The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a classic–whether you choose to throw the term “cult” on the front of that accolade is up to you at this point, considering the cultural stronghold the film has established and maintained over the last four decades. All of that being said, how does one really describe the film, doing justice to its inherent strangeness, its odd references, its nearly indescribable tone? It is a rock opera that pays homage to drive-in, sci-fi, B-movie fare and celebrates unbridled, unabashed sexuality in a singularly spectacular, wholly irreverent fashion. Even that sentence feels incomplete in describing a film that, in and of itself, is incomplete–it is what one might call an open text, in the sense that it is not imbued with meaning by its creators so much as its audiences.
Think of it this way–when someone mentions The Rocky Horror Picture Show, what comes to mind? Tim Curry in his fabulous corset and fishnets? Perhaps. Or the iconic image of those red lips that sing “Science Fiction Double Feature” to open the film? Sure. But, if you dig a little deeper, beneath the film’s intentionally garish imagery, you may realize that some of those mental images you’ve conjured up are of actors playing the parts, acting out the scenes, as they appear on a screen behind them. Or maybe you’re envisioning the audiences participating in the screening in another way–what may be otherwise seen as a disruptive crowd in any other movie-going environment is encouraged and expected when it comes to Rocky Horror, with audience members shouting lines during pauses in the dialogue, and pulling out various props, using and even throwing them at key moments.
Of course, this tradition of audience participation only developed and then flourished over time. When the film first premiered in 1975, it seemed like an easily dismissed oddity, almost begging to be shown at midnight screenings and, again, seeming somehow incomplete without this interactivity from its fans. The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s legacy is not based solely on what is given to us within the confines of its run time–it is also what audiences have built upon the foundation of that very content: the power given to audiences to engage with the songs, dress as the characters, add to the script. It is the only film of its kind to truly afford us this power, and while that is perhaps what we should be celebrating most, it is not the only reason to love and respect this weird gem of a film.
For those of you reading who don’t know or need a refresher on what happens in this wild romp of a movie: the film tells a story (with actual, in-text storyteller in tow, by the way) about prudent and plain young lovers Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), whose car breaks down near the “Frankenstein Place” where there’s a light on, to be sure–Dr. Frank-N-Furter (the incomparable Tim Curry) is having a party to unveil his newest creation: Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood), a blonde, infantile, yet hyper-sexualized hunk. The night is a strange journey for audiences to behold, and an even stranger one for Brad and Janet to have to participate in and bear witness to: there is singing and dancing, murder and sex, and lots of color.
There is a clear and pertinent emphasis on drag culture, seen not just through Frank-N-Furter’s obvious garb, but through his declaration that he is a “sweet transvestite, from Transsexual, Transylvania” as well. The references to Shelley’s Frankenstein tale, on the other hand, pretty much stop dead in their tracks after Rocky is “born.” From there though, we still get Meat Loaf as the effervescently entertaining character Eddie, barreling in and rocking out on his motorcycle; a kitschy machine that freezes our characters into nude, Romanesque statues; an orgy in a pool (everyone’s got a corset, a feather boa, and sexual fetishes and awakenings at this point); an old-fashioned RKO radio tower; and lastly, the knowledge that the Gothic mansion where all of the above shenanigans have taken place, was actually a space craft, taking “Handyman” Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) and house maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn) back to the home planet.
To say that this tale is irreverent, random, and almost incoherent at points is to put it lightly, but there’s a kind of magic in its mayhem, a calculated kind of over-the-top, chaotic charisma that enchants and seduces you, and a wonderfully cheesy, outlandish trajectory that exhilarates as well as alienates, all serving to ask the audience– now what? What do we do with the insanity we’ve just seen, how do we get more from it and honor it? How do we process and further contribute to this film so that we are a part of it– actual collaborators versus passive consumers?
For some, The Rocky Horror Picture Show may simply be the source of that classic Halloween “Time Warp” tune, but for others, this film is a kooky call to arms, pleading with us to become these characters and to involve ourselves directly with the text. With a story this strange, full of unpretentious themes of sexual experimentation and freedom, and unassuming tropes hearkening back to a golden era of cheesy science fiction, there are just so many opportunities for audiences to not only love the film but to really live inside of it, at least in some temporary, highly performative, almost cathartic way. Again, that is why the film has had the staying power that it has had over the last forty years–because it has spawned traditions that can be passed down from generation to generation, traditions that are seemingly nonsensical but actually culturally important. No other film has given audiences the experience or autonomy comparable to that which Rocky Horror has always given its audiences. Hopefully, even after another forty years pass, the film will still hold that unnervingly seductive, but at times silly, power over us–and I trust that it will still give us the power to play along.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox