Few movies are as embedded in the public consciousness as firmly as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, forty-plus years after its initial release, has found itself to be the longest running film in cinema history and is perhaps the most well-known cult movie of all time. So iconic are its costumes and performances that they seem to have a life of their own — even those not as obsessed with what it has to stylistically provide are well aware of Dr. Frank N. Furter and his army of wild followers, dressed in ripped fishnet tights and cheap lingerie, and, of course, caked in gaudy theatrical makeup.
But it wasn’t always meant to be that way. A short time after it hit theaters, audiences didn’t quite "get" its bizarre approach, resulting in almost no profit and leaving most screenings empty. But, well-aware of the way cinematic rejects, like 1972’s Pink Flamingos, for example, were making dough off midnight showings, Fox decided to give it new life through the form, thus beginning its journey into infamy.
To date, audiences are still as gaga over The Rocky Horror Picture Show as they were four decades ago, still showing up to showtimes gussied up as their favorite characters, still chanting out every line of the movie in unison, and still acting out the most dramatic of musical sequences in burning, flashy fashion. The movie has never stopped being a cultural phenomenon — its strangeness is unabashedly contagious, never to lose its flamboyant sense of fun.
So while I’ll be the first to commend the way it’s made eccentricity mainstream, and while I’m completely entranced by Tim Curry’s performance and Richard O’Brien’s (who also plays a pivotal character in the film) knockabout soundtrack, it’s a work I suspect is much more deliriously entertaining when surrounded by its most affectionate fanatics, oohing and ahing at the screen, or when it’s thrust onto the stage, where its energy can roam freely and be supplemented by a live audience reaction. As a film, it can be silly but also uneven, its musical bits much more breathtaking than the camp it tries to achieve when going for the dramedy.
But who am I to criticize it on a level of merit — this is the kind of film made for pleasure-seeking viewers on the prowl for a spectacle, not ones like me who can giggle along with the madness but are also a little hard to impress because their lives consist of watching movies unremittingly. For what it’s worth, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a success in what it’s trying to accomplish, which is to be a crazed rock musical paying homage to the B-movies of the 1930s-‘70s.
The film’s plot is something to behold. It's a kooky soul-sister of the Frankenstein story and covered in quite a bit more outlandish glamour. It is centered on all-American couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), who are forced to walk to a nearby castle (red flag) after they get a flat tire during a rainstorm. All they want to do is use a phone to call for help, but fate won’t have it — the castle belongs to transvestite Dr. Frank N. Furter (Curry), a mad scientist from Transsexual, Transylvania.
Predictably, they stumble upon the scene during an inflammatory time period. Frank is about to complete a long-in-the-making experiment, an experiment in which the main goal is to create a perfect male specimen named Rocky (Peter Hinwood). They watch in horror as Rocky goes from created object to living, breathing beefcake, as Frank’s antics begin to grow increasingly deranged and frequently directed at them. During this fateful night, Brad and Janet come to know themselves in ways they never would have in the *real* world; they'll be in a great deal of trouble if they don’t keep their thought-to-be morals in check.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good time until it isn’t anymore, arguably running a little too long for a B-movie of such exasperation. But it contains a lot of magnificence, from Curry’s incredible performance to the way its director, Jim Sharman, sees his vision through with soundly imaginative vigor. Maybe I’ll like the film more if I see it at one of its famed midnight screenings, or if I watch it with a large group instead of by myself in the early hours of a lazy Sunday morning. Until then, I’ll consider it to be a cultural sensation often effulgent as a film but not always capable of going the whole nine yards of brilliance. B