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The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not the first midnight movie, but it is arguably the most well known. With its rebellious blend of "B" movie science fiction, horror, and a rock 'n' roll soundtrack, Rocky Horror celebrates sexual difference. Inspiring viewers with the catch phrase, "Don't dream it, be it!," Rocky Horror earned its cult status in part through its transgressive nature. Its fans are legion, and since the film's release in 1975, Rocky Horror has developed into a full-fledged cult that has spawned its own cottage industry of merchandise and memorabilia. Rocky Horror has become synonymous with participatory cinema, and its history as a midnight feature has helped to define what it meant to be a cult film in the late twentieth century.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show grew out of the fertile imagination of English actor Richard O'Brien, who wrote a rock musical titled The Rocky Horror Show over the course of six months in 1972. O'Brien's play combined his appreciation for "B" movies and his love of science fiction within a story set in the fictional town of Denton, Ohio. After attending the wedding of two friends, nerdy sweethearts Brad Majors and Janet Weiss are caught up in the moment and decide to get married. En route to the home of Brad's former college professor, Dr. Everett V. Scott, the couple is deterred by inclement weather. Taking shelter in a roadside mansion, Brad and Janet encounter their host, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite overseeing the annual convention of aliens from the planet Transylvania. Although Brad and Janet are less than charmed by the doctor, he insists that they remain in the mansion overnight in order to witness his ultimate scientific creation: the perfect male specimen. In the course of their stay, Brad and Janet both are seduced by Frank, and Janet in turn seduces the doctor's creation, Rocky Horror. Along the way the couple meets Riff Raff, the doctor's sidekick; his sister Magenta; and a groupie named Columbia. The next morning, Brad's mentor comes to the mansion looking for his nephew Eddie, the former lover of Frank whose brain was used to create Rocky Horror and whose remains become the main dish in an elaborate last supper held at the mansion. In a grand finale, Frank is overthrown as overseer of the Transylvanians and Riff Raff and Magenta take over the group, blasting the mansion back to Transylvania and leaving Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott to contemplate their experiences.

Premiering at a small theater in the Chelsea neighborhood of London in June 1973, The Rocky Horror Show was an instant success. The popularity of the musical, which starred the charismatic performer Tim Curry as Frank, made it necessary to move the production to successively larger theaters throughout London. After seeing one of these performances in 1974, U.S. movie producer Lou Adler (Monterey Pop, Brewster McCloud) struck a deal with O'Brien and fellow Rocky Horror producer Michael White that allowed Adler to bring the stage show to Los Angeles and eventually turn the musical into a feature-length film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox.

After O'Brien's musical finished its ten-month run in Los Angeles, Curry returned with some of the other performers to London to shoot the film version at Bray Studios, the former home of the horror films made by Hammer Studios. The film, whose title was changed to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was shot over the course of eight weeks by director Jim Sharman from a script co-written by Sharman and O'Brien. While some of the stage actors, like Curry and O'Brien (Riff Raff), reprised their roles in the film version, actors Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick were brought in to play Janet and Brad. Patricia Quinn played Magenta both on stage and in the film, and her wet, red lips provide Rocky Horror with its seductive opening sequence as she mouths the words to the song, "Science Fiction/Double Feature." As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum observe in Midnight Movies, this image of Quinn's salacious mouth lipsynching the lyrics sung on the accompanying soundtrack by O'Brien immediately introduces viewers to the tantalizing presence and overwhelming significance of bisexuality within Rocky Horror.

