Review Index


2/17/12: The following essay is now ten years old. I can't say I still agree with all the mean things I wrote below, as I'm a much nicer guy now than I was back in '02. Also, the current cult movie scene hasn't exactly lifted my hopes--looking over today's less-than-inspiring midnight movie offerings (REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, THE ROOM), I'll have to say that viewing THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW over and over no longer seems like such a bad idea! But onto the essay, which is presented as it was originally written, in all its pissed-off glory... 


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? Let's see.

     Having seen 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.

     Unlike THUNDERCRACK! 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!"

     Consider: Twentieth 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 much.

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 marketing department.

     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.

     Now that's great marketing!

     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 in 1980.

     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 inspired.

     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.

     The Quentin Tarantino 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.