Friday, March 24, 2017

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure out why I had ads at the back of my comic books for posters of old B&W movie stars. Alongside of Farrah and Travolta and Star Wars were W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges and Bogie. And even on TV shows like All in the Family you had Mike and Gloria Stivic dressed up as the Marx Brothers to attend a screening of Duck Soup. I recently saw an old Dick Cavett show, from 1971, which shed some light on my confusion. He had Bette Davis as a guest, and before bringing out his star he entertained some trivia questions pertaining to her films. The studio audience, comprised mainly of female college students, was getting every single one correct.

So recently I asked a woman, at about the age where she could’ve been in that audience, why the appeal of old film stars for the counterculture youth of he late 60s and early 70s. She told me, simply, that college students, as is in their nature, stayed up late at night. Every dorm had at least one TV set, but since there was no cable back then, the only thing to watch post-midnight were old movies. So classic stars of the silver-screen’s golden age became cult heroes. “Fay Wray had her own fan club,” she told me. “King Kong, which was out of copyright and could be shown without license, was mandatory viewing.”

So, of course, the collegiate subculture gravitated toward the old schlocky horror/sci-fi movies, a perfect fit for the sly subversives who could yell back at the screen in campy delight. But as the mainstream media embraced those kids, now young adults in the post-Vietnam/Watergate mid-seventies, no one tapped into their ironic appreciation of old movies. At least not until Richard O’Brien, his finger firmly on their pulse, created a rick opera that celebrated it on all cylinders. His Rocky Horror Picture Show was enough of a cult phenomenon to warrant movie adaptation. But even the Fox execs who greenlit it weren’t sure how big a cult following the film could attract. After all, there had never really been a self-conscious cult film that worked before. Why should there be now?

It didn’t take long for their doubt to disappear. The Rocky Horror Picture Show quickly became, not just a cult movie, but the cult movie. Midnight showings of it continued for weeks, months, and years in all major cities, and even in suburban and rural theaters. In my own sleepy town of Vineland, NJ, a quadriplex unspooled it at the tradition time of 12AM on Saturdays well into the early 80s. How do I know? I was a boy in the local theatrical production of The Music Man, and after Sat. rehearsals, as I prepared to go home to a belated bed, most of the adult actors changed clothes into the weirdest (and curiously kinky) outfits I’d ever seen and headed out into their respective vehicles to engage in their weekly viewing/reenactment of Rocky. I knew what it was because one of the actresses secretly showed me a photo book of the film. I loved it  - it looked like so much fun to my 11-year-old sensibilities – but someone else whisked it away from me, admonishingly. I guess in was inappropriate, I thought. But I’ll be damned if I knew why.

So, another story before I get to my review: flash forward six year to my freshman year at NYU, and one of the first thing my newfound cronies and I did was to see a RHPS at the 8th Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, the theater where it apparently all began. The attendees were expectedly dressed in all manner of outlandish attire, and we, as newbies, were directed to sit in the front row. This is because we were to be part of the 20-minute pre-show; after the emcee did a spiel and lip synched to “Barbra Ann,” he called attention to us and encouraged the audience to “gang bang” us, since we were “virgins.” (It basically amounted to him yelling FUCK YOU to each of us, at which point we had to sit down immediately.) Before long the film began, and every audience member, as I had expected, yelled reactions, chorally, back to the screen in between dialogue. By the time it was al over, I knew I had experienced something. I’m not sure what, but it was something.

I think I liked the film. It was hard to tell, given I could scarcely hear whatever the speakers had to offer. I know I liked the music, and I know I was reasonably entertained for at least the first half of the film, before it turned into something totally incomprehensible. But again, that could be because of the audience. It was clear this was a ritual – a weekly event for the creatures of the subculture to come out and raise their arms to worship all things culturally anomalous. And on that basis I loved it. It was almost cathartic for me, and in a way voyeuristic, like I was watching an anthropological experiment.

