Director: Jim Sharman
Screenplay: Richard O’Brien & Jim Sharman based on The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky; Editing: Graeme Clifford
Art Direction: Terry Ackland-Snow
Costumes: Sue Blane; Score: Richard Hartley & Richard O’Brien
Stars: Tim Curry (Frank-N-Furter), Susan Sarandon (Janet Weiss), Barry Bostwick (Brad Majors), Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), Nell Campbell (Columbia), Jonathan Adams (Dr. Everett Scott), Peter Hinwood (Rocky Horror), Meat Loaf (Eddie), Charles Gray (The Criminologist)
The quintessential cult film, rather than wearing thin its welcome The Rocky Horror Picture Show gets better with age. It’s the rare movie to actually improve with repeated viewings. As its generations of fans have discovered over the decades, familiarity with this one just breeds affection. Dismissed as a box-office bomb when released, its devoted cultists have turned Rocky Horror into the longest consecutively running film in history. What Danny Peary described in his Cult Movies as ’70s “cinema’s single greatest phenomenon outside of Star Wars,” Rocky Horror may in fact be, alongside Saturday Night Fever, the defining musical of its era. Certainly none better captured the fleeting zeitgeist of the Me Generation.
This film, which popularized the concept of the midnight movie for mainstream audiences, did its part to reinvigorate the musical at a time when the genre was at its nadir. And it did so by openly embracing those very same cheesy, over the top elements that had made it seem passé in the intensified realism of seventies cinema. So much so that reviving the original source play, upon which the movie improved, now demands incorporating the same interactive experience audiences have come to expect from screenings and to associate with the Rocky Horror concept, taking the fully immersive, spook effects gimmickry William Castle pioneered for the previous generation to a whole new level.
It’s a strangely feel-good movie for such a peculiar subject, maybe even more of an elating, instant pick me up than other musicals. Nearly every tune in it, veering from rollicking and rowdy to daringly naughty to torchy and soulful is catchy enough to get viewers dancing “The Time Warp.” Like commercial jingles, they sound forgettable and vaguely annoying the first few times they’re heard, but by the third round of being plied, viewers might be startled to find themselves not only humming along with the cast recording but unable to get the damn things out of their head. While it wasn’t originally intended to be taken that way, Rocky Horror feels as if it were designed as a mixed media sing-a-long, a video installation where talking back to the screen is not only acceptable but encouraged, though I don’t buy those claims that the movie can’t be appreciated without this interactive audience experience. You can’t start a fire without a spark.
The stage version premiered in England, where the filmmakers would return to shoot, but while it was written by a Brit (Renaissance man Richard O’Brien, creator of the original show, who plays Riff Raff, co-wrote the score and the movie adaptation), and directed by Australian Jim Sharman, Rocky Horror’s settings and allusions, mostly to old Hollywood movies, have a decidedly American ring to them. Most of the cast (including O’Brien, star Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, Meat Loaf and Jonathan Adams) were imported from the original London Royal Court production but the two major new additions, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, were intended to embody the innocent American abroad anyway. Wandering as they do into the sexually menacing lair of Frank-N-Furter, which seems debauchingly alien and foreign to them, their contrast with the decadent Old English actually works quite well.
As Dr. Scott states before himself being seduced by the soft feel of fishnet against his skin, “We’ve got to get out of this trap before this decadence saps our wills.” Old pros today, having proven the only cast members to enjoy a sustained movie career, Bostwick and Sarandon were still fresh-faced enough in 1975 to make adequate ingénues ripe for corruption. But thanks to their respectable stature now, viewers uncomfortable with the subject matter can feel safe in their presence, assuming they wouldn’t be associated with a disreputable project. Yet despite Bostwick’s background in musical theater where he originated the role of Danny Zuko in Grease and later won a Tony for The Robber Bridegroom, he and Sarandon sound far from dynamic singers. But then the point is to have the colorful fireworks occurring all around them anyway, so this isn’t really a distraction.
Brad and Janet are meant to be our window in on this wild world, and to further disorient them and audiences equally ‘virgin’ to the Rocky Horror experience, multiple movie genres have been collapsed upon one other, mashed into a madcap mélange, a surreal, slapstick synthesis of classic horror, sci-fi and musicals with the intention of tickling viewers pink. The dynamic tension of the movie and its amusing fun arises from the juxtaposing of such opposing styles, observing how they clang and clash and flatter one another, complete with fish bowl views to enhance the leering swooniness of the fever dream. With Riff Raff’s handyman having mistaken them for the candy man, Brad and Janet are on a hallucinogenic trip (“spaced out on sensation/like you’re under sedation.”), so they need no additional pharmaceutical enhancements to help them along on this happy high.
The fun starts right off the bat with the funky, spaced-out re-imagining of the 20th Century-Fox theme and continues through the shout out to old horror and sci-fi classics written right into the opening riff which references The Day the Earth Stood Still, King Kong, Tarantula, Dr. X, George Pal, The Curse of the Demon, Forbidden Planet, Flash Gordan, Day of the Triffids, The Invisible Man. With its patently phony laser beam effects as the castle is beamed back to the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, the movie wants to seem as cheesy as those old Z-grade sci-fi double features it simultaneously salutes and sends up, the sort of B-movies played back to back for drive-in consumption (“Picture show I wanna go, to the late night, double feature picture show.”), a way of watching movies that would itself sputter and die not long after Rocky came out. It’s a surprisingly sincere tribute to classic Hollywood horror that any nostalgic movie fan couldn’t help but respond to positively.
