The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the 1970s American Cult Film

This past December (Fall 2014 semester), I took a film studies course entitled “Cultural Perspectives in Film” (FILM 2117). The concentration for the course this semester was American cinema of the 1970s, so we spent our weeks screening all kinds of films from the decade and discussing them in class. From Putney Swope (1969) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) to An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), our class watched films of all genres and analyzed them under the lens of the counterculture audience of the ’70s.

Aside from the in-class screenings, students had to choose one film from a group of four or five selected by Professor Paula Massood to screen at home and answer five questions. This assignment was given three separate times during the semester, and the final assignment had students answer the same questions, but allowed them to choose their own film. The only criteria was that utmost be an American-made film produced in the ’70s.

Since I had asked the professor if she wouldn’t mine me designating this course as an honors course in the beginning of the semester, she allowed me some leeway in choosing a film for my final assignment. After some discussion, I chose to screen and analyze The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for my final writing piece. Professor Massood and I agreed that I would answer an extra question about the American cult film during the ’70s. Below is a selection of questions and answers from the paper. I hope you enjoy reading a “Rocky Horror virgin’s” first-time experience with the film and its rich cult history!

Questions 4 and 6 have been removed since they were pertinent to class discussions and readings. 

– – – – –

1Q) Please identify the film and provide some production history.

1A) Few spectacles of cinema have gained as much cult popularity as the The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS for short). A British musical comedy film released in 1975, RHPS was produced by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Made on a budget of $1.2 million, the film became the second highest grossing film on 1975, grossing nearly $140 million across theater rentals and box office sales (IMDb). Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the film that beat it in the box office, but clever RHPS advertisers used this to the film’s advantage; posters and merchandise were branded with the RHPS mascot, a red set of lips, and a tagline which read, “A different set of jaws” (Wikipedia).

Despite its overseas origins as a 1973 musical stage show, the film adaptation is perhaps the greatest example of a film “made” in America. “Made” here meaning that it only started profiting and gaining notoriety and popularity in the states. After its initial box office flop at its London and Los Angeles releases, the film was put on the midnight screening circuit in major cities across the United States by Fox executive Tim Deegan (Wikipedia). The idea was to hop on the growing popularity of midnight screenings of strange, low-budget films such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Pink Flamingos (1972) in college towns. RHPS skyrocketed into pop culture stardom when audiences at New York City’s Waverly Theater turned it into what it is now: a cult film that relies almost entirely on a mixture of audience participation and stage play accompaniment.

2Q) Briefly summarize the film’s plot.

2A) RHPS notoriously follows a very strange narrative. The film is based on the 1973 stage production and book, both written by Richard O’Brien. O’Brien would go on to co-write the screenplay with director Jim Sharman, as well as star in the film adaptation as Riff Raff. A love letter to the golden age of science fiction films and B movies (mainly horror), RHPS pays tribute to the films, music and social mentality of the 1940s and 50s, as well as defining the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s.

The film follows the story of Janet and Brad, a newly engaged couple living in Denton, Ohio. As they travel through a storm to meet an ex-tutor and friend, Dr. Scott, they experience an auto-breakdown near the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry). When they approach his gigantic castle in search of a phone, Riff Raff, a house servant, invites them inside. They meet Frank-N-Furter’s other servant, Magenta (Riff Raff’s sister and lover), and eventually the doctor himself. After Janet and Brad realize that they’ve stumbled upon the Annual Transylvanian Convention, Frank-N-Furter sings about how he’s a transsexual transvestite from Transylvania. This begins the couple’s nightlong journey through the castle and a sexual, emotional, and mental transformation.

Frank-N-Furter promises that he’ll help the couple, but first invites the two up to his lab to “see what’s on the slab.” It turns out that Frank-N-Furter has discovered the secret to life itself, and he creates a Greek god-like human being of physical perfection (a reference to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the monster that he creates). This creature, named Rocky Horror, is the newest one in Frank-N-Furter’s line of creations. The doctor says that other beings he brought to life never turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped for, but Rocky is different. One of his past creations/captives, a motorcycle-riding, saxophone-toting rock-and-roller, Eddie (played by Meat Loaf) accidentally escapes from the castle’s deep freezer and causes a ruckus at the convention. Frank-N-Furter silences him by murdering him with an ice axe, horrifying Rocky, Janet, Brad, and the rest of the convention visitors. Realizing his actions have startled the guests, Frank-N-Furter makes up for it by celebrating with his guests the fact that he’s going to “make Rocky a man.”

