The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.
Directed by Jim Sharman.
Starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf and Charles Gray.
A nice, normal couple get taken on a night of sexual discovery by a mad scientist dressed as a woman.
A pair of deeply red, inviting lips fills the screen entire. The teeth and tongue are shown as the lips part, but everything else is shrouded in black. A voice sings from them about science fiction double features, Dr. X building a creature, seeing androids fighting, Forbidden Planet and Brad and Janet. The bottom lip is occasionally bitten seductively. Jeez, I hope it’s a woman’s.
The ‘Brad’ and ‘Janet’ of the opening song are The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s protagonists, played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, respectively. But that’s obvious, you might think. Of course ‘Barry’ would play Brad and ‘Susan’ Janet – you don’t need to point that out. Oh really? Don’t I?
Gender is something to which Rocky Horror is both indifferent and wholly preoccupied. The film begins clearly enough, with a wedding between a man and a woman, all traditional like, to then focus on Brad and Janet, who were guests at the ceremony. They quickly burst into song once left alone, an over the top number entitled Dammit, Janet. They declare their love for one another rather melodramatically. “The future is ours, so let’s plan it,” Brad sings blissfully free of irony.
That’s provided by their two backing singers from the church, a man and a woman who appear to have walked straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, who drolly say “Janet” after Brad’s every line.
The film is punctuated by meta-moments such as these, acknowledging how ridiculous the narrative and characters are. The talking to camera, the over-reactions, the narration are all made funny because of their self-reflexivity. In a movie as absurd as this, it’s a nice comfort for the film to remind you it’s in on the joke.
After leaving the wedding, Brad and Janet’s car brakes down in the middle of nowhere, on a stormy night, and both are forced to seek refuge at a nearby castle. It belongs to Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), who’s holding an Annual Transylvanian Convention. Frank-N-Furter is a man in drag, his face painted like a member of Kiss. Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) is his hunchbacked, balding servant. Magenta (Patricia Quinn) is another servant and Riff Raff’s sister/lover. These main players are followed by The Transylvanians, a strange assortment of people who clap and cackle in the background on cue, who are dressed as though they have come straight from an Elton John costume party. Perhaps straight is the wrong word. They are in all shapes and sizes; black, white, old, young, short, tall, thin, fat – all in extremes, like a freak show.
It’s a special night at the castle. Frank-N-Furter is due to conduct his most daring experiment yet – the creation of life, Frankenstein-style. The ‘monster’ he creates is Rocky Horror, a sexual plaything for Frank-N-Furter, modelled on the 1930s body builder Charles Atlas.
This all happens in a frantic opening 30 minutes, and there are many more oddities in the remaining hour. It’s a bit confusing trying to keep up, as the narrative isn’t the tightest ever committed to screen. But then again, when a film is this sexually liberal, ‘tight’ probably shouldn’t be expected.
The funniest scene takes place after its strange, opening half hour. Brad, Janet, Rocky Horror, Frank-N-Furt and a few others sit around a dinner table, struggling to behave normally for Dr. Everett V. Scott (Jonathan Adams), a rival scientist who has come looking for his missing nephew. It’s the film’s way of fully embracing its ridiculousness by attempting to constrain it to a conventional situation. It’s not long before the seams begin to tear.
Initially, Frank-N-Furt comes across as a loony but harmless transvestite scientist. As the film progresses, he becomes darker and more disturbed. He bashes in a man’s brains out of jealousy and will snap ferociously on a whim. He’s the film’s true antagonist, yet through his complexity, he becomes its hero.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released 36 years ago, but still it remains provocative. That’s some feat. The songs are genuinely good. The opening one smacks of The Velvet Underground.
But it is an acquired taste. The jokes wear a bit thin and the flamboyant campiness can become overbearing for those who don’t fully share its sense of humour. Not that it becomes offensive or disgusting, just simply tedious. Which is probably the one thing it isn’t trying to be.
365 Days, 100 Films