After a brief, unsuccessful run of the play on Broadway at the Belasco Theater, Rocky Horror the film previewed in California in the summer of 1975. Responses to preview screenings of the film were as negative as those leveled at the Broadway production, but Tim Deegan, the film's publicist, focused on the few viewers who were enthusiastic about the film and kept their responses in mind when promoting it. When it opened in Los Angeles in the early fall of 1975, Rocky Horror had little trouble filling the theater. Elsewhere in the country, however, the film did not fare as well. Inspired by the exhibition techniques used to promote George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, however, Deegan arranged to release the film in New York only at midnight and to keep it at the same theater for at least one month so the film could find its audience. As it turned out, word-of-mouth drew viewers to the theater, and the movie itself kept audiences coming back for repeat viewings—a defining characteristic of cult films.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint when audiences first began participating in the Rocky Horror experience, Hoberman and Rosenbaum suggest one of the earliest instances occurred in New York City in 1976, a few months after the film's release. Dubbed "counterpoint dialogue," this verbal interaction with the film began as a way to fill the awkward pauses between dialogue exchanges and to comment on the poorly written lines uttered by some of the characters. Soon, repeat audiences were staging their own "shows" before the film's midnight screening and during the screening as well. Scripts were written by Rocky Horror fans containing counterpoint dialogue for the entire film, and directions for dancing the Time Warp (a dance sequence that occurs in the film) were passed out to audiences—a technique that had its roots in the stage show's early days. Some fans began attending screenings dressed as the film's characters. Props were used as a kind of visual counterpoint to the film as well. During a screening of Rocky Horror, for instance, it is customary for audience members to throw rice at the screen during the wedding sequence. When Brad and Janet get caught in a storm, viewers open umbrellas in the theater or hold newspapers over their heads while other members of the audience fire water pistols into the crowd. Newcomers to the Rocky Horror film are called virgins, and their initiation into the experience is gleefully overseen by veterans who have attended the screenings many times over.

The cult surrounding Rocky Horror has continued to grow since the film's release in late 1975. Movies like Fame (1980), which contains a sequence in which two characters attend a Rocky Horror screening, introduced mainstream audiences to a phenomenon that may have otherwise eluded them. During the 1980s in liberal arts classes throughout the country, scholars began to analyze and write about the cult of Rocky Horror and to discuss this cultural phenomenon in terms of religion, socialization, sexuality, and ritual. It is customary for the film to screen on college campuses, and this event serves as a kind of initiation into underground culture, sexual difference, and participatory cinema.

For some hard-core Rocky Horror fans, the film's acceptance into mainstream society contradicts the very essence of what Rocky Horror represents. With its emphasis on unbridled sexuality and transgressive behavior, Rocky Horror has been described by Hoberman and Rosenbaum as an "adolescent initiation" that rearticulates the sexual politics of the 1960s. Its release to home video in 1990 struck some as counterproductive since so much of one's enjoyment in the film comes from watching it with an audience. Nonetheless, the video release proved successful enough to spawn a laser disc version in 1992, and in 1996, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the film's wide release, FoxVideo unveiled a deluxe, remastered edit of the film. On an alternate audio track, the counterpoint dialogue of two Los Angeles-based audiences of Rocky Horror regulars can be heard. The inclusion of this separate audio track, carefully selected from the scores of Rocky Horror fan communities in existence, acknowledges the significant role the audience plays in the experience and success of Rocky Horror.

In 1981 O'Brien and Sharman re-teamed to direct the sequel to Rocky Horror, titled Shock Treatment. In the film, Brad (played by Cliff De Young) and Janet (Jessica Harper) are still married but are dissatisfied with their lives and one another. Their hometown has become a large television station, and citizens are either participants or viewers. Although Shock Treatment did not fare as well as its predecessor and disappointed many Rocky Horror fans, its plot recapitulates Rocky Horror's original message, which encouraged viewers to lose their inhibitions and become participants rather than mere viewers of life even decades after its release. Rocky Horror continues to screen at midnight in theaters all around the globe and attract new generations of fans on a regular basis. The open text of Rocky Horror's narrative allows viewers from a variety of cultural backgrounds to appreciate its campy spectacle. The film's ability to be read by audiences as both transgressive and recuperative, argues Barry K. Grant, has contributed to Rocky Horror's longevity.

—Alison Macor

Further Reading:

Austin, Bruce A. "Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Journal of Communications. Vol. 31, 1981, 450-65.

Grant, Barry K. "Science Fiction Double Feature: Ideology in the Cult Film." The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, edited by J.P. Telotte. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1991, 122-37.

Henkin, Bill. The Rocky Horror Picture Show Book. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1979.

Hoberman, J., and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Midnight Movies. New York, De Capo Press, Inc., 1991.

Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. New York, Delta Books, 1981.

Piro, Sal. Creatures of the Night: The Rocky Horror Experience. Redford, Michigan, Stabur Press, 1990.

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