I agree, it's a stupid movie that is fun to listen too, and even better to get caught up in the idiocy and musicality thereof.

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, That's probably true. I think the film is still fun watching it at home, but you don't get the sense of energy and ridiculousness that the crowd brings.

Curry is fantastic in this. He's constantly so over the top and I also love the way he does things like stretch out the Weissss... or how he pauses in the middle of a song and everything just stops until he starts again. He's really playing with your verbally throughout.

T-Rav said...

Nah, WTF is my only possible thought on this.

Rustbelt said...

I tried watching this several times in high school when it aired on Comedy Central. I could never get any farther than the part where Rocky Horror wakes up. That's when I decided this film was off the rails and couldn't go any further. Heck, I talked about this with my classmates- the ones who, unlike me, actually played in our school's musicals, mind you. We all agreed RHPS was just too stupid to watch all the way through. So...

I'm siding with T-Rav on this one.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I can see that. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, This should be right up your alley as an MST 3k fan!

Patriot said...

Andrew....My wife went to a couple of these back in the 70's and tried to interest me in going. As someone who does not "follow or take part in group madness" (my words) I never had any desire to attend one of these events.

However, I totally "get" why it became a cult hit, based on my wife's relating of what transpires at the musical. I still use "Dammit Janet" as an epithet when I'm frustrated at something or somebody. Not many people catch the reference.

I also think this is the first film where transvestites were front and center....and unabashedly so. I thought then, and still do now, why would a guy want to dress up in women's clothes? How was I to know that I would be the one eventually deemed strange for not accepting this perverted lifestyle as part of the glorious human tapestry?!

And my family still watches movies interactively....ala MST3000. We talk back at the screen, make snide remarks and movie refernces....just great fun for some movies (Ruuuby!! Green?...Super green)

Anywhooo.....great write-up once more Andrew. These reviews are one of the reasons I like coming to your site. Where the hell you find the time to host this site and live a regular life I have no idea.....but I'm glad you do it.

Keep up the good work!!

AndrewPrice said...

Patriot, Thanks! I enjoy writing the reviews the most of everything we do at the site(s). I think it's a lot of fun to think about films and why they work, why they don't, and how to do them differently.

As for time... your guess is as good as mine. I could certainly use more time, that's for sure.

I think ultimately what people enjoy most is that the film is just pure fun. It's so stupid you enjoy talking back to it (like MST3k). The songs are catchy and some of the quotes are memorable. In fact, every time I hear someone say "Dammit!" I automatically add "Janet" to it. LOL!

As for transvestites... yeah. What a world.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, just as "The Castle of Fu Manchu" broke Joel, and "Invasion of the Neptune Men" broke Mike...this one broke me!

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Good point! :)

Individualist said...

Andrew

I love the songs in the Rocky Horror. As to your presumption that the movie has a terrible plot I cannot answer (I am too stunned to realize that there was a plot to speak to it.).

As to the timing of the Rocky Horror I don't think it could be done today due to political correctness and even if it was the themes of the movie would not work.
{SPOILER ALERT *** uh yeah okthat is weird for Rocky}
or me the Aliens showing up at the end and killing Frank Furter because he is engaging in perversions makes a poignant statement about the -place of this kind of thing in the 70's society. It does it in a way that is accepting and not preaching. It does not come off as an activist trying to change society. Rather it shows everyone in fishnets even the stodgy conservative doctor as if to state there is a little of this in all of us even if we hide it but that it can be taken to far which is what Frankie is.....

Most of this meaning comes through in the lyrics of the song and not the dialog.

I don't think the "activists" of today would allow a film that was in anyway critical of alternate lifestyles in any way even a very meaningful one and the subject could not be broached without forcing some kind of PC message with the correct morals.

It would have to be the stodgy doctor the aliens come to kill. Frankie would be given a Nobel peace prize. The movie would send the right "its Ok to be Gay" message to all the young kids and denounce those traditional Christian types showing how bad they are and the movie would be pointless.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, There is a plot, though that may be hard to believe! LOL! :)

I agree. This film couldn't be made today because everyone would be screaming bloody murder about every single part of it. It would be awash in protests from left and right and other, and I think Hollywood would be terrified to tell this same story today.

Plus, they'd probably want to make it a slasher flick.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I kinda would be interested to see a non-musical straight* remake of RHPS now that you describe how it would be treated today. It occurs to me that the only way it could be made today is by banking on the one made in the 70s. But I agree, it could never be an original today.

(*as in, no camp, not no transvestites)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I usually pretty quickly get ideas for how to remake something, but not this time. I honestly have no idea how I would remake this as a straight film if I had to do it today!

Any thoughts?

tryanmax said...

I think horror/slasher/torture is a good start. Ironically, you'd probably have to play down the transsexual bit somewhat--make it more of an implied thing. The Eddie/Columbia relationship would have to be introduced prior to his capture, partial brain removal and freezing. It would probably be made to parallel Brad and Janet's relationship. The body count would be higher, and the Doctor would most certainly be among them. The ending would be tricky, but it would have to be something more open-ended. Those are my initial impressions.

AndrewPrice said...

Ok, I see where you are going. Think of it this way...

This is the story of Frankenstein. So Frankenstein is a tortured transsexual who tries to build his perfect beast. He has both female and male lovers. Enter Brad and Janet. He wants them because he wants something from one of them to add to his monster. But he needs to get it voluntarily, so he tries to seduce them both.

How's that?

tryanmax said...

Hey, that works really well. Eddie and Columbia would fit in as a failed prior iteration of the situation Brad and Janet are in. They would be encountered as broken-down and severely disturbed from their ordeal, only able to provide cryptic insights as to what Brad and Janet are facing.

I haven't decided if Riff Raff and Magenta would still be necessary in a straight version except as attendants to Frankenstein. However, if they retained their role as celestial observers (or possibly trans dimensional, to switch it up--and slip in a play on words) they would probably be much more detached and cynical about the whole thing. Actually, the right sort of ambiguity about their roles would contribute to an effective open ending.

AndrewPrice said...

Agreed on Eddie and Columbia. They could be the prior Brad and Janet who failed the test and the audience can see them as warning of what can happen to Brad and Janet. Essentially, they end up somewhat twisted, soulless and trapped in purgatory of the mansion... living ghosts.

As for Riff Raff and Magenta, you need an Igor, so you definitely need a Riff Raff. I would suggest that RR/M be made into deformed human-appearing creatures who on the surface appear to be assistants to Frankenstein. But then at the end, they could be revealed to be demons or aliens who have come to observe his experiment... maybe in a "Dark City" sort of way as observers of Frankenstein's attempt to find the human soul.

tryanmax said...

See, now that wasn't so hard. You could even keep the party at the beginning as a setup that Frankenstein put together to scout his next couple. Just like in the musical, Brad and Janet stumble into a trap that wasn't even set for them. Part of the twist could be that they turn out better suited than anyone who came voluntarily.

tryanmax said...

When you realize that every character in RHPS is a horror movie trope, the serious version of the plot shapes itself.

AndrewPrice said...

True. It also kind of demystifies RHPS in a way by showing that these seemingly insane characters really are standard tropes who have been twisted to the point that you almost can't recognize them. Interesting.

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