“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh – erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever. Can’t you just see it? Don’t dream it, be it.”
It’s easy to forget, as Halloween rolls around and my college campus is abuzz with Rocky fever, that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie. The movie itself and the live performances are one in the same. The call-outs, the newspapers on heads, and lastly the movie itself – it’s all one in the same. Rocky Horror is, in a way, less of a movie than any other movie. Subculture is critical in its discussion, as has always been true with this movie. For one night of the year in my town (on Halloween), all the freaks and weirdos get to come out of hiding, re-enacting every beat of this cherished film in a triumphant rebellion against normalcy. I attended last year, and while it was a fun time, I think there are some cinematic issues to the movie that I’m more interested in discussing: issues interspersed with some stylish triumphs.
Rocky Horror is a musical, and a good one at that. It finds its way into your earbuds as does any great collection of show tunes. While the film subverts and ridicules a lot of things, it doesn’t ridicule great songwriting, one of the film’s high points that accompanies the story of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon). A traditional, conservative pair of newlyweds, Branet stumbles upon the manor of Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry) when their car breaks down in the rain. A transvestite mad scientist hellbent on creating life, Frank N Furter brings about a wild sexual awakening over the course of the evening in which he awakens his latest creation: Rocky.
The film was based on a musical of several years prior, a cinematic translation that works fairly well given the musical’s goals. Rocky Horror has two big ideas: satirizing B-movies and bringing about sexual revolution. It marries these ideas without apology, playing off clunkiness for comedic effect. As a result, the movie has a lot of blind spots, and it’s easy to poke holes in Rocky Horror if you’re so inclined. And sure, I feel inclined.
It’s an uncomfortable thing, though, to criticize Rocky Horror. While I think it’s a cop out to claim that a movie “doesn’t care about being good,” I also think it’s unfair to critique a movie as something it’s not. Is this a spectacle? Yes, and it works best as one. That much is clear. Fans of the film will also defend its story, but this is where things get murky for me. I feel like standard B movies problems are still present here, regardless of how much they’re satirized. Rocky Horror runs out of steam for me. Everything that works about the first half hour, the passion and creativity – it all seems to fade as the movie only tries to top itself. I felt a John Waters sort of disdain at times, as if choices are sometimes made for the sake of themselves. If you take it as fact that Rocky Horror does take a shot at sci-fi storytelling, which I think it does, then the movie fails spectacularly. But if I’m wrong and it’s more about dressing up and putting newspapers on your head, then I think that’s a disservice too.
What separates Rocky Horror from Pink Flamingos, aside from being tamer, is that there’s a thematic agenda. The set design, the visual contrasts, the social rebellion that the movie puts forward – it works. It accomplishes what few movies manage with such assurance. Rocky Horror is undoubtedly an important piece of history and culture. The satire is biting, and there’s a love for science fiction of the mid 20th century that comes through in ways big and small. I wonder how many Rocky Horror fans are also fans of the movies referenced in the opening number (Science Fiction/Double Feature), probably less and less each year. I think the movie is celebrated today as a manifesto of identity and is often discredited for its honest adoration of B-cinema, which is sad, because that stuff really works as well.
Rocky Horror always cycles back to its legacy. The midnight shows aren’t going away any time soon, so maybe that’s where its discussion belongs. If you’re gonna watch Rocky Horror for the first time on your laptop screen, maybe don’t. But if you find someone who loves this thing and let them take you down their rabbit hole, you’ll probably have a much better experience. Happy Halloween.
Films Left to Watch: 866