Why It Works: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
If you caught The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do The Time Warp Again on Fox last week, you may have that same taste in your mouth you get when you find out the turkey dinner you've been enjoying is actually Meat Loaf. The remake / revival / whatever featured a very talented cast and a fairly worthy music and design team, but ultimately all it did was remind most of us how much we love the original (while also probably ensuring some who've never seen it never will). After over 40 years, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is still one of the most fun, bizarre, memorable, and unparalleled movie musicals to date. While on paper, the film should be classified as an absolute disaster, it manages to strike just the right balance and capture our hearts in the process. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
The characters of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW aren't exactly complicated and three dimensional, but they're certainly interesting. At the forefront of the story we have Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, a newly engaged couple who are just about as "gee, shucks" as you can imagine. Having such naive and virginal protagonists is integral to the story, as it not only provides an extreme juxtaposition with the rest of the characters but also gives Brad and Janet more or a height from which to fall. A stark contrast to our wayward heroes, Dr. Frank N. Furter is just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania. Frank lives an extreme lifestyle, even in the eyes of his fellow Transylvanians, mostly due to matters of the flesh- whether it be his desire to resurrect, consume, or simply revel in it. In this amalgamation of lonely mad scientist, hedonistic deviant, and glamorous diva, we see the weird and wonderful heart of ROCKY HORROR, which is one of equal parts horror show, grotesquerie, camp musical, awakening parable, and playful comedy. Rounding out the cast are Earthbound siblings Riff Raff and Magenta, the star-crossed showgirl Columbia and greaser Eddie, Frank's beautiful but lunkheaded creation Rocky, Brad and Janet's eccentric teacher Dr. Scott, and finally our debonair narrator, the Criminologist.
Someone give Tim Curry ten Oscars for this performance.
WHY WE CARE:
The plot of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is utterly ridiculous. Brad and Janet knock on Frank's door after their car breaks down, after which Frank invites them in to awaken Rocky, the man he created. When Eddie, a previous experiment of Frank's, causes trouble, Frank murders him and proceeds to sleep with Rocky and later that night seduce Janet and Brad in turn. Rocky escapes and sleeps with Janet when Eddie's uncle, Dr. Scott shows up looking for his nephew. Frank feeds Eddie to his unwitting guests before freezing them and putting them in costumes to perform a midnight cabaret. During the show, Frank's servants Riff Raff and Magenta burst in to overthrow their leader, revealing themselves and Frank to be aliens. The pair kill Frank, Columbia, and Rocky, leaving Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott to crawl around in the dirt as the house lifts off into the heavens, and THAT'S THE PLOT OF THE MOVIE. For one, the fact that both the movie and the plot are so tongue-in-cheek keeps us entertained, as we certainly never feel bogged down by an obvious narrative we're just waiting to resolve, and the fact that the scenery and story are ever-changing keeps us stimulated. The musical numbers are also quite varied, ranging from intense to playful to sometimes truly emotional. Despite all of this chaos, the spirit of the film never changes, and so even though we're thrust into a world where we have no idea what to expect from one minute to the next, we have a constant theme and voice to keep us reasonably grounded.
"It's not often we receive visitors here, let alone offer them... hospitality."
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
"...and crawling on the planet's face, some insects called the human race, lost in time and lost in space- and meaning." For as kooky as THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is, it ends on a fairly solemn note and even provides a bit of a message to take home. Frank was condemned for living too extreme a lifestyle, and Brad and Janet are left crawling in the tattered remains of their decadence. Now, I'm not saying a movie that celebrates freakiness as much as ROCKY HORROR is actually denouncing it, but there is something about the gut punch of Frank's "I'm Going Home" and subsequent death and Brad and Janet's "Superheroes" and hopeless ending that gives the film more weight than if it simply ended in some glorious finale. In fact, that the movie even has an ending is almost a surprise, as we haven't had much of a throughline to hang onto thus far. In the same way much of the film asks us to enjoy it on an impressionistic level rather than a logical one, so too the ending satisfies our senses by being grander and more emotional than we've seen up to this point. The optimism of "Don't Dream It" and the celebration of "Wild and Untamed Thing" are dashed by the resulting heartbreak, loss, and death- not to mention the angry aliens departing in a mansion-shaped spaceship. If only Brad had gotten that spare tire fixed...
"They didn't like me! They never liked me!"
WHY WE REMEMBER:
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is, at a glance, a spoof of horror and science fiction movies from the 1930's to the 1960's. Aside from the opening song, which references several titles and actors of the genre, Frank first appears in a Dracula cape, he plays Dr. Frankenstein in his creation of Rocky, Rocky first appears in a mummy's wrappings, Riff Raff and Magenta reveal themselves to be a version of tinfoil B-movie aliens, and Rocky suffers a King Kong death, carrying his beloved (who had just sung about idolizing Fay Wray) to the top of a tower only to be shot down. What sets ROCKY HORROR aside, however, is the fact that it doesn't just go through the plot of a famous movie and insert jokes, the way most spoofs do. Instead, the references, numerous as they may be, are merely a backdrop for an original story. Add to that a series of catchy songs and fun musical numbers, and the film stands widely apart from the genres it's built upon, solidifiying itself as something truly unique. Along with the story and songs Richard O'Brien (aka. Riff Raff) adapted from the original stage production, director Jim Sharman delivers a film shot in earnest rather than playing up the comedy or making the musical numbers bloated and over-produced. Tim Curry gives an absolutely extraordinary performance, bringing all the grace, sophistication, sexuality, and lunacy his character deserves. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick lead the rest of the cast as our wide-eyed heroes, with Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, and one-time Blofeld Charles Gray providing a wide variety of entertaining and memorable characters. In addition to continued productions of the original stage show and the Fox's recent crack at the story, theaters all over the world still host interactive midnight screenings of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It's appropriate that a movie which so unabashedly celebrated the lost tradition of midnight movies would become far and away the most popular midnight movie of all time.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
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