January 5, 2017
Rocky Horror Picture Show, The – US, 1975
It may be too late to truly discover Jim Sharman’s legendary film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is a film that I knew only from marquees advertising midnight screenings of cult classics; the difference was that it always came with a kind of party. The film was always advertised as an event, and classmates from my theater class who attended one of its many late night showings raved about the glory and craziness of it all. Now, there are many films that have acquired cult status. Some do this because their quality was apparent to only a few people upon their initial releases, and, let’s be frank about this, others have been given the moniker because of their less than stellar quality, the idea being that seeing a bad movie can also be an experience. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is somewhere in the middle – fun for a while, but, like in-laws during the holidays, ultimately overstaying its welcome and becoming somewhat tedious.
Here, let me add a caveat. Had I seen the film in 1975, I may have had a different reaction. At that time, parodies had yet to saturate the market, and there may have been a great more novelty in a film that poked fun at drive-in B-films and all of their excesses and stereotypes. Therefore, at that time, I imagine audiences got a real kick out of seeing the film’s intentionally over-the-top numbers and occasionally larger-than-life acting, and they likely got a thrill at being able to spot all of the references and horror-film clichés littered throughout the film. I was no different, for there is an audacity to the film that is still particularly effective, and at many times, my jaw was on the floor and a grin on my face. Here’s the thing, though – I didn’t laugh much, and I should have.
The film begins with a variation of a standard horror film set-up: A car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s no spare and it’s pouring rain. Just what is a newly engaged couple to do? Fortunately, for them, they passed a castle not too far back, and since nothing bad has ever happened to anyone who knocked on a castle door in the middle of the night, the couple opts to seek help there. There’s even the obligatory sign warning them to “Enter At Your Own Risk,” at which they laughingly only give a passing glance. Once inside, an Igor-inspired characters leads a bunch of costumed guests into doing the time warp again, a Dracula-type has them strip down for the kind of creation scene that was not possible in Mary Shelley’s time, and a Rock ‘n Roll biker crashes the scene to… actually, I have no idea what his motivation for showing up was. You get the point. This is an audacious, take-no-prisoners film, with a soundtrack that is guaranteed to get a willing audiences’ collective feet tapping and characters that will likely never completely lose their shock value.
And yet, without its live audience and staged events, without the inspired popcorn throwing and sing-along segments, without the energy of a enthusiastic crowd to embrace the utter chaos in front of them, the film lacked something. I noticed its intentional narrative shallowness, and I was bothered by this. The film didn’t seem to want to go anywhere. It seemed content to be about nothing in particular and to be a response to things that came before rather than a vision of the future and of the genre’s potential. I wondered what about the film inspired so much affection and excitement, the film itself or the event it later became. I even remember thinking to myself, This is probably better live.
Having said this, I fear I may have given a more negative impression of the film than I intended to. This was not my objective, for there is much that I liked about it. Many of the film’s musical numbers are creative and well choreographed. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, asked to give a combination of acting that is both realistic for its genre and at times much exaggerated, give admirable performances, Tim Curry is a wonder as Dr. Frank N. Furter, and Nell Campbell brings an infectious energy to her musical numbers. Also worth commending is Meatloaf, who, in just a few minutes of impressive screen time, shows what makes him such a popular performer. The film is indeed fun and vibrant, and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. So it didn’t all work for me. Just enough did. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars