The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not considered high art, or even a piece of exceptional filmmaking. It is pulpy, frequently juvenile, and arguably nonsensical. It’s a kitsch comedy musical, peddling toe-tapping rock ‘n’ roll sing-a-longs and one infectious dance routine. So how did a film initially described by one reviewer as “tasteless, plotless and pointless” eventually garner an army of obsessive fans, become synonymous with the phrase ‘cult classic’ and actually wind up meaning something to people (not to mention, serve as a valid excuse for leaving the house wearing only a corset, some fishnets and a truckload of makeup)?
For a start, Rocky Horror is awash with references to classic science fiction and horror B-movies from the ’30s and ’50s, which it parodies and celebrates in equal measure. It also rides the 1970s wave of renewed interest in 1950s culture, along with Happy Days and Grease – but Rocky Horror‘s creator Richard O’Brien refutes any idea of it being a pastiche, thanks to its “genuine rock ‘n’ roll songs” (although it’s worth noting that Barry Bostwick – Brad – played Danny in Grease‘s original 1971 Broadway cast). In turn, Rocky Horror‘s ripped fishnets, backcombed hair and leather jackets are credited as influencing the emerging fashion subculture of punk. In other words, this film is consuming and regurgitating tropes, music and fashion like nobody’s business. The fact that it’s still a source of inspiration today (see Glee‘s tribute episode, or more recently an entire line of Rocky Horror makeup from cosmetics brand MAC) is testament to the effective cultural feast it serves up.
However, being able to nod smugly at every one of the opening song’s niche references isn’t the only way of enjoying this film. The first time I watched Rocky Horror the only point of reference I had was that ‘The Time Warp’ was a dance they taught us once at a holiday park. And yet, the campy humour, the costumes and the tropes weren’t lost on me. An awareness of horror movie clichés and quaint small-town America can somehow permeate your brain without you realising. Interestingly, Sue Blane – the costume designer for both the stage show and the film – didn’t do an ounce of research into exactly what American teenagers, greasers or mad scientists are supposed to look like, but instead just tapped into whatever brain chamber it is that houses subconscious stereotypes (presumably the same part of the brain responsible for Frankie & Benny’s, and Smiffy’s Halloween costumes). Adding a touch of authenticity, many props – such as the creation tank and bandaged dummy – are a hodgepodge of genuine Hammer Horror leftovers.
A run-down of the plot for anyone unfamiliar with what is surely Tim Curry’s finest performance outside of Muppet Treasure Island follows:
Wholesome squares Brad and Janet have embarked on a visit to see their old (inexplicably German) science professor with news of their recent engagement, when an unfortunately-timed flat tyre forces them to seek help at a nearby spooky castle. However, their hope of using a telephone is thwarted as they accidentally gatecrash the least conventional convention imaginable. As Brad asserts, their new hosts are “probably foreigners, with ways different than our own. They may do some more… folk dancing.” Cue Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Curry), a self-proclaimed “Sweet Transvestite” from the galaxy of Transylvania (no relation to the home of Dracula, or indeed, those adorable little mouse families you owned as a kid). What follows is an increasingly debauched and unhinged stream of calamity, with some excellent B-movie pseudo-science thrown in for good measure (“This sonic transducer… it is, I suppose, some kind of audio-vibratory physio-molecular transport device?!”).
The pop culture references, catchy tunes and relatively straightforward plot all provide the film with a kind of accessibility, while the sheer madcap surprises, various incongruities and underlying ethos elevate it to another level. For instance, the anti-hero is a cross-dressing alien; a concept that surely shouldn’t even exist on Frank’s planet, as the Transylvanians seem to have no distinction between male and female clothes anyway (note the matching silver lamé quilts Riff Raff and Magenta sport at the end). To Earthlings, with our rigid sense of social conformity, Frank may just seem an outlandish cross-dresser (which in itself is just another attempt to box something into a topic we can make sense of) but really, Frank-N-Furter is a celebration of our baser urges; he’s a jealous attention-seeker, he shags rampantly, kills with wild, giddy abandon, dresses and does whatever he damn well pleases. Like Frank, I’m sure we’ve all had the odd life-defining moment ruined when an insufferable show-off crashes the party, totally stealing the thunder. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just give in to that urge to chase them round the room with an ice pick?
I believe this attitude – bizarrely – is what strikes a chord with many people: a yearning for ultimate self-expression and unfettered disdain for the status quo and sexual inhibitions. It’s almost impossible to hate Frank-N-Furter, even if he is partly the villain of the piece. We laugh when he flagrantly insults dull stick-in-the-muds Brad and Janet, and we shed an artful tear when his dream finally comes crashing down. Moreover, I defy anyone to watch Rocky Horror without grinning at the utter lunacy, because if an orgasmic Susan Sarandon and a half-lobotomised, semi-defrosted Meatloaf don’t do it for you, I don’t know what will.