Rocky Horror Picture Show Retrospective
If for any reason you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, like you’re a freak, then throw a rock, and you’re likely to find Rocky Horror playing somewhere on the big screen in a theater full of people who feel the same way you do.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the ultimate cult film. I imagine the scintillating and titillating tale of Brad and Janet giving in to absolute pleasure over at Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s Frankenstein place may come off as too antiquated or mainstream to some nowadays because of the film’s renown, but widespread popularity does not automatically disqualify a film from cult status. Especially not this one.
But, even as I call Rocky Horror the ultimate cult film, I know that even that misses the mark, because it is so much more. Rocky Horror‘s fandom eclipses that of any other film. This fandom grew rapidly and wildly in the mid-70s, growing more robust as the film’s notoriety did.
Very soon, the culture of Rocky Horror was born—an inclusive anti-everything mainstream, punk rock culture that made this cinematic oddity into a phenomenon and its midnight exhibitions legendary.
I Would Like, If I May, To Take You On A Strange Journey…
Before the picture show, there was The Rocky Horror Show, a stage musical written (book, music, and lyrics) by Richard O’Brien, who iconically played the role of Riff Raff in both the original London and Broadway stage productions, as well as in the film.
The musical uses kitschy aesthetics from 1950s rock-n-roll, horror, and sci-fi (all childhood obsessions for O’Brien) as a backdrop to a story of sexual and idealistic abandon and liberation. It was a massive success in London’s famed West End theater district, selling out every theater it resided in for a staggering total of 2,960 performances before closing in 1980.
While the London production enjoyed its success, the show also made its debut in Los Angeles in 1974, bringing along original London lead, Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter, as well as adding Meat Loaf as Eddie and Dr. Scott in a dual role. Though only running for nine months, the LA production proved to be popular enough to grab the attention of a Fox executive who struck a deal to adapt the show into a film after attending a performance.
The show then made an ambitious move to Broadway with the idea in mind that it would be a sort of physical presence for the film adaptation upon its release, though this was not the case. The NYC production flopped, closed nearly as soon as it opened, and was ripped apart by critics like Rex Reed, who claimed the show was only for “homosexuals.” Richard O’Brien has said that this seriously offended both his wife and boyfriend.
The failure on Broadway would also prove to be an omen for the film adaptation, as things were not so rose tinted for the Rocky Horror Picture Show upon its U.S. release in September of 1975.
Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?
The public did not immediately flock to the theaters to get a glimpse of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s madness as so many eventually would. Critics of the day dismissed the film as tasteless and incoherent, if not entirely plotless, in their infinitely obtuse and moral folly.
However, any cult film worth its weight in celluloid fails in its conventional theatrical release. This failure opens the door for a different kind of film fan to discover and champion interesting and ingenious works of art that have been discarded by the mainstream. For Rocky Horror, that door opened down in Greenwich Village at midnight.
Several months after the film failed to capture success and lost its wide release, the idea came up of placing it in the coveted midnight time slot of the Waverly Theater (now the IFC Theater). The Waverly’s manager, Denise Borden, was fascinated with the film and campaigned tirelessly to raise interest in it because she knew that this odd rock-n-roll trip of ecstasy was tailored for the offbeat, underground weirdos that populated the Waverly during the witching hour, and she was absolutely right.
It didn’t take long for Rocky Horror to become a phenomenon at the Waverly. Each sold out screening saw ever increasing regulars dressed up as their favorite characters shivering with antici-(SAY IT!)-pation in their seats as the film’s rocking soundtrack would boom over the speakers before the lights went down.
“The Time Warp” would be danced in the aisles, songs would be sung along to, games would be played, alcohol and drugs would be indiscriminately ingested, and let’s not forget the heavy petting, all of which created this unchained, uninhibited jubilee where people could be exactly who they wanted to be after an oppressively long week and forget life’s bullshit for a while. It was a weekly party that might’ve even made Frank-N-Furter blush.
Someone at the Waverly had to know that if you rile up folks to that degree before showtime, they ain’t gonna stop.
Why would they? A good party never has to end on the account of the opening credits, and the audience’s commitment to keeping that party going was a huge factor in word spreading so quickly of a good time unlike any other waiting to be found downtown while the squares were all asleep.
Oh Fantasy, Free Me!