As he and Rocky retire to the master bedroom, the rest of his guests retire to their own quarters. Frank-N-Furter has his way with Rocky and then disguises himself as Brad and Janet, respectively. He sneaks into Janet and Brad’s bedrooms, one after the other, seducing them both into giving up their virginity. They know they made a commitment to the other to save themselves for after marriage, but Frank-N-Furter’s alien powers of seduction and sensual pleasure prove too much to handle. Rocky’s escape from the master bedroom is what eventually forces Frank-N-Futer to leave Janet and Brad alone. While Frank-N-Furter punishes Riff Raff for doing a poor job of supervising Rocky, Janet finds the “creature of the night” hiding in the lab where he was born. She and Rocky share an intimate moment during which Janet realizes that giving into her carnal desires and sensual pleasures is what she’s always wanted. Her experience with Frank-N-Furter is what made her realize she should be more open to exploring them.

Frank-N-Furter, his servants, Rocky, Janet and Brad all reunite back in the lab. They realize that the man Janet and Brad were going to visit in the beginning of the film, Dr. Scott, has come searching for Eddie, the ex-delivery boy who was being held captive in the deep freezer. Dr. Scott enters the castle and confronts Frank-N-Furter and his servants over dinner, calling them aliens. Frank-N-Furter reveals that dinner was actually meat from Eddie’s corpse, and that they are all transsexual aliens from the galaxy of Transylvania. He “Medusas” all of his guests (a process which freezes them into Greek statues) and transports them all to his final floorshow.

During the show, Frank-N-Furter sings about his ideology to be whatever you want and not just dream of being it. Still in a hypnotic, Medusa-induced state, the rest of his guests sing along with him. Riff Raff and Magenta break up the show, stating that they’re taking over because of Frank-N-Furter excessive decadence and uncontrollable lust on earth. They murder Frank-N-Furter and Rocky, transport the castle and all inside it back to their galaxy, and leave Janet, Brad and Dr. Scott permanently altered and scarred by the experiences of the night.

3Q) Does the film follow any genre conventions?

3A) RHPS follows many genre conventions while also creating an entirely new one. The main genres that the film pays homage to are movie musicals and science fiction, although there are also aspects of horror (through set design and gore), drama (during romantic encounters between leading ladies and male heroes), and comedy (in crisp, stinging dialogue and satirical views of marriage, chastity and concern over physical appearance). As far as movie musicals go, RHPS is fairly conventional. The characters express their feelings and ideas through song and dance, the plot is advanced with each song, and as Tim Curry says, “it’s very much a musical [because] a lot of the energy of the whole event is in the music” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Where the film breaks movie musical conventions is in the content of the song and dance, and how it’s all portrayed visually on-screen. Everything is highly sexualized and sensational, with bare-naked bodies, men in women’s clothing (corsets, fishnet stockings, heels), and sexual acts all shown throughout the film. These subjects were very taboo prior to the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. When American youth lost trust in their government during the Vietnam War and scandals of President Nixon, their generation formed a niche audience that yearned for any and everything that was against what their parents had raised them to believe. Sex, violence and rock-n-roll music are just a few of the things that make RHPS so appealing to this audience.

The science fiction side of the film also followed a lot of conventions while starting new ones. The way that Rocky Horror is born is almost identical to the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (from Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein film). The powers of giving life, aliens from another galaxy visiting earth, and the setting of a castle on a dark, stormy night have always been traditions of the sci-fi genre. The story of RHPS being narrated from the perspective of a knowledgeable narrator (in this case, a criminologist) is another genre tradition the film kept alive. Many of the sci-fi films from the 1940’s and 50s featured the bringing in of a professional, some detective or physic or specialist who could explain to the rest of the characters what was going on. What RHPS changes is the idea of the classic version of Dr. Frankenstein dressing in drag and having sexual relations with the townspeople rather than fleeing from them. The film takes a lot of pre-used plot points and characters and then sensualizes are fetishizes them.

Director Jim Sharman called his film a “1970s version of The Wizard of Oz” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Like The Wiz (1978), which truly was a ‘70s version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), RHPS took the idea of a group of characters exploring a fantastical, magical world led by an eccentric ringmaster and made it raunchy, gothic, and infectiously good fun for audiences to listen to. Meat Loaf being featured in the film is a clear sign the music was written specifically to please younger fans of rock and roll. Sharman also commented that he was excited for the piece because “for once there wasn’t something that was created by a very small group of people to be turned over to a [studio] to be pulped out, but in fact the people that originally created it and the actors had a lot to do with it.” The independent, low budget nature of RHPS shines through in obvious technical ways (i.e., boom microphone shadows and stunt wires in shots), but also in very meaningful musical and narrative ways. The story being unlike anything before it is of integral importance to its cult popularity.

5Q) Can you compare the film with any of the titles we’ve screened in class?

