The enduring appeal of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’

❉ “A riotous paean to sexual liberation” – We look back on the quintessential cult movie, which made its US debut on this day in 1975. Tell us about it, Janet…

Now that it’s joined the pantheon of Great British musicals, up there with the likes of ‘Oliver!’ and ‘Cats’, it’s easy to forget that ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ was ever a subversive work, but in many ways subversion is not only its style but its whole raison d’être. Though crafted as a musical pastiche of the sci-fi and horror b-movies of yesteryear, its exuberant celebration of sex and sexuality makes it a very different film from a spoof such as Mel Brooks’s ‘Young Frankenstein’ or the stage and screen nostalgia-fest of ‘Grease’.

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In its opening scenes, we’re presented with a small town America so knowingly cliché the characters from Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ appear on the steps of its local church. The scene is a wedding, and as newlyweds Betty and Ralph jump into their car we see, written in shaving foam along its doors, the words: “Wait till tonight – she got hers now he’ll get his.” Meanwhile, their friends Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) are there to wave them off, and gazing dreamily into the distance Janet sighs: “An hour ago she was just plain old Betty Monroe, and now she’s Mrs Ralph Hapshatt.”

Clearly this world, where young girls dream of becoming “Mrs Ralph Hapshatt”, is one desperately in need of a shake-up, and that’s precisely what happens when Brad and Janet’s car breaks down – in true horror movie fashion – a short distance from “the Frankenstein place”. There, they find themselves flung into the bizarre world of Dr Frank N. Furter, a “sweet transvestite” from the Planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania.

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It is the role Tim Curry was born to play. Strutting across the screen in heels, tights and a corset, this other-worldly libertine-cum-mad-scientist is six parts Freddie Mercury to four parts Joan Crawford. In the course of the film his loquacious blend of masculinity and high camp will see the doctor have his wicked way with both Janet and Brad (in scenes that are almost identically scripted and shot), and attempt to seduce practically every other character in the movie, not to mention the audience.

For a film that, 41 years later, can still draw sell-out crowds (and often in fancy dress), ‘Rocky Horror’s origins were surprisingly humble. Written by Richard O’Brien when the actor was “between roles”, it premiered in June 1973 at the Royal Court’s 63-seat Theatre Upstairs. In the following months it would transfer from venue to venue, each one bigger than the last, before enjoying a six year run at the Kings Road Theatre in Chelsea.

Curry was involved from the beginning, and one of only a handful of performers to appear in both the original London production and the movie, which was shot while the show transferred from Los Angeles to New York in the autumn of 1974. However, despite its onstage successes, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (as the film was renamed) met with lukewarm box office and reviews. It was only as it received repeat screenings at cinemas in New York and Los Angeles throughout the late ’70s that a cult following, complete with costumes and “callbacks” (audience members quoting the film out loud) began to form.

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It’s easy to see why those initial, mainstream audiences may have found it baffling. Despite the debonair presence of veteran British actor Charles Gray as our narrator, the plot is decidedly sketchy, and the film often feels more like a supercharged, rock-and-roll burlesque than a piece of conventional narrative cinema. It’s also just possible that ‘Rocky Horror’s transgressive takes on sexuality and gender were near the knuckle for audiences who, within three years, would queue around the block to hear John Travolta sing the blithely misogynistic Greased Lightning.

However, the film doesn’t just tackle Middle America’s occasionally prurient attitudes to sex. During a scene in which when Brad and Janet drive through a rainstorm, we hear the voice of disgraced president Richard Nixon (who had resigned just two months before production began) on the car’s radio. Later, there are subtle-ish hints (mention of “forbidden fruit”; Frank N. Furter’s Michelangelo-inspired swimming pool) that Brad and Janet are intended as a sort of 20th Century, post-Watergate Adam and Eve. ‘Rocky Horror’ doesn’t just settle for prodding at traditional social and sexual norms; it reminds us of the religious and political hypocrisies that often underpin them.

Of course, stray too far along that line of thought and you may soon find yourself trapped in Pseud’s Corner. More importantly, you’ll run the risk of missing out on all the fun. Appearing just eight years after homosexual acts were legalised in the UK, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is primarily a riotous paean to sexual liberation. What’s more, its abundant innuendo often feels – to a British audience, at least – like the logical extension of the ‘Carry On’ films we may have watched on Sunday afternoons, giving it a kind of joyous, surprisingly smut-free innocence. Perhaps this is what allowed a song like The Timewarp to make the transition from a transgressive, polysexual stage show to the world of school discos and children’s parties. Certainly, ‘Rocky Horror’s songs are a great deal catchier and more toe-tapping than what you might hear in some of the more ponderously Prog-ish “rock operas” being produced at the time.

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As a result, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ could be considered one of the first “crossovers” in the history of Queer Cinema, a film whose audiences, drawn from all walks of life, see it as an opportunity to don stockings and suspenders and unleash their inner Frank N. Furters or Magentas. It’s been called one of the last Western examples of the “carnivalesque”, and at the risk, once again, of thinking too hard about what is essentially an entertaining musical, there may be something in this. Viewed forty years after the fact, ‘Rocky Horror’ often feels like a last hurrah for the “permissive society”, only moments before the sexual paranoia and social conservatism of the 1980s would take hold.


❉ ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’ starring Laverne Cox, will premiere on the Fox network on October 20, 2016. ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show – 40th Anniversary Edition’ Blu-Ray is available from usual retail outlets.

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