Unfortunately, the movie lacks an overriding vision that might fuse its disparate elements together so there’s no consistent attempt to sustain the scattershot allusions to other films and movie genres. Consequently, Rocky Horror is left feeling neither fish nor fowl, same as Frank-N-Furter is neither male nor female. The film’s use of the Frankenstein mythology seems shockingly incidental for the most part, with some scenes coming out of left field, inserted simply to play off our pop culture memory of the original movies. There seems no particular reason for Magenta to be sporting a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo at the end, for instance, and when sadistic Riff Raff uses fire to frighten Rocky the same way Igor did the monster, it’s with a lit candelabra rather than a torch, making him seem more like Liberace which cleverly suits the new framing. But there seems to be no rationale behind the act, no reason for Rocky to recoil in terror from the flickering flame except for the fact that Boris Karloff did the same.
For some reason Riff Raff beams his updates over the castle’s video surveillance system like a character in some old sci-fi set in the future, when television still seemed like a fantasy prospect. And the dots are never satisfactorily connected between Frank’s transgender state and the sporadic script puns on the same syllables in Transylvania, so the overdrawn joke falls flat, the way it did in Transamerica. The tone veers erratically without preparing us for the jarring shifts from musical comedy to ice pick hacking horror as it trespasses into Texas Chainsaw territory with bodies cryogenically frozen in meat lockers and unwitting cannibalism. But the horrors are so comically overdrawn and the bodies so clearly papier-mâché that it’s impossible to take any of the silliness seriously. As everyone else puts down their utensils at ham-handed Frank’s revelation that Eddie is ‘a rather tender subject,’ for instance, Rocky continues stuffing his face oblivious to what he’s consuming, while an apparently calm Columbia politely excuses herself to start shrieking hysterically the second she’s walked through the door.
Yet the movie is infused with its own creators’ spirited love for all the myriad genres in evidence. You can feel the affection for Frankenstein even when you don’t quite understand what exactly O’Brien and Sharman are trying to say about it vis-a-vis these stand-ins, the same way one could feel the affection in Mel Brook’s more slavish homage, Young Frankenstein the previous year. In many ways Rocky Horror, like that Brooks film, grew out of the same ’70s nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood movie making, a glamour that seemed to have seeped out of contemporary cinema. The difference is that Rocky Horror took full advantage of the new cinematic permissiveness that had helped make obsolete the old factory system. Though infused around the fringes by the same devotional spirit as Young Frankenstein, it was a far more wildly inventive, original conception. So much so that Rocky Horror completely surpassed its source of inspiration, becoming a wholly unique phenomenon unto itself, one which stood above and apart from anything that had gone before, paving a novel path that few (if any) have tried to follow in the years since.
“Two young healthy normal kids,” Brad and Janet are as Mickey Mouse as that Disney ear cap worn by Columbia, and they’ve been conceived like those insipid lovers that used to be played by the likes of David Manners and Helen Chandler in horror films and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in musicals. They’re straight men (literally), existing solely to anchor the wilder, more colorful antics occurring all around them. Indefatigably chipper, their very ordinariness is overstressed in the opening mock-up of middle-America. Yet even these squares will eventually be roped into the zaniness. Throwing caution to the wind, they ultimately dive headlong into the lowdown fun they were initially reluctant to partake in. Janet will even admit that she wants to be dirty and a large part of the movie’s amusement arises from seeing these Eisenhower innocents prove so willingly complicit in their own corruption, eagerly waving goodbye to their much-mocked ’50s era innocence. Naïve America was seen as having lost its own innocence in the Watergate era and Nixon’s resignation even plays over the radio as Brad and Janet drive out of that quintessential, American heartland of Denton, Ohio into the thunderstorm brewing on the horizon.
This was a popular theme at the time the movie was made, and refreshingly The Rocky Horror Picture Show treats it teasingly rather than caustically. Alongside Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, from which The Rocky Horror Picture Show most likely appropriated its screen moniker, it was virtually the only film of the time to extend the national zeitgeist to the country’s loss of its sexual innocence over the course of the previous decade. Of all the myriad social protest and cultural movements afoot as the turbulent ’60s segued into the self-interested ’70s, it is the most enjoyable film of the period to specifically address the subject of the sexual revolution, which was in full swing by the time this picture came out. The fear, panic, curiosity and confusion of Brad and Janet encapsulates all those other uptight, Ike-era couples who had passed through the repressed ’50s with their unimpeachable honor intact only to find themselves suddenly confronted with an undreamed of assortment of sexual prospects in the fallout from the Swinging Sixties.
Like its title character, Rocky Horror on stage and screen was a product of sexual experimentation itself, growing out of that fleeting, transitory period after Stonewall and before AIDS which seems like such a long lost fantasy land in hindsight now. As the movie’s most infectious number attests, when Brad and Janet enter castle Frank-N-Furter they’ve slipped through a ‘time warp,’ into the sexually freewheeling ’70s where anything goes. There’s no way to know how long they’ve been driving while lost in that rainstorm, but Brad and Janet seem to have already stepped out of time and place before they ever dance to the tune. And if definitive proof were needed that they’ve walked smack into ‘another dimension/with voyeuristic intentions,’ they unaccountably run across a baroque Medieval castle right there in the midst of middle America, and Janet’s double take when Brad matter-of-factly recalls passing one a few miles back is priceless. Sarandon’s peepers, rolling like loose egg yolks (a physical trait she shares in common with star Curry), have never been put to better use than when popping out of her head in disbelief at the antics occurring before them here. This castle may be anachronistically referred to as ‘Frankenstein’s place’ rather than Frank-N-Furter’s, but it appears as though it had indeed emerged from a Universal horror classic, where provincial, baronial burgs always existed in a curious time warp of their own, lost in a Brigadoon somewhere between the mechanized modern day and the superstitious Dark Ages.
