Fresh Eyes: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Hello, readers! I'm Harrison Brockwell, one of the new writers for the Talk Film Society website. My parents were really sensitive when it came to what media I was exposed to as a child, so I have a ton of blind spots with regards to cinema. So, I'll be rectifying that for your pleasure, applying a pair of 'fresh eyes' to classic movies, both traditional and modern, and reviewing them from a place of near-blind ignorance. Let's get started!
Forty-one years after its theatrical release, The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a thoroughly campy and unexpected romp, that openly embraces the sexual counter-culture of the 70s. Based on the stage show by Richard O'Brien and brought to life by both O'Brien and director Jim Sharman, it is a clear parody of B-movies and science fiction from the early-to-mid 20th century, referencing works such as Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet, and It Came from Outer Space.
The film centers around a young couple, Brad and Janet (played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), who have their innocence stripped from them over the course of a night by Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite alien from the planet of Transsexual Transylvania, in the midst of creating his own version of Frankenstein's Monster, a bodybuilder he names "Rocky."
Bostwick and Sarandon give great performances, starting off as very pure, innocent ideals of the 1950's American tradition of sexuality and marriage, wearing prim, proper, and crisp white until falling victim to the debauchery "over at the Frankenstein place." Bostwick does a good job being a stick in the mud, and decently portrays the struggle of his traditional ideals against sexual openness that assaults him, literally at one point. Sarandon, however, deftly shows how intoxicating the sexual counter-culture can be to someone who has lived their life that repressed. The film specifically draws attention to that aspect of the film and her character in the song "Touch Me," which is all about Janet's repressed sexuality and newfound desires.
The powerhouse of this film, however, is Dr. Frank N. Furter, played to perfection by Tim Curry, in one of his best performances. Curry absolutely drips with sexuality, and the character's appeal is so strong that both Brad and Janet succumb to his advances. His sultry tone and flamboyantly physical performance make it damn near impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen when he is present. Frank Furter reminds me of David Bowie, due to his rejection of traditional gender roles, clothing and behavior. Plus, all the men seem to be doing their best Bowie impressions while singing.
There's a surprising amount of subtext to glean from Rocky Horror on the topic of 50s vs. 70s ideals of marriage and sex. The film seems to posit that the decadence and glamor on display will overwhelm traditional American ideals, which are dying (I mean, Brad proposes to Janet in a graveyard and in front of a coffin). But since Frank N. Furter and his over the top lifestyle are portrayed as depraved and villainous, eventually self-destructing, the openness and extravagance of that lifestyle are not a good long term solution to the dying American ideals of the 50s. The film doesn’t really offer a solution to this, a problem in itself, but the subtext is there, nonetheless.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a difficult movie to recommend to mainstream audiences, but has regardless become a cult classic with regular midnight showings and shadow-cast performances all over the world that imbue a sense of theatricality from musicals and stage shows. The way it addresses sexuality has maintained a sense of controversy in the decades after its initial release, yet has also manifested to become a symbol for an entire contingent of moviegoers for its sense of innate pleasure and deviancy. In a culture that tries to shove discussions of sexuality into the background, it's not difficult to understand how Rocky Horror has remained a classic that audiences are still engaging with today.