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Back to the Feature: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

We’re all somewhat aware of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if not for its famed cast and music, than its rampant sexuality and cult strangeness. The 1975 film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s horror-comedy stage show, directed by the shows’ director Jim Sharman, has become a staple of Halloween, a classic for musical and camp comedy fans. Not to mention, it also launched the career of Tim Curry, which everyone should be thankful for. Is it as wonderful as everyone says, as delightfully bizarre? Well, it’s about time I took a look.
Essentially the plot is a sci-fi B-movie version of Frankenstein, but with a few additional twists. A recently engaged couple, Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) break down in front of a castle where they’re sheltered by its bizarre inhabitants, a mad scientist transvestite called Dr. Frank N. Furter (Curry), and his posse of followers, a butler called Riff Raff (O’Brien), a maid called Magenta (Patricia Quinn), and a groupie called Columbia (Nell Campbell). Frank successfully creates life, a creature called Rocky (Peter Hinwood), and from there the weirdness only escalates for Brad and Janet as they’re thrown into a world of fear, sex, and science.
I immediately understand why this movie’s so beloved. As much of an homage and parody it is of various styles, genres, and tropes, it’s also completely it’s own thing. It’s a 50’s musical, it’s a campy sci-fi picture, it’s a foreboding horror, it’s an upbeat sex comedy, it’s a glam tribute, etc. There’s no other movie anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show! And thus it’s a hard one to criticize, because just about every technical problem with the film is intentional. The plot’s all over the place, but that’s the point; the characters are wildly unbelievable and inconsistent, but that suits the tone; and there are at least half a dozen scenes that either don’t make sense or don’t contribute much to the narrative, such as Meatloaf’s Eddie character, any significance of the giant lips singing over the opening credits, and the cabaret performance. Also, the criminologist narrator seems to be superficial apart from relaying most of the meta humour. And why the hell are the couple from American Gothic at the wedding? But it works because the show is clearly more concerned with just being entertaining and doing subversive things. It’s a film where you might not like everything you’re seeing but you’re still glued to it, and certainly curious where it’s going to take you, whether somewhere dark, sleazy, batshit insane, or a combination of all of them. It was made to be an underground movie.
The transition from stage to screen meant that the setting and “heroes” had to be changed to American. But Bostwick and Sarandon compliment the rest of the cast well, and show off their energy, dedication, and pretty good singing voices. The whole ensemble can sing rather well, from Sarandon to Hinwood, and especially Curry. O’Brien hits the right note between genuinely creepy and funny in an Igor from Young Frankenstein sort of way. And he would after all, this whole show was mostly his baby. Quinn probably contributes the least of Frank’s entourage, but she’s entertaining in a few scenes and her make-up is really good. Only Columbia has much development, bearing a resentful grudge against Frank for murdering Eddie, who’d been her lover. She also has the most striking look outside of Frank and is the outsider of the gang, being only a groupie. And Campbell, who played the part under her stage name ‘Little Nell’, is pretty decent. Hinwood fares well for having to pretty much be a male model for most of the runtime. Jonathan Adams plays Brad and Janet’s professor Everett Scott, Meat Loaf nails his scene before becoming meatloaf (couldn’t resist), and Charles Gray is surprisingly fun as the criminologist. His inserts are especially funny when he’s showing the audience the steps to do the Time Warp Dance or interjecting a sharp comment. But the man of the hour is unmistakably Tim Curry, who steals the entire movie in less than a minute of screen-time. There’s a reason why he’s one of the most entertaining people to watch. Curry thrives on chewing scenery, and this is the perfect movie for it. He oozes personality and lust in such a grandiose way. His delivery in a campy posh accent is superb, getting the most out of every line (no one seeing this film will be able to say ‘orgasmic’ without thinking of him), and his comic physicality is remarkable. He’s the centre of attention, hogging the limelight a little admittedly, but you don’t care. It’s just one of the most over-the-top, strange performances and it’s captivating.
It would be unfair to say his costuming doesn’t add to this, as it and all the other costumes and make-up are extreme and excessive. They’re really large and glitzy, somewhat satirical of gothic stories (in the case of Riff Raff), the roaring twenties (Columbia), and a mix of monster movie and Hammer horror traits (Magenta). And of course, like so much of this film, there’s a sexual nature to all of them.
The sexuality in this movie is very extravagant and almost exploitative, except for the clear purpose of its presence. While O’Brien is definitely trying to go for some shock value and maybe even discomfort, it’s more than anything a campy and comical take on sexuality in B-movies and exploitation films. No intimate or highly suggestive encounter is taken seriously. And O’Brien also turns convention on its head by sexualizing the men more than the women. Then as now, a common complaint towards the film industry was how women were often objectified in movies. In English language cinema, you’re much more likely to see a woman naked or in revealing clothing than a man. The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out the same year Laura Mulvey outlined the concept of male gaze, and as if predicting it, tries to counterbalance the discrepancy. Everyone is objectified in this film, but Curry and Hinwood bear the most of its brunt. Curry shows off his legs and chest the entire film, while Hinwood rarely wears more than a speedo. Even Bostwick undergoes many scenes in his underwear. Only Sarandon, and to a lesser degree, Campbell get near the same level of objectification. The sexual content of this film is just as noteworthy, particularly its portrayal of queerness during a time when that would have been scandalous. There’s no ambiguity about Frank’s love for Rocky, their physical relationship, and Frank’s jealousy at others getting Rocky’s attention. He flirts with Brad and Janet in equal measure, and we even see hints that the other denizens of the castle have non-heterosexual relations. The upbeat musical numbers and over-the-top characters aside, this is still a mid-70s wide release movie with blatantly homosexual scenes, blatantly transsexual scenes, a swimming pool orgy, and back-to-back attempted rape scenes. Yeah, while you could argue both Janet and Brad eventually consented to Frank’s advances, he does try to have sex with them disguised as their lover, and it’s a lot more uncomfortable than comical, ultimately unnecessary to the plot. However it at least solidifies Frank as not really a good character, deserving of his eventual fate. On a side note, O’Brien has since come out as trans, which is no surprise considering how boldly this film portrayed trans characters, even if in such an over-the-top way.
That very thing became the subject of one of the films’ most famous songs, and “Sweet Transvestite” is still the quintessential Curry moment of the film, summing up both his character and Curry’s unique performance style perfectly. It’s also a lot of fun to listen to. More than a few of the songs are good in fact. “Science Fiction Double Feature” (sung by a giant pair of lips for no reason) is nice, “Hot Patootie”, “Touch Me” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It” are unconscionable ear-worms; and some like “Dammit Janet” and especially “The Time Warp” I’ve heard numerous times without knowing this was the film they came from. “The Time Warp” especially is fun and energetic, acting as a great contrast to the bleakness of the castle upon its first appearance.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is certainly not for everyone. If you don’t know B-movies and the conventions being lampooned, there’s a good chance this movie won’t gel for you. You also probably won’t like it if you’re transphobic, but that’s fine -the less movies for you the better. In order to enjoy it, you have to go in knowing it’s going to be a brash, camp, goofy, and schlocky show seeping with over-the-top characters, sexuality, and plot twists. It’s an Ed Wood B-movie wrapped in a Hammer Horror veneer. It’s a surreal musical with few rules getting by on unbelievable charisma and weirdness. It’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and like I said, there’s no other movie anything like it.

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