Accompanying Brad and Janet on this strange journey, The Rocky Horror Picture Show actually subsists more successfully at the level of allegory than it does traditional storytelling. The innocents may escape the castle explosion as they do at the end of so many old horror films, but the story is permitted to completely unravel without any wrap-up or follow through, apart from The Criminologist’s melancholy summation “Crawling across the planet’s face, insects called the human race/Lost in time, lost in space and meaning.” Much like the movie itself by this point. It provides a far too convenient excuse for the sloppy continuity to leave all the non-sensical loose ends dangling. This rather abrupt, insincerely profound finale reduces Rocky Horror to the same level as those annoying ‘it-was-all-a-dream’ denouements; an easy cop-out. Since the out-of-this-world plot isn’t intended to make too terribly much sense, it’s the clever songs and narration that fill the gaps and provide exposition, telling us what we need to know. The cuts to The Criminologist, intended as segue between setups, serve the same function as scene changes on stage, a lull between production numbers. His abrupt initial appearance, pouring over the cold case file like an armchair Sherlock Holmes, clues us from the outset that something went terribly awry along the way, piquing our interest, though we never expect it to turn this wacky.
Hilariously hidebound and self-serious, Charles Grey’s Criminologist, with his smoking jacket, cravat and cigarette holder, channels Patrick McNee pontificating in his haughtiest, most theatrically trained tone (Vincent Price was initially courted for the role). It’s too easy to confuse The Criminologist with Dr. Scott, the other old fogey in the cast who in stage productions is usually played by the same actor as Eddie, but like Scott The Criminologist also gets wilder as time wears on. His commentary can be quite funny, especially when he struggles to maintain a grave façade while discussing the most absurd of situations. Transpiring events frequently leave him at a loss for words, such as after Frank’s wedding to Rocky, when the director catches him off guard by unexpectedly cutting back to him. Or the sequence where Frank seduces both Janet then Brad in rapid succession by pretending to be the other, leaving the Criminologist understandably speechless at the insanity we’ve just been privy to. He’s almost as amusing as the certifiably insane Criswell, the narrator of Plan 9, which Rocky may be referencing.
In most horror movies innocent ingénues stumble into a charnel house of horrors; only these two hapless naïfs could have managed to stumble into a carnal house of whores. And once they’ve tasted ‘forbidden fruit,’ given themselves over fully and freely to pleasure by jumping headlong into the screwball sexual silliness, nothing can ever be the same for them again. They’ve been seduced by the ‘darkness,’ though in this case that darkness that claims them, the darkness that subsists in the midst of everybody’s life, even the sunshine and light of Brad and Janet’s chirpy existence, turns out to be a positive force. To conservatives like them and their mentor, the stodgy Dr. Scott, this darkness represents a terrifying, corruptive force that must be fought and vanquished, embodying as it does the moral ‘degeneracy’ (“It seems so unhealthy here.”) creeping over the land in the form of a fringe sexual community with loose morals, one regarded as frighteningly alien, a threat to America’s puritanical values. “They’re probably foreigners with ways different from our own,” Brad speculates about the time warpers and the end will reveal just how totally alien they actually are to the American way of life.
The terror here is strictly the fear of sex, ‘erotic nightmares beyond measure,’ in the words of The Criminologist and our heroes’ own unwitting response to such stimulation (“I see you shiver in antici–pation/But maybe the rain isn’t really to blame/So I’ll remove the cause but not the symptom.”). They’re afraid of cottoning to their curiosity for carnal knowledge. But the brief close up at the opening wedding to a sign that reads “Be Just and Fear Not,” tells us there’s nothing to fear from sex itself. Comprised of seductive shades, the darkness simply conceals all the naughty things that will be transpiring in the silhouetted shadows of their bedroom at night. The illuminating light of sexual knowledge (“Flow Morpheus, slow let the sun and light come streaming into my life.”), is what draws them like a moth to the flame, the dark refrain luring them like a siren song to the castle. Like most horror characters, Brad and Janet willfully ignore all the ominous harbingers that should warn them off (such as the sign on the forbidding iron gates marked Enter at Your Own Risk), indication that they’re inviting their fate.
The symbolic storm they’re driving into really represents the tempestuous tumult their relationship is to be subjected to, turning this journey into a Freudian trip through their own deepest subconscious, where dark desires lurk and are made manifest. The first image we’re accorded is of a cross on a church steeple, signaling the hide-bound puritanical mores of our young leads, and seeing the honeymoon car festooned with the sign “Wait til tonite. She got hers now he’ll get his,” underlines their belief that sex is only permissible within the bonds of matrimony. Though bashful Brad can’t seem to get out the words to propose to his expectant fiancé, when thunder claps and black clouds start forming, inducing him to break into song, there’s the glimmer of something darker and more dangerous in the air. Brad and Janet, who talk of starting their new life while in a church graveyard, singing away at one another oblivious to the fact that the wedding that’s just ended is segueing into a funeral service, may as well be consigning themselves to a deadening marriage comprised exclusively of unadventurous missionary sex.
