THE ROCKY HORROR
A confession: I, a lifelong cult movie fanatic, hate THE ROCKY
HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It's a film I'm certain needs no introduction:
the 1975 horror/comedy/musical that has become "the cult
movie of all time" by virtue of its success on the midnight movie
circuit, where it's played consistently for twenty seven years. A
bonafide phenomenon ROCKY HORROR most certainly is, but is it a good
movie? And just what effect has it had on the cult movie scene?
I. ROCKY HORROR, the Film
it twice now, once on video and again at midnight on a big screen, I
don't find much to like about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, a
self-satisfied pastiche directed by Jim Sharman and written by
Sharman and Richard 'O Brian (adapted from the latter's popular 1973
play). I found it an uninspired retread of themes better explored in
the same year's THUNDERCRACK!, which, like RH, concerns a young
couple whose car breaks down in a rainstorm, forcing 'em to take
shelter in a haunted house populated by a band of gender-unspecific
freaks. The difference between the two movies is that, indulgent
though it often is, the X-rated THUNDERCRACK! is genuinely witty and
subversive, qualities RH never achieves.
RH's colorful visual
style has been much discussed, but its roots can be found in an
earlier, much stronger film: Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
(1974), which utilizes gaudy colors and crazy camerawork to far more
striking effect than the safe and staid RH. Star Tim Curry's
"daring" gender-bending flamboyance had likewise been done before,
and better, by Mick Jagger in PERFORMANCE (1970) and the cast of
Jack Smith's 1963 underground classic FLAMING CREATURES (from which
ROCKY HORROR "borrows" quite a bit). And the songs? Excepting the
justifiably celebrated "Time Warp" number (which along with the
giant lips that open the film is one of the only things about RH I
actually like), I don't even remember any of 'em.
or PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, RH isn't particularly quirky,
imaginative or subversive. With its non-storyline, cardboard
characters and cheesy happy ending, the film is closer to
traditional Hollywood fare than true cult classics like FREAKS or
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It doesn't surprise me that RH was a
box-office flop upon its original release, or that its writer and
director have not gone on to work much in the industry since
(exceptions: the unreleased 1983 Australian comedy RETURN OF CAPTAIN
INVINCIBLE, with songs by O'Brian, and SHOCK TREATMENT, a 1981
sequel that was so awful even die-hard RH fans have avoided it).
The funny thing is
that nothing I've written so far is likely to come as news to most
ROCKY HORROR fans. Most of 'em know it sucks, yet continue to
show up at midnight week after week (or at least they have;
the craze seems to be finally dying down somewhat). Louis Farese,
Jr., a NYC schoolteacher credited with starting the RH fan trend of
talking back to the screen ("counterpoint dialogue," as it's been
termed), only did so, he claimed, because he noticed "large pauses"
in the dialogue. That doesn't sound too affectionate to me, and
neither do the words he reportedly shouted
out one fateful night in
1976: "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!"
Century Fox held RH off the video market until the late eighties,
and then released it with the slogan "Dream it in your living
room, Live it in the theater," a none-too-subtle admission that
the phenomenon is what matters, and that the movie itself ain't
II. A Brief History Lesson
To understand how ROCKY
HORROR has become such a sensation, one must understand the Midnight
Movie. Starting with Alejandro Jodoroswky's counterculture classic
EL TOPO in 1970, the midnight movie slot was a repository for quirky
fare that would have had trouble finding a niche in the mainstream
marketplace. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, offbeat
films like CHAC: THE RAIN GOD,
VIVA LA MUERTE,
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN,
MARTIN, THE HARDER THEY COME, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, KING
OF HEARTS, JUBILEE and BASKET CASE found varying degrees of success
playing weekends at 12 A.M., mostly in New York and Los Angeles.
Cult classics like ERASERHEAD, PINK FLAMINGOES and THE TEXAS
CHAINSAW MASSACRE essentially owe their success to the midnight
circuit, at one time their only source of distribution.
Although in recent
years midnight movies have affected a comeback of sorts, they'll
never be what they were back in the seventies and early eighties.
What facilitated the decline? Most commentators (particularly J.
Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, authors of 1983's seminal MIDNIGHT
MOVIES) pin the blame on the rise of home video and the increasing
dominance of corporate sponsored major studios. I'm in full
agreement, but I'd add another insidious factor contributing to the
decline of the midnight movie: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
It doesn't take a
genius to figure out that the breadth of the movement is hurt by the
fact that its patrons have been seeing the same movie week
after week. Why?
Why do hundreds of
otherwise sane people line up Saturday nights at 12 A.M. to
experience what is frankly (and Im not the only one who
thinks so) a pretty mediocre movie? I submit that the ROCKY HORROR
craze is precisely what so much of our corporate driven culture is:
a con job, perpetrated not by dedicated fans (as Hoberman and
Rosenbaum mistakenly allege) but by Twentieth Century Fox's
It was Tim Deegan, a
26-year-old Fox publicist, who back in 1975 noted ROCKY HORROR'S
poor performance in LA and hit upon the idea of opening the movie at
midnight at Greenwich Village's Waverly theater. The original NYC
advertising budget was a mere $400, but with Twentieth Century Fox's
deep pockets ROCKY HORROR mania was able to blanket the country
within a year; by the end of 1976, it was showing at midnight in
every city from Toronto to Honolulu.
