The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

20TH CENTURY FOX Tim Curry, center, stars in the classic gender-bending musical "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which will be screen at Berkeley's UC Theatre on Halloween.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a film that for many defines the term “midnight movie”. Based on the 1973 stage musical of the (almost) same name, this parody of science fiction and horror initially had a lackluster release, but quickly became a cult favorite by playing at movie theaters at midnight for basically forever.

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Co-written by one of its stars, Richard O’Brien, the film begins with its title sequence showing a pair of lips singing, or lip-syncing, to the song being played. Afterward, we meet our narrator, an unnamed criminologist (Charles Gray), who begins to tell us about recently engaged couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), who celebrate their engagement to the song “Dammit, Janet”.

One night, the lovebirds are driving in the pouring rain when they get a flat tire.  They find they’re near a castle and decide to walk there to ask for help. They’re greeted by Riff Raff (co-writer O’Brien), who invites them in and says this is a special night, because his master has a gathering planned. Brad and Janet become understandably spooked as Riff Raff and his sister Magenta (Patricia Quinn) break into the song “Time Warp”.  The castle’s other guests follow suit, while in cutaways, the criminologist teaches us how the dance to this song. All of this causes Janet to faint.

Brad and Janet attempt to slip out quietly, but are startled by the arrival of the castle’s owner, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). After he sings “Sweet Transvetite”, the doctor unveils his new Frankenstein’s Monster-like creation: a guy named Rocky (Peter Hinwood). The festivities are interrupted by a delivery man named Eddie (Meat Loaf). He starts getting romantic with Frank’s servant Columbia (Nell Campbell), prompting Frank to kill him in a fit of jealously.

As Frank and Rocky presumably make out in their suite, Brad and Janet are shoved into separate bedrooms. Soon, Janet is visited by Brad, only to discover it’s Frank in disguise. But despite her despair, Janet agrees to have sex with Frank. He later does the same thing with Brad while disguised as Janet, but don’t ask me how Brad can be fooled by this.

At the same time, Riff Raff and Magenta are indulging in a bit of incest as they torment Rocky. He manages to escape and prowls outside the castle.

Janet shows how hypocritical she is when she’s wandering around the castle and cries when she sees a video monitor depicting Brad in bed with Frank. But she soon smiles again when she finds Rocky hidden in the lab. While singing “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-me”, Janet proceeds to sleep with him, while Magenta and Columbia laugh their asses off watching them.

While Frank whips Riff Raff’s ass for letting Rocky escape, they learn that Dr. Scott (Jonathan Adams) has arrived at the castle.  Frank then turns on Brad when the latter reveals that Scott is a former teacher of his and Janet’s. The wheelchair-bound Scott is brought down to join them at the lab, and he and Brad deny they have any schemes against Frank. Rather, Scott announces that he’s looking for his nephew Eddie. But Frank has another reason to be pissed when he finds Rocky and Janet sleeping together in the tank Rocky was born in.

Magenta announces dinner, and the unpleasant atmosphere is heightened when they learn that their meal is the remains of Eddie. Janet freaks out and runs into Rocky’s arms, causing Frank to torment her. Brad, Scott, and Columbia try to stop him before Frank uses one of his gadgets to turn them all into nude statues. He shares some further unpleasant words with Riff Raff and Magenta before everyone is moved to a stage floor in an empty auditorium.

With the statue-fied principals dressed in cabaret costumes, Frank unfreezes them and they break out into another song and dance, with Frank center stage in front of the RKO Radio Pictures logo.

But the performance is interrupted by Riff Raff and Magenta, who voice their disgust at Frank for killing Eddie. They also reveal their desire to head back to their home planet of Transsexual. Frank sings “I’m Going Home” before Riff Raff says that Frank will be killed for his acts. To that end, he produces a laser gun which he quickly uses to kill the protesting Columbia before shooting Frank with it. An anguished Rocky takes Frank’s body and climbs on the RKO tower before Riff Raff manages to kill him with the ray gun as well.

Magenta and Riff Raff spare the lives of Janet, Brad, and Scott by encouraging them to leave the castle quickly. They do so just before the castle blasts off into space. The film ends with the trio on the hole that the castle has left behind, as the criminologist returns.

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Criminologist: And crawling on this planet’s face, some insects called the human race. Lost in time, and lost in space… and meaning.

I somehow doubt Brad and Janet’s pending nuptials are going to be going smoothly now.

To say this film is eyebrow raising would be an understatement. I must admit that I only saw this film once it became available on home video, but I have seen footage of the midnight screenings in which audience members reenact the film while it’s playing, and shoutinv at the screen at certain points. For instance, in the scene where Riff Raff and Magenta kill Frank:

Riff Raff: Say goodbye to all of this…

Audience: Goodbye to all of this!

Riff Raff: …and hello to oblivion!

Audience: Hello, Oblivion. How’s the wife and kids?

The songs are catchy, with “Time Warp” being a favorite of mine. It’s also quite nice that the three main stars of the film would go on to have fine careers.

Having said all that, I never thought the film was exactly funny, per se. There may be the occasional chuckle, such as a glimpse of Curry without his Frank makeup at the beginning of the film, but it never cracked me up as much as Clue, another film starring Curry that takes place on a dark and stormy night in a big house and has gone on to become a beloved midnight movie.

Also, while there are certainly sex scenes, I can’t say that I found the movie particularly sexy. We may chuckle at the thought of Frank as a Dr. Frankenstein who proceeds to bone his creation just as it comes out of the box, but both Janet and Brad come across as annoying with their dim-wittedness.

But the nods to previous horror and science fiction are certainly present. Fittingly, the film was shot at Bray Studios in England, where many of the classic Hammer movies where filmed, and some of the same props were used. Even the film’s poster with the lips from the title sequence has the tagline “A different set of jaws,” referencing how the Spielberg film of the same name was released just a few months earlier.

Rocky Horror would actually get a sequel of sorts with Shock Treatment, released three years later. While that film was also written by O’Brien and had the same director, Jim Sharman, it wasn’t embraced like the previous film. The fact that Curry, Sarandon, and Bostwick weren’t in it probably contributed to that.

As with Starship Troopers, I can certainly see why this film has such a big following. I’m just not among it.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is Ailurophobia, available now from Amazon.

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