At least they would if not delivered from that unenticing prospect by sexual savior Frank-N-Furter who descends from the heavens, the couple’s deus ex machina (“In the velvet darkness of the blackest night, burning bright, there’s a guiding star…there’s a light in the darkness of everybody’s life.”). Before they’d met him, they didn’t know what they were missing nor ever suspected that such a swinging lifestyle existed beyond their myopic experience of the world. Taking them under his experienced wings, he calls them babies, and advises them not to panic “By the light of the night it will all seem alright,” while Columbia sings of her own past, foretelling the fate that is to befall our guileless heroes, “he looked at me and I felt a change, time meant nothing, never would again.” As The Criminologist sums up, “It seemed that fortune had smiled on Brad and Janet. And that they had found the assistance that their plight required.” Considering Frank-N-Furter’s not entirely coincidental, phallic nom de plume (Janet calls him a hot dog), they have indeed.
Everyone has their dark sides, just as these two civic-minded, junior chamber of commerce types have more going on inside than first meets the eye, something that’s just itching to get out. Further expanding on this idea that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, most of the other actors perform double duty as well. When we meet them again later, they’ve popped up in wild, alternate guises, more colorful versions of the drab characters we first see, like the familiar faces Dorothy encounters in another form once over the rainbow. The overdrawn opening scene at the wedding has the satirical feel of those old Ealing comedies with the likes of Alec Guiness and Alistair Sims, and fellow Brit Tim Curry appears as the unsmiling preacher in the background, cutting an utterly nondescript picture outside of his heels and makeup, which seem to bring him to life (sex change candidate Frank-N-Furter is this mad scientist’s own greatest creation), alongside a farmer and wife soon to morph into Riff Raff and Magenta, and an equally puritanical Columbia, her hair pulled back into a severe bun. Knowing them from their more familiar incarnations, we can just imagine how Brad and Janet will appear after they’ve been put through the ringer and unveiled their own flipsides.
This American Gothic imagery is reiterated by a copy of the Grant Wood painting hanging beside the gonging grandfather clock that initiates the time warp. Hunchback Riff Raff is the Igor of the piece, and as trashy an assistant as his name suggests. While he boasts a hollow-cheeked, dead-eyed resemblance to Lurch, the butler in Frankenstein form from The Addams Family, his Riff Raff has actually been made up in a manner that more closely recalls Young Frankenstein’s Marty Feldman. Patricia Quinn’s Magenta, with her wild, red head of untamed frizz and short, micro-mini French maid outfit, seems the figurative embodiment of the scarlet woman, an impression aided by her vampish kohl-rimmed eyes and heavy, impenetrable ‘foreign’ accent punctuated with breathless hisses and the moans of a nymphomaniac on the verge of perpetual ecstasy. She teases her own highly original variations out of the she-wolf heights Cloris Leachman hit for Mel Brooks the previous year. Quinn delivers her lines like a sledgehammer and her singing is only so-so but for some reason she’s always been my favorite Rocky Horror character; maybe it’s the Theda Bara raccoon eyes or those lips which grace the title sequence, miming “Science Fiction, Double Feature” to O’Brien’s voice. As if a refugee from A Chorus Line, Columbia is dressed in glittery gold top hat and tails with matching gold dust eye shadow and rouge heavy enough to give her skin the visual texture of a squeaky, squealing plastic doll. She’s as overdone as a Bob Fosse extra but still manages a mean tap that’s a cross between Ruby Keeler and Eleonore Powell, accompanied by the Bronx-bred, twenties trill and flapper cut of Clara Bow by way of Betty Boop. From a story vantage, Columbia’s relationship to the other characters isn’t as clearly defined as it should be from the outset. Despite her giggly, schoolgirlish response whenever Frank flirts, she might be another servant from what we can tell, and if she’s supposed to be Eddie’s groupie as we later learn, I would never have pictured her swooning for an Elvis impersonator bobbysox fashion, given her predilection for razzle dazzle Broadway showstoppers, à la Liza.
Drawn inside this decadent lion’s den, Brad and Janet might have stepped into a madhouse, unaware that the inmates have taken over the asylum. The idea of being trapped in the castle will be correlated more literally with the loony bin later, as Columbia sings how she told delivery boy Eddie to ‘keep sane inside the insanity,’ and Dr. Scott affirms “I’ve got to be strong and try to hang on, or else my mind may well snap…” The odd collection of mismatched guests at the master’s all-inclusive affair are meant to seem freakish, which in the conventional terms of Hollywood movies equates with gaudily dressed, physically imperfect, ethnically diverse – midgets, the overweight, blacks, Asians, Arabs (?), the flipside of those bourgeois, pastel and plaid clad wedding goers at the beginning (were the same actors playing them as well?). Several of the guests look like they’re auditioning for Oscar Wilde and with their party hats and kazoos they’re as festively buffoonish as New Year’s revelers.
When the doors swing open on the party, the camera pulls back twice, literally repeating time as the lines about doing the time warp again are reiterated. This caught on a loop effect is employed once more when the camera pans down the line of dancers as they turn first one way, then the other. Their time warp sets the ebullient tone of the movie, loosening us up, priming us for what’s to come. It’s hard not to want to get up and join in the silly fun. But as the performance becomes increasingly frenetic and the tone high-pitched, like androids short-circuiting, it begins to sound as if we had fallen into Munchkin Land with the subsequent appearance of our own black-clad wicked witch reaffirming we’re not in Kansas anymore. The Wizard of Oz allusion is not off-base. Though the idea was nixed by the studio, the director originally intended the early scenes to be in black-and-white, seguing into living color only upon the introduction of Frank-N-Furter.
