*Dedicated to my best friend to whom I owe everything. I love you.*
The year is 1973. It has been 4 years since the Stonewall Riots and 3 years since the first official Gay Pride Parade in New York. 31 year old Richard O’Brien, who has spent the past several years participating in theatre productions, has just finished working on a script of his own. The Rocky Horror Show, a musical tribute to the science fiction and horror B-movies of the previous decades, as well as the growing glam rock trend, opening in June of that year. Despite premiering upstairs at the relatively small Royal Court, which held 63 people, it soon grew in popularity and moved to the King Roads Theatre which holds 500 seats. By the end of the year, it had gone on to win the Evening Standard award for Best Musical. It wouldn’t be until March 1974 that the show was attended by Gordon Stulberg who was the executive at 20th Century Fox and made a deal to produce a motion picture of the production. It would be given the pretty minuscule budget of $1million which, if adjusted for inflation, is roughly $7million today.
Released in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show follows newly engaged couple Brad and Janet as they find themselves stranded at the home of Dr Frank N Furter after their car suffers from a flat tyre. As the night progresses, Frank’s creation- a blonde hunk named Rocky- is brought to life, and bizarre events only become more bizarre. Perhaps the best way to describe The Rocky Horror Picture Show is by saying that it unapologetically queer. Dr Frank N Furter is portrayed by the always-enthusiastic Tim Curry, wearing nothing but a corset, fishnet stockings and high heels, while Rocky is confined to Golden Y-fronts. On top of this are the very stylish and make-up laden party guests, who are extremely eager for some debauchery. With all this in mind, allow me to tell you the tale of my first viewing.
I was a 15 year old christian who had been, arguably, over-protected by his family from anything considered abnormal. I was also coming to terms with my sexuality, having recently realised that I was bisexual, which was a less than enjoyable time. I tried to be myself as much as I could, but I really didn’t know what that meant anymore because I didn’t feel like it was safe to experiment. Luckily, my best friend and his family are astoundingly accepting and were eager to do what they could to help. These were the circumstances that led to my best friend, his sister, and me sat on their couch watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I was transfixed. I was, of course, familiar with theatre productions and musicals, having studied Shakespeare, Wilde and Webber, but I found myself realising that this was what it meant to be theatrical. Once the initial shock wore off, I was in love.
There have been many adaptations of theatre productions and musicals brought to the big screen over the years, and they have adapted in different ways. For instance, The Sound of Music (another one from 20th Century Fox) made good use of being able to shoot on location in the dazzling hills of Switzerland, which gave us one of the most iconic moments in cinema. The Rocky Horror Picture Show takes a different approach, by effectively doubling down on its stage roots. The entire piece takes place within one household, and so we are kept to only several rooms, all decorated lavishly with the budget they were provided. However, there is a distinct difference in the way these two individual films were treated by their studio. A distinct monetary difference. The Sound of Music was provided $8.2 million when it began production in 1964, which is around $68 million when adjusted for inflation. However The Rocky Horror Show had to make do with a relatively measly $1 million in 1974 which only inflates to $6 million today. Now, I’m not one for speculation, however one does have to wonder why this might be the case. It may be possible that it’s because the former was targeted to a family demographic and was therefore more highly marketable (ie profitable) while the latter was not. It may even be that the studio feared The Rocky Horror Picture Show would not garner a large enough audience and, unfortunately, it would appear that they were correct. The film was not a critical darling, only drawing a big audience for the Los Angels premiere, and so a new strategy was devised. Having had success by pairing 1936’s Reefer Madness with 1972’s Pink Flamingos as a Double Feature several years prior, it was decided that the plan would be replicated with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Brian De Palmer’s Phantom Of Paradise. These midnight showings proved to be a success, with audiences dressing as the characters and interacting with the film. From newspapers and screaming insults to fishnet stockings and glitzy suits, there is no experience quite like a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is perhaps this element of interaction that has allowed it to be so popular for 45 years, as evidenced by the fact that it was never officially pulled from cinemas. There is a certain etiquette to film watching and it is all but abolished during these film screenings, which is remarkably freeing. That is on top of how freeing it is for members of the LGBT+ community who, for a few hours, can be exactly who they are without judgement, especially if they aren’t open in their own lives.
I was one of those people. It would be some time before I purchased a copy of the DVD for myself, but being able to blast Sweet Transvestite through my earphones was exactly the kind of encouragement I needed. It would take 4 years for me to be completely open, and a further year before I found a boyfriend, but I felt a little more true to myself every single time I listened to the soundtrack or watched the film. I most likely would have encountered The Rocky Horror Picture Show on my own eventually (indeed many of my friends were already fans) but it is thanks to my best friend that I saw it so soon. I’ve read headlines claiming that the film is mainstream now and I think, to a certain extent, that is true, however not to the same degree as something like Star Wars. It is a classic to those who love it, but there are those to whom it remains a mystery, and I wonder if that might be a good thing. We live in an age where more adult oriented media have become major brands with mass merchandising, and are also prone to mass scrutiny. Shows like Game of Thrones and Rick and Morty have been known to not live up to the standards of fans, but this has never happened to The Rocky Horror Picture Show as it is only viewed by people who genuinely love it. There are no sequels or spin-offs to judge, though not for lack of trying. Richard O’Brien has attempted writing a direct sequel several times, but for one reason or another, those films never happened. The closest he would come was with 1981’s Shock Treatment, which centred on Brad and Janet (now portrayed by different actors) but functioned as more of a spiritual successor. The film is worth a watch for fans, but only The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a cult classic because of the fans. The love and adoration is abundant anytd well deserved. I look forward to when we are all allowed to gather and do the Time Warp again.
It’s just a jump to the left…