I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey…
It seemed a fairly ordinary night when UA Westwood theater in Los Angeles, Calif. showed a rather interesting film. It was based on a semi-popular, critically acclaimed musical that was running in London theatres, and drew a modest crowd.
Of all things, the film started with a song. Then, a wedding and a heartfelt proposal between a young couple. When a roadtrip to announce their engagement ends abruptly in a flat tire, the two rain-soaked lovers make their way to a rather strange castle and meet a rather strange host. It only escalates from there.
It was 1975. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” premiered in America that September night, and audience reactions were mixed. So to speak. The songs were catchy, though off-kilter. The humor was dark. The message wasn't terribly clear. Also, Tim Curry. In fishnets. And meatloaf. Need I say more?
Let’s start from the beginning.
In the 1960s and 1970s, campy sci-fi B-films and comics were the buzz. “Day of the Triffids,” “King King” and “Flash Gordon” were all a major part of pop culture back in the day, when people figured the 2000s would feature holo-decks, ray guns and everyone wearing silver underwear. Mostly, these films had cheap effects, ridiculous dialogue and an excessive amount of rubber-suit monsters.
British actor Richard O’Brien had been a part of several of these films (be can be seen in the 80s version of “Flash Gordon” as a Leaf Warrior) and loved the weirdness of it all.
The 1970s were an interesting time for America and the world. The idealism of the 50s and 60s was giving way to cynicism. The US was losing the Vietnam War after the shocking resignation of Richard Nixon in wake of the Watergate scandal.
More films were being released in Technicolor. VCRs had been invented. Oh, and filmed porn had just become legal.
It was an age of increasing surrealism as well. Shows such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Saturday Night Live” had begun to introduce a more absurdist type of humor into the mainstream consciousness, and dark humor (featuring death, sex and black comedy) began to make a footfall.
O’Brien, inspired by this, set out to write a love letter to the past few decades: the rise and fall of rock and roll, of the naive idealism of post-WWII America and the shattering of innocence that occurred in wake of the presidential deception. All of this, of course, with a sci-fi twist.
“The Rocky Horror Show” (which is the name of the musical, not the film) first premiered on stage in London in 1973, featuring the-then fresh musical actor Tim Curry, along with Patricia Quinn and Nell Campbell — three of the actors who would create the main cast for the film two years later.
The musical, introduced by the mysterious Usherette, centers on 50s, clean-cut sweethearts Brad Majors and Janet Weiss. The two find themselves in over their heads when they seek refuge from the rain in a strange castle, only to be greeted by the odd transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter — a predatory, egotistic and sex-crazed scientist from Transexual, Transylvania who’s all-too-eager to show off his latest invention: A brainless blonde muscle-man named Rocky, who the good doctor created to be his lover.
The story, punctuated by songs such as “Hot Patootie,” “Rose-Tint My World” and the ever-famous, dance-party hit “The Time Warp,” was surreal and shocking. Character death, cross-dressing, sex, violence and brainwashing were all openly mentioned and flaunted. Brad and Janet, instead of fending themselves (and their morals) off, slowly degenerate into depravity — a parallel of the loss of America’s innocence from the 50s to the 70s.
The musical was critically acclaimed through its run, opening possibilities for a film. However, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by 20th Century Fox, opened to small audiences and a lukewarm reception, and was taken off of the playbills after mere days.
It was no picnic.
However, there’s a light: In April of 1976, a midnight showing at Waverly Theater in New York drew a crowd — many of them fans of the original musical run. As the show started, the audience was silent, until the part where Brad and Janet’s car breaks down in the rain.
As Janet emerged from the vehicle with a newspaper over her her head to keep off the rain, a lone voice floated up from the crowd:
“Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!”
And like that, everyone woke with a start. All throughout the film, and the songs, audience members “called back” to the film — echoing the actor’s lines (“Great Scott!”), responding to rhetorical questions (“A veek from Vednesday, ven else?!”) or snapping back during pauses in the dialogue (“Say it!”)
At the next showing, near Halloween, people began appearing in costumes. Even as October came and went, the show’s regulars continued to show up in costume. The number of showings increased and expanded beyond Waverly. People lip-synching the songs turned into full-out pantomimes of the show on stage, thus creating the phenomenon of a shadow cast, which mirrored the movements of the film characters.
As time went on, the film reached even further, with dedicated fans showing up to midnight showings once a week, every week. Whatever happened on Saturday night, fans would show up on the dot, dressed and ready to go.
Nowadays, Rocky Horror showings have become a cult and cultural phenomenon. Some have attributed the show to their budding interest in musicals, 70s glam culture and even their sexual awakenings. With a bit of a mind-flip, you can see why: The songs are catchy, the humor is surreal and hilarious and the characters are utterly memorable. Audience callbacks have become a solid part of the culture — there are even regional variations and memetic mutations to keep up with the times (“His name is Robert Paulson!”).
All in all, RHPS is not so much a film as it is an experience. It’s weird, it’s a shock, it’s a love song and, above all, it’s a time slip. After you see it, nothing can ever be the same.
Stop by a midnight showing at some point. Wear costumes if you’d like, but be sure not to try the meatloaf.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.