With his heavy glasses and dorky bow tie Brad Majors is far from the butch, all-American hero his name suggests. All spastic arms and legs he has the over-energetic pluck of one of Harold Lloyd’s Horatio Alger heroes and could double for Gene Kelly in the ‘Gotta Dance’ number from Singin’ in the Rain. That Brad is not quite what he seems on the surface is further evidenced by his apparent enjoyment of “The Time Warp” number while Janet just wants to beat a hasty retreat. Insisting on accompanying him to the castle with “The owner of that phone might be a beautiful woman and you might never come back again,” Janet’s worries prompt the snickering of audiences aware of what lies around the bend. We realize how near, yet far her assessment of the situation was when Brad is instead swept off his feet by Frank-N-Furter, a strange, exotic creature unlike anyone he’s ever met before, prompting him to forget his fiancé’s name upon initial introduction, much as he’d earlier shied away from her kiss. When an enraged Brad’s blood starts boiling, Frank is suitably impressed, “How forceful you are Brad. Such a perfect specimen of manhood. So… dominant.”
Despite his assurances to Janet that “I’m here, there’s nothing to worry about,” and warning the mad scientist in verse, “You better not hurt her, Frank-N-Furter,” as a gallant protector Brad proves as ineffectual as all those other inept, bespectacled juveniles in old horror films, who never could manage to come to the leading lady’s rescue when it really mattered. He’s as much a milquetoast as Clark Kent, who he freely evokes when exclaiming “Great Scott!” While Brad affects a veneer of hyper-competent machismo, Janet plays her own version of the stereotype, fainting constantly as if she had the vapors. She exists merely to become a married lady, regardless of who proposes, and once the ring is on her finger she’s off, abandoning her sexually non-committal beau on the church steps to admire her ice (“It’s better than Betty Monroe had.”). Viewing marriage to be woman’s highest aim, her primary purpose in life, Janet doesn’t feel it proper for a well brought-up young lady to desire anything more, much less satisfying sex, in wedlock or out. Consequently, she’s willing to overlook her fiancé’s shortcomings, claiming she doesn’t like men with too many muscles to spare his feelings, yet inadvertently insulting spindly, 90-pound weakling Brad and drawing guffaws from the audience.
In essence, the couple’s stay at this ‘haunted house’ gives them the chance to play house in a trial marriage to see if they’re truly compatible or if it’s all a mistake, this proving to be a self-fulfilling prophesy when the string of motorcycles separates them on their way to the castle. Coming into contact with Frank whose part-male, part-female, allows both Brad and Janet to release the latent, repressed sides of their own sexuality, but we can’t tell if it’s the boy or girl bits either is responding to more favorably in this transsexual with a seemingly alien biological anatomy. The editing is quite comical however when Janet has her breakdown and the camera amusingly cuts at her every question, her guilt over how she could have slept with Frank turning to anger and jealousy over how Brad could have slept with him. Brad finds he’s more sexually ambidextrous than he thought (“I hope you’re adaptable Dr. Scott,” Frank-N-Furter smirks, “I know Brad is.”), but his switchover to the other team seems less spectacular than the change that comes over seemingly circumspect Janet. Due to the deletion of his reflective refrain “Once in a While,” he’s been left no self-declaratory musical anthem akin to the “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” cueing the audience that Janet’s sexual tiger has been unleashed, allowing us to hear it roar. She gets the chance to tell us about it.
Where before she had maintained that she didn’t like men with too many muscles, Janet now proclaims herself a muscle fan, her resolve crumbling as she joins in the chorus on Frank’s paean to Rocky’s impressive armature. The sight of his fit, bulging body fires her brain with thoughts of sexual prowess she never dared entertain before. Riff Raff’s observation that Janet is “wet,” when the rain soaked couple first appear on his doorstep proves quite prescient considering her later line about seat wetting. Primed and ready, sunshiny Janet experiences the first orgasm of her life by embracing the darkness with this ‘creature of the night,’ as the psychedelic colors of the birthing vat tint their flesh tones and the revolving door of sexual possibilities now opened before her sends her erotic imagination whirring into overdrive. She’s obtained the carnal knowledge Frank-N-Furter once advised with “I tell you once, I tell you twice, you better wise up Janet Weiss,” and the results prove purely beneficial. As Janet relates “I feel released, bad times deceased. My confidence has increased…my mind has been expanded.”
The appealing theme of Rocky Horror is really that of sexual liberation. After their run-in with this outrageous collection of characters that seem so otherworldly, Brad and Janet are forced to come to a better understanding of who they themselves are as sexual beings. Mousy Janet displays a more brassy sexual confidence, and dullard Brad openly admits to feeling languorously sexy for the first time. Even Dr. Scott, the embodiment of sexual suppression (he’s paralyzed from the hips down) regains use of his legs and libido, a stocking clad heel springing to life and rising heavenward like an irrepressible erection. Their experiences in the sexual playground of castle Frank-N-Furter have been nothing but beneficial to them all. And, as The Rocky Horror Picture Show has demonstrated, generation after generation, it serves as a similarly liberating, positive force in the real world as well. This movie continues to inspire equally uptight Brads and Janets to let their freak flags fly, prompting shrinking violets to get up and dance to “The Time Warp” the wide world over.
