Were it not for the cinema’s eye-wateringly 90s decor, I very well may have felt that the Time Warp had indeed been done. The famous red lips filled the screen heralding the beginning of one of the most famous cult films of all time to an audience of roughly the same size as those which occupied cinemas forty years ago. As Brad and Janet were
dragged into their various misadventures, and bore witness to thumping musical numbers, there was scarcely more than a titter from our little group of viewers. Seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show felt like stepping back into the past…
For the uninitiated, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the film adaptation of the hugely popular stage show, The Rocky Horror Show. It follows the squeaky-clean Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) as they get caught with a flat tyre and seek refuge in a large Manor House, inhabited by the crossdressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, who has just finished creating his very own muscle man, complete with sparkly gold hotpants.
If the thought of Tim Curry in a corset and suspenders alone is not enough, the film is oozing with references, high camp and pastiche. Now the longestrunning film release in history (constantly since the first release, and once per week in some cinemas), it was panned on release in 1975 and generally failed to draw audiences or critics.
However, in some cinemas, namely in Westwood, Los Angeles, tickets were selling out, but often to the same people. Producers saw the growing cult appeal and re-released Rocky Horror as a ‘midnight movie’ in the Waverly Theatre in New York. It was here that the ritualistic and complex traditions of audience participation, from shouting back to the characters to throwing rice to lighting candles, began. Soon there came to be a ‘shadow cast’ of fans dressing as the characters and acting out their roles in front of the screen as the film played. From there we had the makings of a true (if not the quintessential) cult film.
And, so the story returns to me, sitting in a darkened cinema, watching the lips enunciate with grotesque exaggeration the opening theme, along with about twenty others. As far as I can tell, the screening was supposed to be live coverage of an event held at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the 40th Anniversary, but due to some vague technical issues we were presented instead with the film alone.
The writer in me initially reacted with disappointment that coverage of the event would be necessarily impossible, but as we got into the film I began to realise a new outlook on my experience. I had first approached Rocky Horror with some knowledge of the film’s status, albeit with no idea of the plot. The reality of the first viewing seems for many to be one of being confided in by the already-faithful, who may sing along as you all get steadily drunker in a living room somewhere and the aforementioned plot gets steadily harder to follow under the sheer weight of the weirdness. Seeing it in a cinema, however, stripped away the various extenuating factors, (except, perhaps, the sound of familiar lyrics muttered into the darkness by an audience too shy to sing) allows one a view into what it may have been like to experience the film in the early days.
If anything, it might be more subversive now then it was then. As conversations about gender, and particularly transsexuality, have become more open and frank (pun not intended but enjoyed), the portrayal of Dr. Furter warrants far more scrutiny than it might have enjoyed even forty years ago. Tim Curry’s almost violently camp performance can no longer be held at arm’s length as absurd but instead serves as both an exploration of how gender works and how it was perceived amongst mainstream and countercultures in the 70’s.
But this is not to say that Rocky Horror is irrelevant today, or even particularly dated (beyond the rather basic premise of having to walk to a stranger’s house in order to use their telephone). Even beyond continuing questions of gender, the attractiveness of giving oneself over to “absolute pleasure” and stories of sexual awakening are things that we hedonistic students, stereotypically at least, likely have or will come into contact with. And if nothing else, the prospect of a cult musical sci-fi horror muscle B-movie mashup with stellar acting all round can’t help but have wide appeal. So get some rice in hand, warm up your voice and prepare to discover the source of references you didn’t know you knew and have a watch of this most cultish of cult films before the anniversary year is up. I see you shiver with antici—-