The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) -*
Alright. I suppose I’ve put this off long enough. If you’re a movie critic— even a fly-by-night amateur like myself— and your writings deal even obliquely with the subject of cult films, sooner or later, you’re going to have to talk about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is undeniably the ultimate cult flick, and at the turn of the 21st century, it’s pretty much the only game in town when it comes to the embattled tradition of the midnight movie. It is therefore something of an obligation for people like me to discuss it at some point. The reason it’s taken me so long to get around to it is that reviewing The Rocky Horror Picture Show requires watching it, and unless possibly I were to do so at one of the notorious midnight theatrical showings in the company of someone too new to the scene to have attitude about it and too full of youthful enthusiasm to notice how pathetic it all really is, I’ve had little real desire to do that again. Duty calls, though, and since I don‘t currently hang out with anybody meeting the aforementioned description, I figured I’d bite the bullet and fire up the VCR when I noticed that it was coming on cable the other night.
Most of you have probably already seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show at least once; those who haven’t may rest assured that you’re missing very little in terms of the movie itself. Brad Majors (known to the cultists as Asshole [Dipshit would be more to the point], and played by Barry Bostwick of Megaforce) and his girlfriend, Janet Weiss (aka Slut, and played by The Hunger’s Susan Sarandon), are attending the wedding of two of their friends when Janet catches the bride’s bouquet and Brad is so overcome by the sheer romance of it all that he proposes to her on the spot— in song, of course. In fact, he proposes to her in very bad song, even by the abysmally low standards of sub-Broadway musicals (the primordial ooze out of which The Rocky Horror Picture Show originally crawled). I guess I should give this scene a little bit of credit, in that it does exactly what the ideal opening scene ought to do, and sets the tone for the whole rest of the movie. Not a single meaningful plot development will occur unless it is accompanied by music, and the majority of that music will be both nightmarishly awful and sung with no regard for pitch or key or melody or much of anything else that someone who actually sang or played an instrument with any degree of seriousness would consider important.
The movie is then interrupted without warning by a “criminologist” (“(an expert),” the opening credits helpfully clarify) played by Charles Gray, from The Unknown Terror and The Devil Rides Out. This criminologist will serve absolutely no narrative purpose whatsoever, but he’ll be popping in throughout the movie to tell us all about stuff we just saw— or are just about to see— perfectly well for ourselves. This time, he tells us that Brad and Janet left the chapel in Denton and drove off to pay a visit to their old high school science teacher, Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams), heedless of both the gathering thunderstorm and the deflated condition of Brad’s spare tire. Thanks a lot sir; I never would have figured any of that out from the dialogue in the next scene...
Now, because this is a parody of horror movies, Brad and Janet are going to have to make a wrong turn and get lost in the middle of nowhere, and because this is a parody of horror movies, their car will have to blow a tire, forcing them to walk through the storm to the nearest dwelling for assistance (and to break into song while doing it). In this case, the nearest dwelling is a big-ass castle, where a mysterious man named Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry, from Legend) is holding some kind of peculiar convention. The doctor’s butler, Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien, who as principal screenwriter and musical composer must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for this movie), shows the bedraggled lovers into the castle, and then joins Magenta the maid (Patricia Quinn) in breaking into song. God knows why— there isn’t even a plot point being served here. All I can tell you is that what passes for the story stops in its tracks for a good three minutes while Riff Raff, Magenta, and a girl in a gold-sequined dinner jacket by the name of Columbia (Little Nell Campbell) show us (with a little help from that damned criminologist) how to do a dance called the Time Warp— again and again and again.
Brad and Janet have just about figured out that nobody here is going to let them use a telephone to call AAA when their host puts in an appearance at last. And what an appearance it is. Dr. Frank N. Furter bursts— singing— out of an old-fashioned steel-cage elevator, clad in a corset, garters and stockings, glittery six-inch heels, and a matching black silk cape-and-panties ensemble, his face adorned with makeup that even Divine would envy. His lyrical announcement that he’s “just a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” would be entirely redundant were it not for the fact that it identifies his country of origin. And despite his professed willingness to “get [them] a Satanic mechanic,” it doesn’t seem too likely that the good doctor has any real intention of helping Brad and Janet out of their fix with the flat tire.
