How Rocky Horror Became a Cult Phenomenon

Call us old fash­ioned but invok­ing pump­kin spice and The Rocky Hor­ror Pic­ture Show in the same breath feels trans­gres­sive to the point of sac­ri­lege.

The cre­ator of the Poly­phon­ic video, above, is on much firmer foot­ing tying the film to queer lib­er­a­tion.

Pri­or to its now famous cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion, The Rocky Hor­ror Show was a low bud­get the­atri­cal suc­cess, with near­ly 3,000 per­for­mances and the 1973 Evening Stan­dard The­atre Award for Best Musi­cal to its name.

Review­er Michael Billing­ton laud­ed Tim Cur­ry’s “gar­ish­ly Bowiesque per­for­mance” as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the self-pro­claimed Sweet Trans­ves­tite from Trans­sex­u­al, Tran­syl­va­nia, but also acknowl­edged some drab­ber pea­cocks defy­ing gen­der expec­ta­tions in that pro­duc­tion:

…for me the actor of the evening was Jonathan Adams as the Nar­ra­tor: a bulky, heavy-jowled Kissinger-like fig­ure who enters into the rock num­bers with the state­ly aplomb of a dowa­ger duchess doing a strip.

Play­wright Richard O’Brien, who dou­bled as Frank-N-Furter’s sepul­chral but­ler, Riff Raff, con­ceived of the show as a spoof on campy sci fi and goth­ic hor­ror films in the Ham­mer Pro­duc­tions vein. He also owed a debt to glam rock, which “allowed me to be myself more.”

(Hats off, here, to Poly­phon­ic for one of the best nut­shell descrip­tions of glam rock we’ve ever encoun­tered:

Glam rock was a queer led move­ment that was built on the back of gen­der non-con­for­mi­ty. Visu­al­ly it was a hodge­podge of style from ear­ly Hol­ly­wood glam­our to 50s pin­ups and cabaret the­ater aug­ment­ed by touch­es of ancient civ­i­liza­tions sci-fi and and the occult.)

“The ele­ment of trans­vestism was­n’t intend­ed as a major theme,” O’Brien told inter­view­er Patri­cia Mor­ris­roe, “although it turned out to be one:”

I’ve always thought of Frank as a cross between Ivan the Ter­ri­ble and Cruel­la de Ville of Walt Dis­ney’s 101 Dal­ma­tions. It’s that sort of evil beau­ty that’s attrac­tive. I found Brad and Janet very appeal­ing too, espe­cial­ly the whole fifties image of boy-girl rela­tion­ships. In the end, you see that Janet is not the weak lit­tle thing that soci­ety demands her to be and Brad is not the pil­lar of strength.

Audi­ences and crit­ics may have loved the orig­i­nal show, but the film ver­sion did not find imme­di­ate favor. Review­er Roger Ebert reflect­ed that “it would be more fun, I sus­pect, if it weren’t a pic­ture show:

It belongs on a stage, with the per­form­ers and audi­ence join­ing in a col­lec­tive send-up…The chore­og­ra­phy, the com­po­si­tions and even the atti­tudes of the cast imply a stage ambiance. And it invites the kind of laugh­ter and audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion that makes sense only if the per­form­ers are there on the stage, cre­at­ing mutu­al kar­ma.

A prophet­ic state­ment, as it turns out…

Once the pro­duc­ers began mar­ket­ing the film as a mid­night movie, repeat cus­tomers start­ed com­ing up with the snarky call­backs that have become a de rigueur part of the expe­ri­ence.

“All the char­ac­ters appear to be sophis­ti­cat­ed, knowl­edge­able peo­ple but they’re real­ly not,” O’Brien observed:

That allows peo­ple of a sim­i­lar ado­les­cent nature to feel they could be part of the whole thing. And now, in fact, they are.

Shad­ow casts posi­tioned them­selves in front of the screen, mim­ic­k­ing the action in cob­bled togeth­er ver­sions of design­er Sue Blane’s cos­tumes.

Audi­ences also afford­ed them­selves the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dress out­side the norm, cre­at­ing a safe space where atten­dees could mess around with their gen­der expres­sions. The film may not end hap­pi­ly but that final scene is a great excuse for any­one who wants to take a lap in a corset and fish­nets.

Rocky Horror’s flam­boy­ance, humor, and defi­ance of the main­stream made it a nat­ur­al fit with the queer com­mu­ni­ty, with folks cos­tumed as Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, Magen­ta and Colum­bia reg­u­lar­ly turn­ing up at fundrais­ers and pride events.

The film also deserves some activist street cred for sav­ing a num­ber of small indie movie the­aters by fat­ten­ing mid­night box office receipts, a trend that con­tin­ues near­ly 50 years after the orig­i­nal release.

Admit­ted­ly, cer­tain aspects of the script haven’t aged well.

Vir­gins” attend­ing their first live screen­ing may be more shocked at the dearth of con­sent than the spec­ta­cle of Frank-n-Furter mur­der­ing Columbia’s rock­er boyfriend Eddy with a pick­axe, then serv­ing his remains for din­ner.

Will they also recoil from Frank as an embod­i­ment of tox­ic mas­culi­ty in the queer space?

Quoth Colum­bia:

My God! I can’t stand any more of this! First you spurn me for Eddie, and then you throw him like an old over­coat for Rocky! You chew peo­ple up and then you spit them out again… I loved you… do you hear me? I loved you! And what did it get me? Yeah, I’ll tell you: a big noth­ing. You’re like a sponge. You take, take, take, and drain oth­ers of their love and emo­tion.

We’re hop­ing Frank, prob­lem­at­ic though he may now seem, won’t ulti­mate­ly be con­signed to the dust bin of his­to­ry.

For con­text, O’Brien recent­ly told The Hol­ly­wood Reporter that the char­ac­ter was informed by his own expe­ri­ences of cross-dress­ing as he tried to get a grip on his gen­der iden­ti­ty in the ear­ly 70s:

I used to beat myself up about the hand I was dealt. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea. I’ve read many tomes about the sub­ject of the trans­ves­tic nature. It’s the cards you’re dealt. In a bina­ry world it’s a bit of curse, real­ly. Espe­cial­ly in those days when homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was a crime. It’s just one of those things that west­ern soci­ety wasn’t very keen on.

Real Con­tent

1978 News Report on the Rocky Hor­ror Craze Cap­tures a Teenage Michael Stipe in Drag

Rare Inter­view: Tim Cur­ry Dis­cuss­es The Rocky Hor­ror Pic­ture Show, Dur­ing the Week of Its Release (1975)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Charles Edward Frith says:

    It’s Tavi­s­tock. Once we under­stand The Bea­t­les, there’s lit­tle oth­er choice.

  • E.A. Blair says:

    My first encounter with the Rocky Hor­ror Pic­ture Show was at a sci­ence fic­tion con­ven­tion in the mid 1970s. This was the inter­me­di­ate stages of the film, after it was a box office flop but before it became a cult hit. The con­go­ing fen loved it, but the audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion and cos­tum­ing shtick had­n’t yet tak­en off.

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