Morpheus, mentioned in song, was a creature of transfiguration who gave his name to the concept of metamorphosis, just as Frank is a man becoming woman or vice versa, and the other characters flow fluidly into and out of their varying identities and sexual configurations. The metamorphosis idea is carried over into the change that overtakes Brad and Janet as well, once stripped down to their knickers and placed in unisex button ups and later matching, color coordinated kimonos. With the butch tattoo of a tender heart on his arm, Frank-N-Furter, like his laboratory creations, seems a mish mash of spare parts himself, that pearl choker making it appear as if his head had only recently been screwed on (the wrong body). It’s the doctor who’s taking on the mantle of ‘monster’ here, reflecting the manner in which mainstream society viewed transvestites and transsexuals, as half and half, neither here nor there, a combination of sexes that didn’t seem to go together. Rocky Horror’s creatures-from-another-planet premise is used as amusing code for such gender indeterminate ‘others,’ who were seen as strangely alien and frightening to sheltered conservatives like Brad and Janet. Frank is the ultimate, outside foreign threat to their sexually square existence; through contact with him they hazard contaminating themselves with similar interstellar perversions.
The concept also has its roots in the androgynous glam rock scene being popularized in the ’70s by stars such as David Bowie, who had used the same out-of-this-world, outside-the-norm analogy for his Ziggy Stardust alien persona on stage. In his kabuki mask, Frank-N-Furter looks an eerie echo of Gene Simmons from KISS, though common wisdom is that those lips that grace the title number, the most iconographic image in the movie, were inspired by The Rolling Stone’s 1971 Sticky Fingers album cover, which is probably true, considering that link further serves to tie the film to the glam rock scene. The Stones cover was openly modeled on Mick Jagger, who was originally considered for Curry’s role, and the sensuous, ruby-lipped mouth that fills Rocky Horror’s screen is meant to seem equally leering and luscious and lewd, threatening to swallow us all, its clamping teeth the oral equivalent of vagina dentata.
Certainly Tim Curry’s flamboyantly self-assured performance, full of fiery flair, owes a blatant nod to Jagger’s strutting stage shows, with the score allowing him to run the musical gamut from high-kicking rock opera and prancing melodious frolics to his soulful closing ballad. With dirty minded snarkiness, he turns every other thing he says into a come-on or colors it with sexual connotations, such as the reference to impotence with his lyric about sexually incompatible Brad and Janet being caught with a flat. But the campy conception of the character precludes the possibility of audiences feeling threatened or put off by how shamelessly Frank flaunts his indiscriminate sexuality. His constant asides to the camera make viewers complicit with him, so it’s no wonder audiences feel it permissible to directly interact with the material. Thanks to his self-referential destruction of the fourth wall, we feel we’re being convivially invited into his soiree, right alongside the other guests. We’re not always certain how we’re meant to take him, but alien or no, Curry’s act is persuasive enough to strike a very human cord. He’s in the same class as the other memorable movie drag queens of the day, such as Divine and Craig Russell in Outrageous!, and he plays it to the hilt so that we don’t wonder that the equally spangled Columbia would take him as her role model, as they both twist in time to the “Sweet Transvestite” number.
At times, drama queen Frank-N-Furter takes on the grandiloquent sufferings of an operatic grande dame, claiming “Even smiling makes my face ache.” Playing his flamboyant role with true flair and self-effacing fun, he’s like a one-man drag show, his celebrity impressions tapping into the strong appeal of Hollywood classics for the gay community and opening up a whole other level of winking references to old movies beyond the specific ones being saluted. His character has the gaunt-cheeked, heavy-lidded look of Joan Crawford in one of her more alarming later roles, Mommie Dearest before the book had even come out and his dramatic entrances and exits are made in that old-fashioned lift as theatrically as Katherine Hepburn’s snapdragon lady descents in Suddenly, Last Summer.
Sitting on his throne following his red carpet arrival, flanked by minions, he’s queen of this castle, though his position will be shown to have gone to his head when he later abuses his toiling, put upon staff, forcing them to revolt and remove him from power like any other mad despot. When maid Magenta claims “I ask for nothing,” he counters “And you shall receive it – in abundance!” When he lays a whip across Riff Raff’s back as punishment for letting Rocky escape he’s in full dominatrix gear, complete with studded leather jacket, and we’d earlier observed his fondness for slapping on the latex during the creation scene. Frank’s God complex is writ large when he claims that “in just seven days I’ll make you a man,” the same amount of time it took to create the world. Frankenstein was also accused of playing God by creating life, trespassing into His domain. So despite the fact that he’s initially done up like Count Dracula in his black cape, shock face powder and blood-base lip rouge, Frank-N-Furter, as his name attests, is actually intended as the Frankenstein stand-in, later changing into a more suitable lime lab coat with color coordinated surgical gloves that give him the look of a prim school marm.
But where the good doctor was a medical visionary whose experiments flew in the face of God, Frank is also a sex radical whose creation is intended to double as his own bride. This love lab with its open skylight, passionate red drapings and classical statuary (Michelangelo’s David) is part planetarium and part Greek Parthenon with its invocations to Aphrodite. Reminding his disobedient creatures that “I made you, and I can break you just as easily,” he promises to wipe them off the face of the earth if they incur his wrath. Using his ‘Medusa’ machine to turn them to stone cold marble, they can remain aesthetically pleasing to the eye as decorations for his lab, without running the risk of further insubordination.
