I was 17 or 18 years old when two friends took me on a drive down to Portland, Oregon to see a “funny movie” that I might like. It wasn’t the first time that Jim and Bob had taken me to Portland to shop for comics and then catch a movie, but it was the first time that we left so late in the evening. The movie was only shown at midnight, they said.
I confess I was a bit freaked out once we got there. It was a neighborhood we hadn’t been to before, and they hadn’t warned me that almost everyone waiting in line for the show would be in costumes. Many of them oddly sexual costumes. They also hadn’t warned me that it was an R-rated show. It was only after we had sat down, and the lights dimmed that Jim handed me a newspaper and told me to hang onto it, “you’ll need it later.” So they also didn’t warn me about the audience participation that was about to go down.
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show was released on film in 1975. The show had started as a musical stage play written by London actor Richard O’Brien, who poured all of his love for schlocky 40s and 50s muscle-man movies, horror and sci fi films ranging from the 30s through 70s, and rock and roll into the show. It played first in a small 60-seat theatre, but well enough to quickly move to bigger venues, and then the play’s director, Jay Sharman, secured funding to make a movie.
O’Brien’s original script focused on the unintentional humor of the older sci fi and horror film, with only a sprinkling of references to the homoeroticism found in films such as Hercules Unchained and Duel of the Titans. But as they developed the play, and the actors (particularly a young Tim Curry) figured out how they wanted to play the characters, the pansexual and transsexual elements become much more important.
The film didn’t do very well, at all. Mainstream audiences just didn’t understand it. But a studio executive, noting that the movies Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness were making money in midnight showings, had the idea to get some theaters to show it at midnight (the first showing on April Fool’s Day 1976). And then the show quickly gained a cult following, with people showing up in costume, and then fully costumed local casts re-enacting the show just in front of the screen as it was playing.
I was totally unprepared. People in the audience started chanting “Lips! Lips!” before the movie started. People were singing along and shouting things that I couldn’t quite understand. And then the cast started mimicking what was happening. The one time I asked my friends what was happening they just shushed me and said, “it’ll make sense eventually!”
I was very uncomfortable and confused and a little bit angry at my friends. I couldn’t always understand what was happening on screen because of the shouting from the audience.
And then, with a big build up of rising music (and the audience clapping in time with the bass beat), suddenly Tim Curry was there, in the corset and fishnets belting out, “How’d’ya do I, see you’ve met my, faithful.. HANDY-man…”
It was like a punch right in my chest. And a rush of adrenaline (and other hormones) as he prowled and pranced while belting out “Sweet Transvestite.”
I was completely closeted. This was at least seven years before the first moment I would say aloud (very anxiously) the words “I think I might be gay.” I was still living in a small town attending a conservative evangelical church. I sang in an evangelical touring choir! At least 99% of the people I could categorize as friends were members of either the choir or very similar churches. I lived in a state of constant fear of someone not just calling me a fag (which happened all the time at school), but of deciding that it was actually true. I was constantly monitoring myself, trying to stop myself from saying things that didn’t conform to people’s expectations, trying to stop myself from doing things that didn’t conform, from admitting to liking things that people didn’t think a normal guy should like, and so forth.
And there, on the screen (not to mention sitting all around me) were people flaunting and reveling in nonconformity. Specifically sexual nonconformity!
It blew my mind.
I was pulled into the movie. All the audience participation, the local cast, and everything that wasn’t happening on the screen just vanished for the rest of the movie. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to know what would happen next on screen.
I tried to talk about the plot of the movie with my friends during the drive home after. They were immensely amused that I actually followed the show for the plot. They insisted the movie was just an excuse for the audience to yell and leer. “It doesn’t really have a plot!”
I didn’t see it again for several years. But by then I could sing along to most of the songs, because I’d gotten hold of the soundtrack and listened to it about a million times. The audience participation bits had changed in those years. And when I saw it in a theatre one more time a few years later, they had changed further. I am a huge Rocky Horror fan who doesn’t know most of the audience participation stuff.
The movie is meant to be a parody of all those schlocky sci fi and horror films particularly of the 50s and 60s. The story isn’t meant to be literature. But the film isn’t, really about the story. It’s about taking what was subtext everywhere else—coded homosexual relationships, homoerotic tension (whether intentional or not), sexual relationships of all kinds—and making it manifest. Frank N Furter builds a man for the express purpose of being his sexual plaything, for goodness sake! Several of the characters are casually bisexual or pansexual, but the fact that traditional romances also involve sex (which films and stories before that virtually never acknowledged) is also shoved front and center.
The film doesn’t just poke fun at convention and conformity of all kinds, it dresses convention up in fishnet stockings and makes it sing and dance about why noncomfority is great.
Over the years I’ve watched the film many, many times at home, thanks to availability on VHS back in the day and later DVD. I’ve also attended a couple of live performances of the stage version, as well as really, really enjoying last year’s Rocky Horror Show LIVE by the BBC. I was thus really hopeful about the Fox remake of the film starring trans actress Laverne Cox… and I was sorely disappointed. They were both too timid and too slavishly committed to imitating the 1975 film. There were good moment. I’m happy to see that Tim Curry is able to work, despite the severe stroke he suffered a few years ago. And Adam Lambert rocked the Eddie role, but many of the other casting and design choices were… well, not good.
The BBC version of the live performance (with rotating actors playing the Criminologist–Anthony Stewart Head among them) is available in its entirely on YouTube. I quite enjoyed streaming it to my TV via the YouTube app on my Apple TV last week after watching the Fox version. And the original is available in many formats.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a parody of many sci fi and horror movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sci fi itself. Particularly if you define speculative fiction the way that my new favorite author, Nisi Shawl sometimes does: fiction that de-privileges the status quo. Rocky Horror does that, in spades, while celebrating the outsider, the misfits, and the freaks (and showing that there’s at least a little bit of a freak inside everyone). I wasn’t ready to come out after watching it the first time, but it was another step down the path of realizing that this queer sci fi geek was not alone in the world, and that it isn’t enough to just dream it, you have to let yourself be it.