And them I was invited to return the next week, as was the custom if you wanted to be a regular.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d try it on for size. Sure the craziness was there, and the antics, but it was pretty much the same. (I think I even picked up some of the lines you were supposed to yell back.) Then I was informed that to really get the experience, I had to return yet again, and on that third visit, I was supremely bored. It’s the same thing every week! Am I missing something?

Apparently I was. RHPS kept up its momentum for at least 20 years as a midnight circuit show before it was finally released to video, essentially ending its run in theaters (although there are still scattered showings here and about). And while I as always intrigued by and enjoying of its festivity, something inside me needed to appraise the film itself.  Upon its video release I was somewhat preoccupied, and never caught up with it later on. But now, thanks to the Fox collection I can watch it sedately, without noisemakers and wiseacres squirting me with water.

Brad and Janet are newlyweds, heading back to Transylvania to reunite with their mentor, Dr. Everett Scott, but along the way their car breaks down, and they must enter a dark, foreboding castle. Greeted by an odd fiend, Riff Raff, they promptly make the acquaintance of Dr. Frank N, Furter, a transvestite bisexual who, emulating Frankenstein, is constructing a perfect male specimen, presumably for is own sexual gratification (and betrothal?). He also proceeds to seduce both Brad and Janet, and spontaneously kills an intruder, a biker named Eddie. Dr. Scott, wheelchair bound, shows up to announce that he is (was) Eddie’s dad, but is discredited by Frank as an alien visitation quack.

So from here on, I’m ASSUMING the following: Scott has come up with a way of converting live matter to dead, so Frank takes that science and converts him, Brad and Janet to statues. Then, he reanimates them to perform a show, dressing them in the same S&M garb that he wears. Then Frank does a solo, after Riff Raff and one of the girls return as aliens (were they aliens all along?), where he gets all profound, sans makeup. But Riff shoots him anyway, and the “specimen” tries to save him, to no avail, drowning in the water below the RKO tower. I think the aliens return home, with Brad and Janet crawling around in dirt.

So I probably got most of this last part wrong, as RHPS fans would promptly correct, but I sure as shootin’ did my best. I was right back in the 80s – Rocky’s second half really does fall apart, lost in a sea of incomprehensiveness, but what makes it so glaringly obvious is the fact that there’s no good songs after the midway point either (I clock Touch Me, at the 50-minute mark, as the last). And that, quite honestly, is the appeal of the show – O’Brien’s song score until that point is the best that rock opera gets, from the drowsily meditative “Science Fiction Double Feature” to the supreme square “Dammit Janet” to the omnipresent “Time Warp” to the film’s best track “Sweet Transvestite.” It’s also a great ode to 50s rock, also a part of Boomer lore, and a major part of the previous year’s would-be cult hit Phantom of the Paradise. We hear Rocky’s songs every Halloween, for good reason. It’s wonderful music, its  cult appeal notwithstanding.

But the element that makes the whole thing so edgy is its kinky sexuality. The film is loaded with androgynous, gay, lesbian and bisexual themes, pushing the envelope as far as they could for a studio film in 1975, and it’s definitely for this reason that the MPAA slapped it with an R rating. I was actually surprised at how far they went with this, proving that perhaps a little music helps the sale. No doubt mainstream America saw it more as a carnival show than serious polemic on deviant sexuality, but there are plenty of symbolic moments (such as “I’m Going Home”) that forecast the gay movement of the 80s and 90s, making it more culturally significant than meets the eye.

So how do we look at this? On balance, it’s indispensible as America pop culture. And if you don’t buy that, the soundtrack and the wondrous sight of Susan Sarandon’s breasts (she’s in underwear for nearly the entire film) should help convince. O’Brien self-indulgently loses control of his dynamo halfway through (the way he would after the first ten minutes of the unofficial sequel, Shock Treatment), but if you accept that it makes no sense, as the way his legions of fans did, then you should be good.

But that’s kinda hard for me. Watching it at home, alone. Without someone spraying me in the face with water.

So that’s why I have two ratings for this one:

Alone Rating:  ****

At a Rocky Horror Picture Show Show:  ****

There, that should work for both venues.



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