Frank believes by petrifying his paramours he can retain their affection forever, despite the fickle nature of love, which has left him perpetually spurned like the Frankenstein monster. As Frank bemoans, “All my children turn on me… Rocky behaving just the way that Eddie did.” By referring to his creations as his ‘children,’ Frank-N-Furter acknowledges his status as both mother and father to them. Having discovered the secret of life, his act of ‘birth’ is actually one of spontaneous auto-generation. With his mix of male and female parts in one body, Frank can give life to his own child in order to feed both his craving for affection and insatiable desire for sex, making his own Mr. Right from scratch, single-handedly performing the same public service as breeders by grinding out an endless supply of mating partners. He’s one twisted sister. With Rocky, Frank-N-Furter’s greatest creation, he’s achieved what Frankenstein was striving for, the physically flawless Nietzschean superman, his personal Steve Reeves with “blond hair and a tan.” Magenta will describe the superior Aryan specimen he’s stitched together in his perverse love lab as a ‘triumph of your will,’ which is close enough to the name of Riefenstahl’s notorious Nazi documentary, but the emblem on his lab coat, which is modeled after the pink triangle used in concentration camps to identify homosexuals, marks him as victim rather than persecutor. With his heavy accent and nephew who sports a retrofitted storm trooper helmet, it’s wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott who actually seems more in the tradition of all those mad, crippled German scientists who have proliferated throughout film history, much influenced by the Mary Shelley stereotype. Curry refers to Scott by his German name, and the fact that he’s working for the Air Force links him to all those Nazi scientists the government granted political amnesty to in exchange for their knowledge of advanced rocketry after WWII under operation Paper Clip, which led the world into the space age, and the age of the UFO.
The alarming visage of Frankenstein’s monster belied an intelligent, profound soul, but Rocky is the quintessence of superficial surface beauty, all brawn and no brain, style without substance, a Charles Atlas ad come to life in full beaming color. When Magenta and Columbia unwrap his mummy bandages right down to his little silver Flash Gordon speedos, we might be watching an extended strip tease to rival Brad and Janet’s earlier one. Columbia says Rocky is so named for the rocks in his head and as an impressive monument seems to have been cast in marble even before he’s turned to stone, so there’s not much difference. Petrifaction seems to complete him. It’s quite possible that this thick-skulled, monosyllabic title character, with his overabundance of muscle and scaled-down brain inspired Sylvester Stallone to create his popular pugilist of the same name in the following year’s Best Picture winner.
As played by model Peter Hinwood (with vocals by an uncredited Trevor White), Rocky has an adorable little shuffle, like a toddler that’s just learned to walk and, when persecuted and hounded by society, returns to the womb, the tank out of which he emerged, in the fetal position. At other times, his Rocky has the stiff movements of an android whose steam-heated circuitry is hardwired with gears and pivots. He jerks like Robby the Robot in some Saturday matinee sci-fi serial from the ’30s. Frank showers him with endearments like a doting mother, pampering him when he pouts and throws temper tantrums. Rocky is a babe in the woods, like Brad and Janet themselves, about to receive a crash course in sex ed. Frank-N-Furter gives his creation a birthday present of barbells in candy cane wrapping to celebrate his first day out of the womb, and his pumping motions atop the trestle tell us what event he’s really trying to condition this impressive sexual athlete for. As Rocky will later attest, “I’m just seven hours old, truly beautiful to behold/And somebody should be told, my libido hasn’t been controlled/Now the only thing I’ve come to trust, is an orgasmic rush of lust.”
Made for love, Rocky is meant to fulfill Frank-N-Furter’s sexual needs, their profane wedding ceremony a perverse black mass mockery of the opening, though it’s somewhat shocking to see a gay “marriage” depicted on screen this far back, even if it is only used as an element of bizarre humor. But like Frankenstein’s monster or, more to the point, the monster’s mate in the Bride of Frankenstein (this bride is both monster and mate, expanding on the idea of auto-regeneration), once Rocky is alive he instinctively rebels against his intended purpose. The movie’s ahead of its time theme becomes the still prescient controversy over nurture vs. nature, only with the roles reversed. Rocky, who was engineered from scratch and expected to possess the same homosexual orientation as his maker, surprises everyone by displaying strong heterosexual proclivities that couldn’t have been anticipated, leaving Frank to regret having split Rocky’s brain with Eddie’s. He proves as scared and repulsed by the man he was made for as Elsa Lanchester was in Bride of Frankenstein. His predilection for the opposite sex is seen as something even Frank-N-Furter’s godlike attempt to hardwire his predisposition couldn’t govern. Mary Shelley’s monster questioned why he was given the gift of life if it only caused him pain and unhappiness. Rocky wonders what good his life is if he’s to be forced to live it contrary to his own nature, singing in “The Sword of Damocles,” his introductory number, “Whoa is me, my life is a misery.” The heart will want what the heart wants, and consequently Rocky wants to be free to choose his own mate rather than chained in sexual servitude to the man who made him to order. His conventional leanings are a horror by Frank’s wild standards (much as black sheep Marilyn was regarded by her more outré family of Munsters on TV), and the expected complications ensue, with a sexual roundelay of amusing musical chairs worthy of the shifting permutations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Janet bringing out Rocky’s latent sexuality to spite Frank for bringing out Brad’s.
