It feels perilous to review a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the longest-running release in film history due to its permanent status as the midnight movie du jour. Basically a sci-fi camp musical retelling of the Frankenstein story, the film surpasses the perversity of even Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein released the year before.
Rocky Horror’s passionate midnight movie crowd generally dismisses watching the movie on video at home alone; it’s like watching a different film. Highly interactive, the midnight screenings follow specific cues: audiences yell at the screen, throw various props (e.g. toast, rice, toilet paper), and even enact initiation rituals on “virgins” who have never attended a midnight showing before. “Shadow casts” regularly return to the same theaters like artists-in-residence, performing alongside the film and casting the shadows of their homage directly onto the film’s actors themselves. Rocky Horror‘s massive fandom has inspired several documentaries in its own right.
Saturday, February 22
Director: Jim Sharman
Producer: Michael White
Writers: Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Neil Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray
US Theatrical Premiere: September 26, 1975
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
For the film’s shadow casts, the film has a relevance beyond its apparent merits or demerits as a film. Recently NPR chronicled how Rocky Horror’s midnight circuit has become a “reclaimed space” for countless individuals who otherwise would have no venue to express themselves. For many, the screenings have created a safe space—a “body positive” space—for those who have experienced anti-fat bias and to a lesser degree, for gender non-conforming individuals.
However, the midnight screenings aren’t for everyone. In fact, others have described the midnight screenings as “misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and ablelist,” the opposite of a safe space. The words audiences yell at the screen vary from screening to screening. Audiences have been reported to yell slurs like “cripple, faggot, bitch, [and] slut.” All in good fun?
Undoubtedly, Rocky Horror has a complicated relationship with issues of trans representation and transphobia. Main character Dr. Frank N. Furter sings that he is a “transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” which is explained later in the film to be an alien planet, rather than the Romanian locale. Watching Rocky Horror nearly forty years after its initial release, the film’s sensationalizing of transsexual identity hampers its concurrent call to sexual revolution. “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” Dr. Frank N. Furter sings, a liberatory camp anthem.
Tim Curry plays Dr. Frank N. Furter of course, in an incendiary and forever salient performance. Cape-clad, he explodes onto the screen in a glam rock-inspired opening number, spewing Jagger-like confidence. His mannerisms and extravagant “Belgravia hostess with the mostest” accent are truly inspired, considering it was his first film role. His closing torch song is a character study in dissolution, with mascara dripping and his confidence unraveling like the theater ropes that descend on him. Every upward curl of his lip, every strut, every frame that features him is memorable and perfectly cadenced. My vote for the film’s most striking frame features him squarely facing the camera in a long shot, with his pink latex gloves and green hospital gown viewable through the bars of an elevator, in positively Kubrickian one-point perspective. Even his tattoo seems timeless: the requisite heart pierced by arrow, with the word “BOSS” above it.
Does The Rocky Horror Picture Show hold up to repeated critical viewings? Probably not. A joyless narrator appears and reappears, in overly extended expositions. The plot has many unexplainable components that feel nonsensical rather than mysterious. Yet Tim Curry’s performance is enough, propelling the movie onward through many other solitary viewings, on video, at home alone. If getting hit by toast is your thing, head to the Landmark’s Uptown Theater for one of their monthly midnight screenings. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.