III. The business angle
Twentieth Century Fox's
shepherding of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is in direct contrast
to the traditional midnight movie, which relied on grassroots,
word-of-mouth support from dedicated fans. I'm not suggesting ROCKY
HORROR doesn't have its share of fanatical fans, but the reality is
that without the strong arm of T.C. Fox, the film simply would NOT
be the phenomenon it has become. Indeed, I'd say EL TOPO, the first
official Midnight Movie, was a far more remarkable success story, it
being a completely unknown foreign import that with NO advertising
or press support went on to play sell out performances for over a
year in NYC.
That, however, was in
the days before THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW saturated the market.
And Fox has been quite canny in keeping it afloat, drawing in
generation after generation of young people by periodically
releasing updated advertising material boasting of the film's
longevity and shuttling RH cast members out for personal appearances
at screenings around the country. Furthermore, Fox kept it off the
TV and video market until the late eighties, nearly a full fifteen
years after its inception. As I mentioned above, when RH finally hit
video stores it bore the slogan "Dream it in your living room,
Live it in the theater," not to mention a featurette exhorting
RH's success as a midnight movie. And then there are the soundtrack
CDs (at least 4 have been released so far, including recordings of
audiences reacting to the movie), calendars, sheet music, Halloween
costumes, the published screenplay and the original play which, like
a particularly insidious virus, is still regularly performed at
venues around the world. Plus there's another sequel in the works
(you'd have thought they learned their lesson with SHOCK TREATMENT)
and a TV movie that promises to "update" RH.
From a marketing
standpoint, the ROCKY HORROR phenomenon is indeed impressive (other
positive aspects: an anecdote, related by actor Bruce Campbell in
his autobiography, about how its success subsidized quite a few
arthouse theaters in the eighties and the apparent fact that, in the
words of one anonymous fan, "the movie keeps kids off the street
instead of going and breaking windows"). Fox has managed to capture
the attention of that most sought-after demographic, the 18-24 year
old male, by creating the idea that seeing a 27-year-old movie at
midnight each week--and, more importantly, putting money into
Twentieth Century Fox's collective pockets--is somehow "cool." Tim
Curry, who like much of ROCKY HORROR'S cast has tried to distance
himself from the film, claimed in an interview that for kids in
America RH has become a virtual rite of passage.
We should also take
into account the words of Susan Sarandon, another of RH'S
disgruntled headliners, who claims that, from a film that reportedly
hauls in over $5 million a year (bringing its cumulative gross to
well over $100 million), "nobody made any money."
Nobody, that is, but
Twentieth Century Fox.
IV. The Theatrical Experience
"Live it in the
theater"? Let's take a look at the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW
theatrical experience. I'm sure it was quite something in its
heyday; a pivotal scene in Alan Parker's FAME (1980) has a central
character attending a performance of RH that pretty much encompasses
the whole shebang. The audience, most of them costumed after the
film's characters, enthusiastically shout out lines and actions from
the movie (i.e. "Kick it!" just before a car tire is kicked)
and costumed performers dance in front of the screen during the
"Time Warp" number. Looks like fun, and I'm sure it was back
My own ROCKY HORROR
theatrical experience, which occurred about three years ago at
L.A.'s Nuart theater, was decidedly less enchanting. Far from the
communal, participatory happening portrayed in FAME, the screening I
attended was closer to a frat party, with audience members, most of
them male and in their early twenties, shouting out pretty much
anything that popped into their heads. Apparently this was the famed
"counterpoint dialogue" ROCKY HORROR patrons like to engage in, only
it didn't sound "counter" to anything. The dancers,
meanwhile, were poorly choreographed and just didn't seem too
I find it difficult
to believe this was what I'm supposed to be dreaming in my
living room and what so many have been lining up for year after
year. The whole thing felt tired, and the audience was plain BORED.
Who could blame 'em?
The ROCKY HORROR phenomenon, after all, is OLD. The most successful
midnight movies of the seventies rarely lasted more than a year or
two; that's understandable, but 27 YEARS? For a movie that isn't
even that good? I'm sorry, but 27 years, let alone 17 or even 7, is
simply TOO GODDAMN LONG!
V. The End?
Can it be that THE ROCKY
HORROR PICTURE SHOW has reached the end of its vastly overlong run?
Let's hope so.
The Midnight Movie,
which has wilted under ROCKY HORROR'S considerable weight (for a
time 1982's BASKET CASE and LIQUID SKY appeared to be its last
gasp), seems to be making a comeback. While readymade "cult" items
from the early 90's like FRANKENHOOKER, SPIRIT OF 76 and STAR TIME
failed to make a niche on the midnight circuit (it didn't help that
all three were lousy movies), a new crop has been doing the mighty
ROCKY HORROR some serious damage.
sponsored midnight screenings of Lucio Fulci's zombie classic THE
BEYOND were quite successful back in '98, while last year's indie
sensation HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH has quietly become a midnight
movie phenomenon in its own right. HEDWIG was, like RH, based on a
successful theater piece, and features outrageous song and dance
numbers, a gender-bending storyline and an air of good-natured
flamboyance. Unlike ROCKY HORROR, however, it lacks the backing of a
major studio; like all true midnight movies, its fan base has formed
strictly through word of mouth. Furthermore, HEDWIG is a markedly
good movie--and seems on course to finally unseat RH from its
throne as the premiere midnight movie.
In the end, though,
only time will tell HEDWIG's fortunes. In the meantime we've
still got THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW to tide us over in case
we've got nothing to do Saturday nights and have an urge to feed
Twentieth Century Fox's corporate machine--again, and again, and
again, and again, and again--zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.