5A) In a 1975 interview with STOIC (Student Television Of Imperial College), Curry remarked “he was hesitant [to take the role] in that if it worked, it might be a difficult image to shake off” (STOIC Interview). Acting generally is a high-risk business, in that the actor is the thing that everyone working on a film crew or going to see a movie focuses on. The lighting, camera work, directing, makeup, art and costumes are all there, but it’s the performance that people immediately look at. Curry’s portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter is certainly no exception: it was a high-energy role which required him to dress in drag, act as a bisexual alien, and strip down in front of the camera. This is immediately comparable to Duane Jones’ portrayal of Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Robert La Tourneaux’s portrayal of Cowboy Tex in The Boys in the Band (1970). Both roles required a great deal of commitment to jump into the unknown. Ben slapped a white woman and took charge of a fully white team of survivors in a time when racism and segregation were boiling in the United States. Cowboy Tex sold himself off as a male stripper and homosexual callboy in New York City, a place where the LGBT scene was often heavily discriminated against. Risqué roles are never easy for an actor to play, but the subsequent performances are usually worth their weight in gold (the emotions and feelings are often all the more real when actors have personal stakes involved).

Putney Swope (1969) is another film that can be juxtaposed with RHPS. Aside from the obvious difference that the former focuses on racial tension on the latter on sci-fi sexuality, both share one very big similarity: the main character, whom the film was named after, is completely dubbed over. In Putney Swope, the title character’s dialogue was dubbed by director Robert Downey Sr. He stated in an interview that it was because the actor couldn’t remember his lines, but it’s hard to believe that Downey’s interest in French New Wave films and his desire to play off of conventions in a white and black relationship didn’t influence the decision (Massood Lecture 1). In RHPS, Peter Hinwood played Rocky Horror, and was selected primarily for his physical features. “He was an underwear model with no acting experience; all of his speaking lines were cut, and his singing voice was dubbed by singer Trevor White” (Broadway). With each film, the director made a major decision during post-production to alter the main character of the film. The result in both films is a character that looks and sounds like a puppet. Swope is an African American man who restructures a predominantly white business into a black one, but he ends up running it into the ground. Did Swope really ever have control of the situation? Rocky starts out as a creation of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and is killed as a creation of the Transylvanian race. Did he ever have a say over his own fate, or was he doomed from birth?

Lastly, Days of Heaven (1978) also strikes a very familiar chord with RHPS. Terrence Malick crafted a storybook-style auteur film about a family trying to make it (Massood Lecture 2). The picture’s setting is the Texas panhandle during the 1910s, but it’s a timeless film in that it could really happen during any time at any place. The film isn’t necessarily set in the moment, and RHPS is very similar. The director did lock the film in the 70s by having a car radio play a news broadcast about President Nixon, but the idea of aliens from another planet visiting the earth to explore and spread their ideas is timeless. The science fiction genre is generally about questioning reality and our human understanding of the world we live in, so who knows: maybe there is a galaxy full of transsexuals somewhere in our universe. Days of Heaven may explore a different genre and its corresponding conventions, but the parable of The Farmer getting entrapped in a love triangle alongside Abby and Bill juxtaposes well with Dr. Frank-N-Furter getting involved with Rocky and a newly engaged couple.

Honors Question: What contributions did The Rocky Horror Picture Show make to the midnight movie? Are there any cult film genre conventions it paved the way for?

HQA) As a continuation from the previous question, the most important reason I’d replace Putney Swope with RHPS is because it kick started an American film genre: audience participation-based cult films. Beginning in NYC’s Waverly Theater (called by theatergoers a “mecca for midnight movies,” holding midnight screenings of films like Night of the Living Dead on a regular basis), a small group of audience members who went to see RHPS started dressing like the film’s characters, shouting back dialogue at the screen, and performing bits of the film on the stage in front of the projection screen. These traditions would spread to other theaters in NYC and catch on like wildfire, eventually becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

It should be noted that midnight movies “were far from being an exclusively American phenomenon,” with theater exhibitionists holding midnight screenings across the United States, Britain and France for years prior (Midnight Movies, 3). RHPS even pays homage to this fact in the opening song, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is about late night B science fiction films being screened for cheap, good times. Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s floorshow is another tribute to theater activities of the past, mixing live burlesque and carnival performance (dressing in costume, wearing makeup and masks, pretending to be someone one isn’t) with classic Hollywood movie musical ideas and themes (the RKO Pictures logo towers over the stage, harkening back to upbeat song and dance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals).

