Into The ?Time Warp?: The Rocky Horror Picture Show As An Enduring Pop Cult Classic Essay, Research Paper
For years, with its phenomenal success as a midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has made ?don?t dream it, be it? the motto for its ever-growing cult audience. The film continues to be regarded by critics and audiences as the only no-holds-barred, ultimate theatre experience, which has seemingly drawn a repeat audience of cult film followers year after year. More than just a movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) has become a community, a loud, profane, exuberant collection of cult film freaks freaks: the beautiful, the creative, the lovers and the lost. Despite its first success as a play and then initial failure when produced as a mainstream film, RHPS has become a successful paradigmatic cult classic due to its strange and unusual theatrical exhibition and the film?s blend of thematic, visual and verbal elements, which parody accepted societal conventions.
According to the RHPS Anniversary Commentary, a young actor by the name of Richard O?Brien originally wrote RHPS?s musical predecessor, The Rocky Horror Show. After performing small roles in the films Carry On Cowboy and Casino Royale, O’Brien landed roles in the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and made one disastrous yet fateful performance in each. Although he did not succeed in either of the shows, O’Brien had the opportunity to present his rock musical entitled ?They Came From Denton High? to Jesus Christ Superstar’s director Jim Sharman. Through Sharman, a solo acoustic tape of O’Brien singing the future RHPS opener ?Science Fiction, Double Feature,? came across the desk of independent theater producer Michael White. White became fascinated with the tape and story concept, and agreed to sponsor the production as a small experimental stage production at London?s Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
O’Brien spent countless hours in movie houses watching the tasteless thrillers which would later inspire him to write The Rocky Horror Show. The play was based on a combination of ?grade B Horror movies, Steve Reeves muscle flicks and fifties rock ‘n’ roll. It starred O’Brien as a maniacal handyman named Riff-Raff, and another Hair alumnus, Tim Curry, in the leading role as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the kinky scientist who creates ?Rocky Horror?, his personal Adonis? (The Rocky Horror Picture Show Anniversary Commentary).
The play ran for many months and was warmly received by both critics and audiences. However, the RHPS Anniversary Commentary adds, when American producer and entrepreneur Lou Adler was brought to a performance, the show ?took a dramatic leap as a production.? Adler was immediately impressed with The Rocky Horror Show. Within two days, Adler had arranged with Michael White to obtain the rights to the show. On March 24th, 1974 (only nine months after opening in London), The Rocky Horror Show made its American debut at Adler’s Roxy Theater on the infamous Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The show played to sold-out audiences for the duration of its nine-month run, with Tim Curry reprising his astounding leading performance. As a result of the show?s theatrical success at the Roxy Theater, 20th Century Fox posed a deal to create a film based on the play, thus renaming it The Rocky Horror Picture Show (The Rocky Horror Picture Show Anniversary Commentary).
The entire film was shot over the course of eight weeks in England and cost a little less than one million dollars to make. However, with the exception of a little business in Los Angeles, the reaction to the release of RHPS in 1975 was extremely unresponsive. According to the RHPS Anniversary Commentary, the film?s flop was attributed to being poorly distributed and unenthusiastically promoted, and it received very few reviews outside of film publications.
It was not until a few years later that RHPS hit the midnight circuit scene and once again became popular, but this time as an enduring cult classic. ?Shown every Friday and Saturday night in some 200 theaters ever since, it has been seen by more people each year? (Siegel 305). The film has become a weekly staple for avid Rocky Horror devotees and has joined the ranks as a spirited cult celebration and long-term cinematic attachment, an achievement that it never set out to accomplish.
According to critics, cult films are not made as much as they happen or become, which would explain the initial negative to reaction to RHPS. Dr. Bruce A. Austin, professor of communications at the Rochester Institute of Technology, claims that, ?Two items which tend not to define the cult film are the intent of the filmmaker and the film?s content . . . Conceivably however, the actual content of the film that later becomes a cult film might very well have something?or a great deal?to do with its later status? (44). However, Austin argues that cult films do meet specific criteria in accordance to the nature of the show?s audience and exhibition, which are established after the movie has been made. Austin asserts that to meet criterion, a film must be screened frequently at irregular hours (usually midnight) and attract a uniquely characterized repeat audience (44).
Rocky Horror is a prime example of a film that projects most of the established criterion. From the beginning, RHPS has held a distinct group of followers who pride themselves on viewing the show as an experience that inspires reverence.
Scholars use this evidence to assert that cult film supporters often advocate the merits and values of this film independently from mainstream criticism. Dr. Michael A. Katovich and Dr. Patrick T. Kinkade, associate professors of sociology at Texas Christian University preserve that, ?adherents claim that cults films transcend their entertainment, artistic, and commercial status, and are significant regardless of advertisement, critical acclaim, or mainstream acceptance . . . It is not for everyone and exists outside the category of both popular culture and elite taste cultures? (Katovich and Kinkade 194).
Acclaimed science fiction scholar Mark Siegel claims that, ?It [RHPS] is a far cry from The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. It is not uplifting, pleasant, heart-warming, star-studded, or expensively made, but is a raunchy, vulgar, and jolting film about the coming to Earth of beings from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania? (305).