The first instance of audience participation at a Rocky Horror screening occurred when Louis Farese, apparently the coolest kindergarten teacher ever, shouted, “buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” at Janet (Susan Sarandon) as she and Brad (Barry Bostwick) walk through the rain towards Frank-N-Furter’s castle. This rather crass line caused an uproar and initiated a game of inventing the funniest, most inventive lines they could shout at the screen, and everyone played.
“Counterpoint dialogue” ranged from the vulgar, to the mean (milquetoast Brad gets called an asshole anytime he appears in a scene), to the corny. My personal favorite is shouting, “she went apeshit!” when Frank sings in melancholy, “whatever ever happened to Fay Wray?”
We all laugh and the game continues, feeding off each other like how we feed off of our collective fear when we’re watching a really good horror flick in a movie theater. It’s the desire to capture more of the energy that fueled the fun.
Then, there were the props. People would suit up to see Rocky Horror like they were arming themselves for battle. Rice would be thrown in celebration during the wedding in the first scene, Scotts toilet paper would be tossed from all directions when Brad exclaims, “great Scott,” and toast would be hurled at the screen when Frank proposes a toast at dinner, which this author’s good ol’ Dad fondly remembers as his favorite moment in the many evenings he spent doing the “Time Warp” at the Waverly.
As folks had their fun in their seats, there were a few members of the audience who took their obsession with the film to the front of the theater, though. They formed shadow casts in full costume and would act out the entire film just below the screen, reveling in the opportunity to channel the film’s camp.
This could easily be the most unique aspect of Rocky Horror audience participation because those brave enough to perform for their fellow fans became more a part of the film than the audience in a way. I can imagine food being thrown and foul language shouted at nearly any other movie. The potential is always there, but I can’t picture any other flick that people would love enough to act out in real time other than this one, and that further illustrates how fans of Rocky Horror are inspired by it.
Perhaps all the shouting, cursing, and flying household items sounds like a moviegoer’s nightmare in 2020, but that’s kind of the whole point of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film defied expectations. It goes against almost every typical thematic and structural rule in cinema, and the rabid fandom in the mid-70s (and beyond) responded in kind.
Audience participation is what made Rocky Horror a happening because it was so unique. It scratched an itch that everyone in their seats had to be unashamedly different and to act out in ways that others might find disagreeable, but felt right to them.
Don’t Dream It. Be It.
The lines shouted and items thrown during a typical Rocky Horror screening could reflect the film’s anarchist structure and atmosphere, but that seems more a superficial understanding of the phenomenon than the actual truth, like observers on the outside of this world attempting to easily analyze the situation.
In reality, everything the audience did and continues to do under the shine of the film’s projection on screen is a physical rendering of Rocky Horror’s message: Don’t dream it. Be it. This is the license that allows the film’s characters to break out and be themselves (for better or worse) while also allowing the fans to do so as well.
This is how The Rocky Horror Picture Show created an enduring safe space for the misfit moviegoers of the world. This is certainly the most unfortunate side effect of home media and streaming—so much of the charm of Rocky Horror relies on its tradition and community, yet time and distance removes these two necessary components from home viewings.
However, in an age before home video and Netflix, when non-heteronormativity was still mostly invisible, supposedly immoral and even illegal, Rocky Horror opened up a world that many did not know existed and became a refuge for all sorts of folks who didn’t fit in with white, suburban, nuclear families.
While any class of misfit is, of course, welcome at Rocky Horror, this new world was especially important for members of the LGBTQ+ community, teens and young adults in particular. They would never dream of rocking fishnets and eye shadow at home or school but had no fear cosplaying as Frank-N-Furter when attending a midnight screening because this world was not only tailor made for their freedom of expression, but was also far removed from the “real” one. There was never any danger of being discovered and persecuted because everyone else in the theater was like them—a bunch of outcasts trying to figure things out and have a good time along the way.
Mainstream critics and moviegoers had rejected Rocky Horror immediately upon its release, just like mainstream society had immediately rejected so many LGBTQ+ youths for who they were. It seems like destiny that the film would find such an empathetic audience, and that the film would offer such a safe space for people so desperately in need of a haven.
This is what makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show so unique. Any film or franchise can have a fandom. Some inspire and change lives. Very few are a home.
This year marks the film’s 45th anniversary, and it is still a home for wayward souls. If for any reason you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, like you’re a freak, then throw a rock (or do a Google search, I guess), and you’re likely to find Rocky Horror playing somewhere on the big screen in a theater full of people who feel the same way you do.
It’s an experience unlike any other. It’s an experience that rose tints your world and keeps you safe from your trouble and pain.
Are You A Fan Of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
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