The new glam rock scene is thrown into contrast with the musical stylings of the past as embodied in the person of Meatloaf, another of Frank’s former lovers, who emerges from the deep freeze with his high-rise Elvis pompadour and ’50s motorcycle gang getup in a song and dance that seems better suited to Grease. His version of rock, played on a hot sax, gets everyone jumping as if they were at a sock hop. When he asks ‘whatever happened to Saturday night’ during the “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” number, he’s really asking whatever became of the golden oldies, the old-fashioned rock-n-roll that kids used to twist and shout to as they drag raced up and down the main strip. We’re seeing the genesis of ’70s nostalgia for everything ’50s, begat by movies like American Graffiti with its solid gold soundtrack. It’s a ribbing of musical traditionalists turned off by the ’70s musical scene as much as they were the freewheeling sexuality. But I don’t see why Eddie’s sudden unthawing is considered so alarming when everybody else at the party rode in on a motorcycle as well. Referring to the third motorcycle that passes them by, straight arrow Brad sneers dismissively like an actor in some old ’50s cop drama, “life’s pretty cheap to that type.”
For the previous generation, motorcyclists were wild ones who dropped out of society even before it became the fashion, greasers epitomizing the concept of rebel. As he addresses the camera beside a blank faced Rocky, Dr. Scott relates that he knew Eddie was in with a bad crowd and his absurd back story plays like a parody of the troubled teen movies of the times. As the camera swirls around the dining table during the “Eddie” refrain as it used to do on That ’70s Show, Frank settles in with an amusing expression of false sympathy to listen to the sob story and the subsequent character assassination is meant to give Eddie a black eye so we don’t feel too sorry for his sorry end. With a gash in his head that makes him resemble Frankenstein’s monster himself, Eddie revs up his engine, each hand tattooed with the dueling words ‘love’ and ‘hate,’ like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter and rides his motorcycle into the crowd, sending everyone scattering as the camera takes on his p.o.v. from the back of the bike. Diva Frank, who can’t abide being outshone on stage, especially by outmoded music from the past, takes an axe to the act. Describing the number he’s just slaughtered as ‘one from the vaults,’ he makes mincemeat of Meatloaf’s fresh frozen ham, permanently laying the conformist ’50s to rest.
The world’s a stage to Frank-N-Furter, with only enough room on the marquee for his name as headliner. Announcing the beginning of his experiment to reanimate dead matter under a full spotlight, he delivers the give-my-creation-life speech so passionately, even Janet can’t help applauding his performance. The subsequent creation scene is like a colorful psychedelic trip with multi-colored liquids spewing from a fountain spigot into the primordial soup of the aquarium tank, flashes of lightning performing the same service as strobes. His underlings exist merely to feed his megalomania, so it’s no surprise at the end that Frank should use his stun gun to make over the world in his own image, outfitting everyone in identical bustiers, boas, heels, stockings and matching mannequin makeup. Staging this even more ambitious floor show, he casts himself as star of his own late night double feature (by RKO), same as the movie makers have cast the character at the center of their homage to such old movies.
He arrives heralded by a flourish of trumpets in front of a paste-up of the iconographic RKO radio tower, and a pool painted with The Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where original man touches the finger of God. Given his own God complex, Frank-N-Furter is engaged in a similar act of ‘creation,’ bringing his reborn Rockette creatures into full being by encouraging them to live out their fantasies rather than just idly daydreaming about the possibilities. With him setting the example, they can be whatever they want to be, freely expressing themselves by unleashing their more colorful, suppressed sides. Swimming the warm waters of sensual pleasure in an orgy of luxuriously writhing bodies and intertwined limbs, it’s a silkily seductive clarion call for sexual liberation, coming out of the closet as Frank did when he first saw evening gowned Fay Wray and wanted to be dressed just like her. As Janet, who once repressed her own sexual impulses sings, “God bless living sincere,” their faces are washed clean of masks and makeup so we can get a good look at their real selves for the first time.
While its appeal has now gone quite mainstream, Rocky Horror’s big, show-stopping Broadway numbers and metro-sexual characters spoke most strongly to the gay community when it was first released. The appeal was initially to fringe audiences who felt like outsiders or misfits themselves, and responded to it as strongly as they had the classic horror films it sends up, in which minorities identified with the misunderstood monsters unjustly hounded and persecuted by society. When Brad asks what Frank’s crime was, warranting the death penalty, Scott answers “Society must be protected.” He uses what became of Eddie to back up the statement, but considering Riff Raff’s earlier reference to Frank-N-Furter’s lifestyle, we know what society is really punishing him for.
Reverting back to their alien form, the servants overthrow their master, proving themselves to be on the same page with conservative Scott’s views by parroting the language of the far right with the pretext that “Your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme/I’m your new commander, you are now my prisoner/We return to Transylvania, prepare the transit beam.” Having alienated us with his megalomania, forcing everyone to perform in his personal puppet show, Curry still sways us to feel sympathy for his character at the end when it counts. Imagining he’s singing his soulful final ballad before an appreciative audience, like a fading star at their farewell performance, he seems to cut through all the superficial camp that preceded it to reveal true feelings. As a reward, he gets to play the Fay Wray part he always wanted to as a child, being carried to the top of that RKO tower by his own big, overbuilt ape. When the curtain finally rings down on Frank-N-Furter, it’s to reverently cover him in a shroud and this starstruck transvestite couldn’t have asked for a sweeter send off.