From the very beginning of the show, Rocky Horror pokes fun between the hearty musical and the chilling documentary and satirizes the various teenage, horror, and crime movie genres that have dominated the silver screen for years. It makes a hilarious connection between movies and music, so much so that it could remain meaningful for years to come (Hoberman and Rosenbaum). The script serves as a form of cinematic parody and critique, touching upon subjects such as heterosexual romance, sexual stereotypes and identifications, and in general, middle American morality (Katovich and Kinkade 199). The film?s opening song ?Science Fiction Double Feature,? pays tribute to many of these themes and not only sets up the entire plot of the movie, but also the humorous mood of the film.
Dr. James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, maintains that the certain horror element, which is satirized in RHPS, is what has made Rocky Horror such a successful cult film:
Just as Young Frankenstein pokes fun at the Universal ?Frankensteins? in what is really an affectionate tribute to the American horror films of the thirties, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a frantic and admiring burlesque of the Hammer [early English horror films] versions as well as the English heritage of slightly skewed horror . . . It [RHPS] is a horror movie playacted with Monty Python verve. (196-197)
Twitchell continues by clarifying that many of the classic horror movie elements exist in the film: a dark and stormy night, the ?Frankenstein Place,? an Igor figure (Riff-Raff), a mad scientist and his creation, complete with murder and mischief. However, they are humorously thrown into a strange mixture of sex, make-up, and rock and roll (196-198).
Consequently, the film serves as an alternative medium, whose basis is a paradox; the celebration of deviance to validate society in which Rocky Horror establishes a tension of its own. ?Frank N. Furter, the demonic antithesis to these values deliberately projects a confusing appearance as a man, woman, host/kidnapper, scientist/artist, creator/murderer, ghoul/human, and entertainer/torturer . . . He [Frank N. Furter] moves the audience to identify with his boisterous disdain for traditional rituals? (Katovich and Kinkade 199).
The interpretations of the hero and heroine of the film, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, also pave way for extreme examination and criticism of model Midwest America and traditional moral structure. ?As pure representatives of conventional and traditional culture, their speedy acquiescence to deviance indicates this idealized culture?s fragility? (Katovich and Kinkade 200). Re-occurring themes of homosexual tendencies, seduction, and betrayal shake away Brad and Janet?s innocence.
There is no doubt that this mixture of music, horror, and science fiction transforms a surplus of memories and affections for Rocky Horror. While some of the cult behavior surrounding the film springs from these appeals, they are clearly not its sole attractions, nor even it?s most important. Critics agree that it is indeed the fans of RHPS and their physical and verbal interaction with the film that creates the full fledge cult experience.
Dr. Robert E. Wood, associate professor of English at Georgia Tech, contends that studying and identifying the cult experience cannot be complete without analyzing the film?s repeat audience. He suggests that, ?exploring audience behavior is central to stage theory, and in practice, to experiment. In fact, it was in a period when the theater was in the process of shattering certain convention of audience passivity and exploring the limits of how a mass audience might interact with live performers that the Rocky Horror cult emerged? (Wood 156).
Wood continues to clarify that the most visible sign of the Rocky Horror cult is, in fact, is its pattern of overt audience behavior. ?The response to Rocky Horror demonstrates the range of ritualized activities that the film offers to the paying/playing spectators . . . By encouraging viewers to acknowledge their presence and participation, Rocky Horror invites them not just to act out issues raised by its [RHPS] thematic focus on liberation from sexual and cultural taboos, but to explore the film-viewing environment in general? (Wood 158).
Dr. Katovich and Dr. Kinkade of TCU classify the RHPS audience into three distinct sections: first, the full participants who see the film nearly every weekend and act out ritual in relation to each and the film?s text; second, the occasional cultists who see the film sporadically and participate somewhat in the ritual but do not take their attachment beyond their viewing event; and third, filmgoers who are present simply to appreciate the actions associate with the film and its ongoing ritual. For the most part, a significant audience portion dress up as their favorite character, and large groups of them gather in preparation for the night?s festivities (201).
Katovich and Kinkade conclude that Rocky Horror?s audiences experience alienation as a source for a feeling of belonging:
They [the viewers] find resolve in a lack of resolution . . . Although the audience participates in activities and experiences emotions that transcend everyday situations, they establish ?normal responses? within the limited context of the cinematic experience. Viewers use the film and their transactions in celebrating its showing to recognize their common affiliations within uncommon circumstances. (202)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to be considered by scholars and critics as one of the most unforgettable cult musical sensations of all time. The film?s verbal, musical, and visual qualities which satire modern societal traditions, and its exuberant cinematic presentation, act as the building blocks on which this pop cult classic was shaped. The RHPS alternative world, which appeals to postmodern sensibilities in the nuclear age, and the reflexive critique of its own production (in which the audience participates) make Rocky Horror a unique piece of theatrical art which will continue to draw a repeat cult audience for years to come.
Austin, Bruce A. ?Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.? Journal of Communication. 31 (1981): 43-54.
Hoberman, J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum. ?Curse of the Cult People.? Film Comment. 2.1 (1991): 8-10.
Katovich, Michael A. and Patrick T. Kinkade. ?Toward A Sociology of Cult Films: Reading Rocky Horror.? The Sociology Quarterly. 22.2 (1992): 191-204.
Siegel, Mark. ?The Rocky Horror Picture Show: More Than A Lip Service.? Science Fiction Studies. 7 (1980): 305-318.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick. 20th Century Fox Entertainment, 1975.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show Anniversary Commentary. 20th Century Fox Entertainment, 2000.
Twitchell, James. B. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Wood, Robert E. ?Don?t Dream It: Performance and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.? The Cult Film Experience. Ed. J.P. Telotte. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1991. 156-166.