The Rocky Horror Picture Show - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1975

Director: Jim Sharman

Production: Twentieth Century-Fox; Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes. Released 1975.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Producers: Michael White with John Goldstone; executive producer: Lou Adler; screenplay: Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien, from the play by O'Brien; photography: Peter Suschitzky; editors: Graeme Clifford; art director: Terry Ackland Snow; design consultant: Brian Thomson; songs: Richard O'Brien; music director: Richard Hartley; special effects: Wally Veevers; costume designers: Richard Pointing and Gillian Dods; costume consultant: Sue Blane.

Cast: Tim Curry ( Dr. Frank N. Furter ); Barry Bostwick ( Brad Majors ); Susan Sarandon ( Janet Weiss ); Richard O'Brien ( Riff Raff ); Jonathan Adams ( Dr. Everett Scott ); Nell Campbell ( Columbia ); Peter Hinwood ( Rocky ); Meat Loaf ( Eddie ); Patricia Quinn ( Magenta ); Charles Gray ( Narrator ); Hilary Labow ( Betty Munroe ); Jeremy Newson ( Ralph Hapschatt ); Frank Lester ( Wedding Dad ); Mark Johnson ( Wedding guest ); Koo Stark, Petra Leah, and Gina Barrie ( Bridesmaids ); John Marquand ( Father ).



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"In a Time Warp," in Newsweek , vol. 133, no. 3, 18 January 1999.

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Less interesting as cinema than as a social phenomenon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a hit British fringe musical. Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show was first staged in 1973 at the Theatre Upstairs, with Tim Curry and O'Brien creating the roles of Frank N. Furter, bisexual transvestite mad scientist from another world, and Riff-Raff, Furter's hunchbacked assistant. The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived on screens in 1975 just after The Rocky Horror Show closed disastrously on Broadway, prompting 20th Century Fox to throw it away. Nevertheless, the film made a comeback as a midnight attraction across America, gaining an increasingly devoted following. The fancy-dress fanatics who patronize the film indulge in an unprecedented interaction with the on-screen events, interpolating new lines as footnotes to the dialogue (yelling "No Neck" every time Charles Gray appears, for instance), and challenging the passive nature of the cinema-going experience. A write-off on its straight release, this midnight movie has been playing continuously for nearly 20 years, a rare cult movie whose cumulative earnings rank it financially with a mainstream first-run hit.

Informed by O'Brien's love for the arcana of 1950s American pop culture (rock 'n' roll, monster movies, Charles Atlas ads, rebel bikers), the show is filtered through a staid British sensibility (Americans can hardly be expected to recognize Gray's criminologist as a parody of Edgar Lustgarten), unleashed by the rock opera conventions of Hair (which O'Brien and Curry had been in) and the early 1970s craze for androgynous glitter rock. Borrowing an archetypal plot (perhaps from Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat , 1934; or Don Sharp's disguised remake Kiss of the Vampire , 1964), the story opens with staunch hero Brad (Barry Bostwick) and virginal heroine Janet (Susan Sarandon) forced by a flat tire and a rainstorm to spend the night in a Middle American castle. They encounter a troupe of dancing aliens from the Planet Transylvania, and the fun-loving Dr. Frank N. Furter, who minces around in a basque and fishnet stockings belting out a torch song ("I'm a Sweet Transvestite From Transsexual, Transylvania"), creates a new-born beefcake monster Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood) for sexual purposes, and takes time to seduce both Janet and Brad. The liberated Janet has a fling with Rocky which, in a surprisingly conservative touch for such an abandoned production, brings disaster down as Frank goes out of control and has to be repressed by his puritanical servant Riff Raff.

O'Brien's catchy score is outstanding (the lyrics are especially clever) and the cast all have real attack (only Sarandon attempts subtlety), but the film is a less satisfying blend of horror pastiche and rock 'n' roll than Brian DePalma's The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). DePalma uses a classical horror story to get inside the equivalent myths of rock as an industry and a cultural force, but Sharman and O'Brien just scatter train-spotterish references to Famous Monsters of Filmland trivia (the first line, sung by a disembodied set of lips, is "Michael Rennie was ill the Day the Earth Stood Still. . . .") and scorchin' rock numbers through a panto-level plot. While its audience might take The Rocky Horror Picture Show as an endorsement of polysexual liberation, with an enthusiastic if joky depiction of transvestism and homosexuality, the theme has mainly been included to make jokes at the expense of Alice Cooper and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust phase. Curry energetically makes a case for Frank, a camp icon over-the-top enough to be unthreatening, as a sympathetic libertarian, but the script has him as a Frankensteinian father who has created a child solely to molest him and, in a peevish moment, the casual murderer of a cast-off lover (Meat Loaf). The most honest emotional moment comes after the servant's slaying of his master, as Riff Raff's sister Magenta (Patricia Quinn) puzzles, "I thought you liked him . . . he liked you" only to have the hunchback, played by the real creator of Rocky Horror , howl " He never liked me !"

The straining necessary to restage an intimate musical in a studio makes the film ragged at the edges: the camera doesn't know where it should be in the dances, characters run about to little purpose, the action never strays from the old dark house, numbers end on awkward pauses for applause and feeble jokes ("Do any of you know how to Madison?" Brad asks after "The Time Warp"). These pauses invite the catcalls of the cultists, but they show up as dead spots when the film is seen on video or television or in a "straight" venue. The freakish nature of the film's success is underlined by its creators' inability, in the semi-sequel Shock Treatment (1981), to do it again.

—Kim Newman

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