The moment that RHPS became the American phenomenon that it did was on Labor Day weekend of 1976, when “Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher form Staten Island, felt compelled to speak to the [Waverly Theater] screen. He is credited as the first person to yell lines at the movie” (RHPS Official Fan Site) He coined the term “counterpoint dialogue,” using it to express his joy in having off-screen conversations with the onscreen characters. More theatergoers began reserving weekly seats in the Waverly Theater balconies, and joined Farese in shouting at the screen and dancing to the film’s soundtrack. Around Halloween of that same year, some came in dressed as their favorite leather and lace-toting characters. These traditions caught on and continued well past Halloween. Live performance was mixed into the RHPS experience when audience members got up for the “Time Warp” dance sequence. Others began to walk to the front of the theater to perform as the characters onscreen, and eventually a full floorshow version of the film would be performed live on the stage in front of the projection screen as RHPS played (RHPS Official Fan Site).

By 1977, “newspapers, magazines, you name it, had begun to pick up on what was going on at the Waverly” (RHPS Official Fan Site). Word spread across the country as NYC residents who had been part of the Waverly phenomenon moved out. Many of them carried their RHPS traditions over to new theaters around the country, and the film became what it is today: a cult film experience relying on audience participation. In a 1990 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that RHPS “is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon” (RogerEbert.com). Midnight audiences of the 1970s didn’t just want to sit back and watch another Hollywood film with clear heroes and villains. They clearly wanted to have their own unique experience, where they were really paying for their own show. They wouldn’t go into a theater to sit down, watch a film, and discuss it afterwards. They would dress up, act out, sing and dance, and reinterpret scenes from RHPS in their own unique way, creating their own special kind of blockbuster film.

Other films have carried on the audience participation cinema torch. For example, interest in The Sound of Music (1965, considered by many to be the last successful Hollywood movie musical) was rekindled after the success of RHPS. In 2005, the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater began hosting live sing-along screenings to the movie musical. Many audience members and critics have referred to the experience as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac.” The greatest modern example of audience participation cinema is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). This was another film that bombed upon its initial release, but was reinterpreted by college students on the midnight movie circuit. Actions like throwing spoons at the projection screen, playing football, dressing in tuxedos, and quoting lines from the film as they’re screened live have all become time-honored traditions of The Room experience.

O’Brien mentioned that “there was a surreal dreamlike quality to the movie that was never present in the stage show” (RHPS BTS Featurette). This surreal quality is the main convention for audience-participation cinema that RHPS was the first to capture. Contemporary audience participation cinema and cult films such as The Room, Eraserhead (1977), Re-Animator (1985), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Sharknado (2013), and many others all share in this same surreal feeling: you can’t really believe it’s happening as you watch it. Whether it’s because of poorly designed or decorated sets, terrible acting, strange and non-sensical stories, etc. Maybe Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s call to “[not] dream it, [but] be it” is what made RHPS the longest running theatrical release in history (it’s still screened nationwide today). Despite it being a British-born film, this is an American-made movie in every sense that forever changed the midnight movie culture and the audience participation cult film.

 

References:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick. 1975. 20th Century Fox, 2002. DVD.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” IMDb. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073629/?ref_=nv_sr_1 >

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Wikipedia. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show >

“Rocky Horror Picture Show – Behind The Scenes Featurette (Remastered).” YouTube. Web. 15 December 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfL98tLN1t8 >

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff. 1931. Universal Pictures, 2009. DVD.

The Wiz. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor. 1978. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Wood, Robin. The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s. 1979. 25 – 32.

“STOIC Interview – Time Curry Talks About The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” Student Television of Imperial College. 1975. YouTube. Web. 16 December 2014.
< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5sTIGLo79g >

Night of the Living Dead. Dir, George Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. 1968. American Pop Classics: The Archive Collection, 2012. DVD.

The Boys in the Band. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Fray. Paramount, 2008. DVD.

Putney Swope. Dir. Robert Downey Sr. Perf. Arnold Johnson. 1969. Homevision, 2006. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 1, “Putney Swope (Robert Downey Sr., 1969).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 3 September 2014. Lecture.

Champion, Lindsay. “Happy Birthday, Dear Rocky! 38 Freaky Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” August 2013. Broadway. Web. 16 December 2014
http://www.broadway.com/buzz/171159/happy-birthday-dear-rocky-38-freaky-facts-about-the-rocky-horror-picture-show/ >

Days of Heaven. Dir. Terrence Malick. Perf. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard. 1978. Criterion, 2007. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 2, “Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 10 December 2014. Lecture.

Hoberman, J, and Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Midnight Movies. Boston: HarperCollins & DaCapo Press, 1983. Print.

Piro, Sal. “How it Began.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show Official Fan Site. Web. 16 December 2014.
http://www.rockyhorror.com/history/howapbegan.php >

Ebert, Roger. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Review (1975).” Roger Ebert Website 1975. Web. 15 December 2014.
< http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975 >

About Daniel

Daniel is a graduate of CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, summa cum laude with a B.A. in Film Production and TV/Radio. He can be reached via his website, www.passingplanes.com. The Utopia of Daniel was his college blog and he has since transitioned to posting on other sites.