What Dr. Furter does intend to do is let Brad and Janet accompany the rest of his guests up to his secret laboratory in the castle’s loft to witness the unveiling of his latest creation— after Riff Raff and Magenta strip the long-suffering couple to their highly unattractive underwear, that is. Don’t ask me— ask Richard O’Brien. Anyway, as you’ve probably figured out, Furter’s creation is an artificial man, but unlike most of his counterparts in other mad scientist movies, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood) is no monster. In fact, if you go in for the 0% body fat, Tom of Finland look, he’s quite attractive— gee, I wonder what his creator has planned for him... Oh. A song about Charles Atlas. I honestly can’t say I saw that coming. And even more surprising is what bursts out from behind a steel door marked “Deep Freeze” to interrupt said paean to Dynamic Tension— a huge, fat greaser on a motorbike, carrying an alto saxophone! This guy’s name is Eddie (Meatloaf, seen here at the very beginning of his career as the world’s sweatiest pop star), and if the opening credits are to be believed, he was formerly a delivery boy. Evidently he also has some kind of past history with both Dr. Furter and the sequin-bedecked Columbia, because both of them go apeshit when Eddie breaks out of the icebox and starts singing the closest thing to an enjoyable song that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has to offer. There must be a lot of jealousy attached to that past history, too, because Furter hacks Eddie to death with an ice axe after the third chorus, killing the festive mood along with him.
And thus we arrive at the point where the story finally kicks in, which not coincidentally is also the point where the movie ceases being any fun at all. Dr. Furter spends his evening trying to seduce both Brad and Janet (not without success in either case) while keeping control of his unruly underlings. Basically, everybody seems to be jealous of just about everybody else. Janet gets jealous of Brad and Dr. Furter when she accidentally sees the doctor in Brad’s bedroom on a security camera monitor. Brad and Furter both get jealous of Janet and Rocky when they stumble upon them catching a post-coital nap in the synthetic man’s incubation chamber. Columbia is both furious at the doctor for killing her old flame, Eddie, and jealous of the attention he’s been lavishing on all of these men. And Riff Raff is jealous because he’s apparently the only person in this entire movie whom his master doesn’t want to go to bed with. Then into this putrid morass of polymorphously perverse soap-opera bullshit strides— or, more accurately, rolls (he’s confined to a wheelchair, you know)— Dr. Everett Scott. Remember him? No? That’s okay— neither did I. He was the old school teacher Brad and Janet had been going to see when this whole mess started. Yeah, him. Anyway, Furter turns out to be well acquainted with Dr. Scott, who now heads up some government-funded think-tank in charge of investigating UFO sightings. And as for what in heaven’s name he could be doing showing up on Dr. Furter’s doorstep, well... First, it turns out that Eddie was Dr. Scott’s delinquent nephew. And second, it feels like Richard O’Brien just got bored with the whole mad scientist thing at about the halfway point, and decided to turn this movie into an alien invasion flick instead. You see, Dr. Furter and his assistants aren’t humans at all, but rather beings from the planet Transsexual, in the far-off galaxy of Transylvania. Puts a slightly different spin on the lyrics to the doctor’s introductory song, doesn’t it? His secret revealed, Furter uses his Medusa Device to petrify all of the unwanted guests— and the increasingly troublesome Rocky and Columbia, as well. Then, with the only people on Earth who are in a position to stop him thus out of the way, the nefarious Dr. Furter is ready at last for (and I wish I had a dripping-horror-movie-letters font to type this in) the Floor Show! What?! Do you mean to tell me this so-called intergalactic supervillain’s entire evil scheme amounts to nothing more than a goddamned cabaret act?!?! What kind of bullshit is that?!?!
Actually, having seen it, I have to admit that it is a pretty chilling display of evil, at that. Dressing Brad, Janet, Rocky, Columbia, and Dr. Scott in matching women’s underwear, he un-petrifies them and somehow compels them to sing and dance until a disgruntled Riff Raff and Magenta appear at the back of the otherwise empty concert hall and shut the whole thing down. Clad in an outfit inspired by the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930’s, and brandishing a laser pistol so shitty that even the special effects department of the old “Lost in Space” TV show would have been ashamed to have produced it, Riff Raff declares his erstwhile master’s mission a failure and announces that he, Magenta, and the castle will be returning to Transylvania. Furter, meanwhile “will remain here— in spirit, anyway.” Riff Raff then mows down everybody but Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott, evicts the surviving characters from the castle, and launches the building off into space while Brad and Janet rasp yet another miserable song.
There’s one thing about The Rocky Horror Picture Show I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around since the first time I watched it on home video back when I was a junior in high school. (I had already seen it a couple of times in its natural environment the year before.) A midnight showing in the theater can be rather amusing if there’s a large and enthusiastic crowd; there’s something to be said for seeing a movie under conditions that give you more or less unrestricted license to throw shit at the screen and heckle at the top of your lungs, and one must also concede the sheer freak-show appeal of the Rocky Horror cultists and their insanely elaborate rituals. The thing I don’t get is how the cult could have gotten started in the first place. Without them to liven up the experience, the movie is so fucking awful that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to see it more than once, let alone subject themselves to it so many times that they could memorize songs and dialogue sufficiently to embark on the sort of massive lampooning project that has taken shape over the years. And what’s more, it’s awful in ways that don’t make any sense. This is not an especially low-budget movie, after all. It was made for 20th Century Fox, and it looks like quite a bit of money was spent on sets, costumes, and sound; at the very least, the recording quality of the songs was state-of-the-art for 1975 (as it would have to be to make Barry Bostwick, Peter Hinwood, Richard O’Brien, and Nell Campbell’s singing sound tolerable to an audience which did not yet have punk rock to inure them to really inept vocal technique). The cast includes, in the persons of Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon, at least two actors who would later prove themselves to have some real talent. (Sarandon is also the best singer of the bunch, even if her voice is gratingly high-pitched.) With so much at stake, you’d think someone would have noticed that the story, when it finally appears at about the 45-minute mark, is both utterly incomprehensible and self-contradictory. To begin with, Eddie turns out to be a fairly important character after he’s dead, and the script gives his background considerable attention. Absent from this exposition, however, is any discussion of how he fell in with Furter and the Transylvanians, leaving the parenthetical gloss in the credits that describes him as “an ex-delivery boy” the only clue as to the foundation of this not inconsequential relationship. Later, when Dr. Furter sings about his childhood right before Riff Raff shoots him down, he talks about having been set on the path to becoming the man he is now by watching old Fay Wray movies and wishing he could be just like her. Excuse me? How can this be possible if Furter is the leader of some kind of expeditionary force from a pervert planet thousands of light-years away?! And can I really be the only person who wonders, when Riff Raff proclaims the doctor’s mission a failure, just what in the hell that mission was in the first place?
Now I’m well accustomed to cutting really shitty movies as much slack as they can use, provided that they keep me entertained, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show fails on that count, too. There’s so much crazy shit going on in the first four reels that I can manage to hang onto a little bit of that midnight-screening exuberance while I watch them, but after the scene in which Rocky is born and Eddie is killed, the action completely fizzles in order to make room for a plot that scarcely even exists anyway. Even in the theater, with hundreds of cat-calling social misfits to provide distraction, the second half of this movie is dull. All of the good gags have been used up, the talk quotient skyrockets to insupportable levels, the songs become listless and overlong in addition to clamorous and annoying, and there’s no climax worthy of the name. But for my purposes, the worst misstep The Rocky Horror Picture Show makes is that it just isn’t sleazy enough. You may think that an odd accusation to level against a movie that deals with a bisexual transvestite mad scientist who builds himself his own personal beefcake boy when his off-the-shelf lovers fail to satisfy him, but I’m completely serious. I am a man who does not fuck around when it comes to sleaze, and what bothers me the most about this movie is that it does. It may have all the trappings of sleaze, but it backs down in nearly every instance when the time for putting up or shutting up rolls around. For example, when Dr. Furter sneaks into Brad’s and Janet’s rooms to seduce them, he is successful with Janet, but he is interrupted by an urgent message from Riff Raff at the crucial moment when he tries the same thing with her fiance. It’s like the filmmakers are saying, “Just kidding— you know we wouldn’t really do something like that, right?” The movie is too squeamish for nudity or gore, and what sex and violence there is (and it’s a lot less than you’d expect) happens pusillanimously offscreen. The one occasion on which The Rocky Horror Picture Show follows through on a setup comes in the dinner scene, when Rocky blithely goes on eating even after it is revealed that the main course is roasted leg of Eddie. In short, watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show is rather like listening to a 14-year-old bragging about his sexual exploits— it talks a great game, but if you pay attention, you can tell it’s full of shit. It may be good for shocking the squares, or for affording through the cult associated with it an opportunity for people who are too socially retarded to get laid for real to play at sexual perversity, but if you really are a pervert, it’s likely to leave you cold.