A little over 40 years ago, The Rocky Horror Picture Show first arrived in theaters and we’ve all been a little weirder since. As it happens, the film was not a success on its first release, but with time, creativity, and a powerful fandom, it became the longest-running movie of all time. Read on, dear transvestites, for the tale of film’s most proudly tasteless musical.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on a stage musical called, not surprisingly, The Rocky Horror Show. It was written by Richard O’Brien, who had always enjoyed sci-fi movies and comics growing up and was inspired to use them as a source for a comedic rock-and-roll musical. With the help of director Jim Sharman, the show made successful runs in London and New York. The Rocky Horror Show featured a then-little-known actor in the lead role of Dr. Frank’N’Furter: Tim Curry. After a Los Angeles performance impressed producer Lou Adler, he asked Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman to bring the show to the silver screen. 20th Century Fox (perhaps while drunk) took the bait and funded it.
In addition to the amazing Curry, the cast was joined by Meat Loaf, Barry Bostwick, and a young Susan Sarandon. Patricia Quinn, who had played loyal maid Magenta since the beginning, was also recruited to play the ruby-red lips in the film’s famous opening number. O’Brien, of course, does the actual singing, as well as the demented butler Riff Raff. Helium-voiced Little Nell, character actor Jonathan Adams, and model Peter Hinwood rounded out the cast. The film was shot in the UK, much of it in a mansion famous for its appearances in the horror movies of the 50s and 60s. In fact, Rocky is brought to life with bandages and machinery ripped directly from The Curse of Frankenstein. Meanwhile, costume designer Sue Blane had never seen a science fiction film or been to America. Cleverly, she used her lack of knowledge to her advantage by creating the most generalized, white bread, stereotypical look for the characters; which play against the overall weirdness of the movie.
When the freak show that was RHPS finally came out in Los Angeles in September 1975, it made dismal business. Frightened, Fox executives cancelled the movie’s premiere in New York. Lou Adler and marketing exec Tim Deegan put their heads together and took a look at the one place RHPS had made a splash: Westwood. The theater manager there had noticed that the same college kids kept coming back and watching again and again. The repeat business was big business. Noting the success of Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness as midnight movies, Adler and Deegan decided to try Rocky Horror in that market. It creeped back into the world on April Fool’s Day, 1976.
Something magical happened. When Janet lifted a newspaper over her head to shield her from the rain, someone shouted at the screen, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” At the end of a wedding scene, friends conspired to throw rice at the screen. Moviegoers flooded into the theater dressed in costume. People kept coming back, week after week, like a religious ritual. Perhaps most importantly, a young man named Sal Piro helped to put together the first “fan cast”: a group of performers who dressed as the characters and studiously repeated their every action just below the screen. Sal has been the president of the official RHPS fan club since 1977, and no screening has been complete without a fan cast since.
By 1978, midnight screenings were taking place all around the country, each with their own group of performers and special “callbacks” to shout at the screen. Though some of the phenomenon’s heat has faded over the decades, it has never even come close to dying. RHPS means something too powerful for such a fate. It created a place where sexual expression and freedom wasn’t frowned upon, it was celebrated. A place where all sexual orientations and gender identities were valid and beautiful and crazy and ready to be thrown out into the world with no judgment. A place where science fiction geeks and musical nerds of all kinds could go crazy, be themselves, and have fun without any worry of what people would think. “Don’t dream it; be it,” Frank croons, and the world listened.
Rocky Horror Picture Show is not only a social experience, though. It truly is a fantastic movie. The songs are absolutely unforgettable, caught between the worlds of 1950s and 1970s rock-and-roll. The script is razor sharp, filled with wit and subtlety amongst all its depravity. It’s not quite as depraved as its reputation suggests either, as the uncut version of the movie ends on a somber note that suggests letting go of all your inhibitions all of the time may not be such a good thing. We may not understand where the hell some of these characters come from, but we certainly do know how their outlooks changed and what they lost from their experience in Frank’s castle laboratory. And of course, Tim Curry’s performance of Frank’N’Furter is at a level of pitch-perfect camp decadence that has never been matched.
If you’ve never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there is no time like the present. The official fansite is a great place to prepare yourself and find your local showtimes. So let your guard down a little. Loosen your belt. Sing your heart out. After all, it’s only a matter of time before us insects called “the human race” are forced to submit to our Transvestite Transylvanian overlords. Better start practicing your tap routine now.
“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, especially if it has a relevant event coming up, let us know in the comments! Also, share your favorite Rocky Horror memories with us! We promise, we’ve got weirder ones.
Featured image credit: 20th Century Fox