You wanna know why the whole Rocky Horror thing endures? Wanna know why studios are still considering a remake while TV shows like Glee champion its camp kitsch rock and roll spirit? Well, the answer is sadly rather personal. Blame us. That’s right, blame us – and by us, I mean the bored and directionless teens of America circa the mid ’70s. As a mass of misspent youth, we were too out of touch for punk, too precious for disco, too lost in a (mostly) marijuana haze to carefully consider our choices and ripe to prime our own pop culture bandwagon. When Richard O’Brien’s genre pop musical revue went from stage to screen, we weren’t paying attention. Even when Dr. Demento started featuring the song “Sweet Transvestite” on his weekly national radio show, we could barely muster a shrug.
But then the Midnight Movie hit in all its forbidden glory, and we were sunk. Sure, the format had been around for a while, living off the remnants of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and oddities like Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise. But when John Water’s Pink Flamingoes, and then David Lynch’s Eraserhead proved there was a larger than usual stoner audience eager to leave home for an early morning slice of shock/sleaze, the concept took off. One has to remember, this was a time when cable was in its neophyte stages, when the big three broadcast television stations went off the air after Carson and Snyder. For the night owl, the teen and older cruiser in need of a pre-Pancake House diversion, the siren song of the cinema was a difficult tune to resist.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (now on Blu-ray in a 35th Anniversary Edition) was perfect for such a disconnected and disaffected demo – a little risqué, a tad raunchy, extremely out of its mind, psycho-surreal, and easily embraceable by a crowd hungering for something different. For many, the alternative sexual element flew directly over their feathered Farah Fawcett hairdos (guys and gals). For others, the nods to rock past and present were non-issues. Instead, the addictive combination of cult and communal play-along turned a flop into a fixture, starting a motion picture myth that seemingly begins and ends with mad alien scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his perverted determination to make himself a muscular male lover.
Yes, the iconic ersatz drag queen played by Tim Curry is a visitor from the planet Transsexual Transylvania, and along with his servants Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Riff-Raff (writer and composer Richard O’Brien), his glam groupie Columbia (Little Nell), and a frozen vault of horror, he has come to Earth to give Charles Atlas a run for his buff stud money. Creating his machismo masterpiece – a ripped passion puppet named Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood) – he hopes to live out every debauched fantasy he can.
Of course, his celebratory “it’s alive” occasion is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon…yes, THAT Susan Sarandon), two clean cut ‘kids’ whose car has broken down in the nearby woods. Also making things difficult is Eddie (Meatloaf…yes…), a former fling back from the dead and rife for revenge. With a plucky attitude and a pick-axe, Dr. Frank-N-Furter tries to set things right. Of course, not only must he deal with his uninvited guests, but the morbid libidinousness they bring out in the entire household.
For those of us who were there at the beginning, who took the term “virgin” to heart while also relishing the feeling of finally being “violated”, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was pure punch in the face performance art. No, not the entertaining film at the center of the experience. For all its boundary stretching gender bending, it’s sensational sing-along score, and b-movie horror homages, what really drew in the poseurs and punters was the notion of reacting to and responding towards the screen. Somewhere between its initial box office failure and its reinvention as the first (and ultimate) in-theater interactive experience was the weaning years, the brave adventurism of some like minding film lovers who took Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s motto “Don’t Dream It…Be It” to the very depths of our soul. We decided to talk back to the screen, in turn, showering our fellow viewers with a reinterpretation of what they – and we – were witnessing.
The new Blu-ray highlights where 35 years of jokes, riffs, reactions, and recriminations have left us. Now, even hidden in the suburban seclusion of your own overpriced home theater, you too can witness the legacy we’ve fostered and fueled. There are option to throw virtual “props” at the screen, to hear recorded callbacks and quips, even to watch various standing “casts” from around the world put on their own live productions. There’s also trivia, deleted materials, and perhaps most importantly, the agog perspective of the creators. For them, the media myth has real meaning. Somehow, the movie they made did connect with the fans they had hoped to reach. The risk – and during the drug fueled days of the early ’70s, it did seem much smaller – paid off. The product endured.
And why shouldn’t it. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that rare combination of idea/execution synchronicity. O’Brien may have fancied himself a talented tunesmith, but his jazzy junk culture hits are pure pop ear candy – carefully building to bludgeon your subconscious with their addictiveness. Similarly, the actors all come to the piece with their own era-appropriate responses, letting the post-’60s free love fizzle into a freakshow of hedonistic hilarity. None are better here than Curry, a dude diva extraordinaire with as much macabre moxie as mascara. His was an easily embraceable deviance, an iconic sexual liberty which would quell many a mixed up kid’s confused orientation. He would become a symbol because that’s exactly what Dr. Frank-N-Furter truly is – a representation of all internal struggles made fabulously (and fatally) public.
From the moment he introduces himself as the sweetest transvestite to the sentimental send-off which has him believing in a forgiven trip home, our good doctor became the real reason fans returned in droves, with Curry’s interpretation of same so important as to cause an uproar when reconsidered (or in recent weeks, possible recast). Naturally, no one knows this better than the tenuous viewers from 35 years ago who took the advice of some carnival barking concession worker and ponied up their otherwise accounted for midnight money to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show instead of, say, another heady slice of medieval-themed British humor. Without us – and now, in spite of our aging insistence – there would be no phenomenon, no fond memories of an innocence effervescent by a ‘queer’ little musical and its droll double entendre meaning.
For once, we will gladly take the blame. Oh, and by the way – you’re welcome.