Wednesday, 5 October 2016

REVIEW REVISITED: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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This is a reprint of my review which was first published on this blog about 4 years ago, with a number of minor revisions. My original review, from 2010, can be found here. Also be sure to check out the Movie Hour podcast on the film from December 2010 here. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (UK/ USA, 1975) 
Directed by Jim Sharman 
Starring Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, Charles Gray

Whenever anyone has the nerve to remake a modern classic, one of the arguments which is often dredged up is that a remake could fix some of the problems of the original. Films from the past, such people argue, didn't have access to the kind of special effects which we now enjoy, or they regard it as an opportunity to address plot or character issues, such as a demeaning view of women or different races.

 
Fox's decision to remake The Rocky Horror Picture Show - albeit with Tim Curry on board - has naturally incurred the wrath of the fanbase, of which I count myself as a member. But notwithstanding the cynical commercial motivations of the remake, the trailers would lead us to believe that it has misunderstood something crucial about the original. The original wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but like so many great cult films its flaws and shortcomings are part and parcel of what makes it so compelling and distinctive.
 
The creakiness of Rocky Horror is rooted as much in its limited budget as in its deep-rooted desire to have fun by impersonating or parodying old B-movies. You don't have to get all the references buried in the film to appreciate it, but you're more likely to enjoy it if you cotton on to the fact that little if any of it is designed to be taken seriously. Film critics spend a great deal of their time trying to persuade the public to pick and judge films on deeper grounds than whether or not they are entertaining, but this is one film which only works if you "give yourself over to absolute pleasure".
 
It's no surprise at all that the film underperformed when first released. Much like its cult contemporaries (Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, El Topo and Eraserhead), it is very hard to sit through Rocky Horror in complete comfort the first time round. Part of this is intentional: several scenes are scary and the visuals are striking enough to send the uninitiated reeling. But part of it is an acknowledgement of the film's limitations, which have been present from the beginning.
 
Richard O'Brien conceived the original stage show as a love letter to old sci-fi and horror B-movies; he described it as a means to relive childhood memories of Frankenstein and Nosferatu, and to escape from the reality of being out of work. True to form, the opening song pays lip service to a host of such films, from the original versions of Flash Gordon and The Day The Earth Stood Still through to Universal horror (The Invisible Man), British supernatural horror (Night of the Demon) and more campy American fare (It Came From Outer Space).
 
The plot of Rocky Horror plays out like a jumble-sale of B-movie plots, restaged with maximum camp value and more than a little affection. The creation of Rocky is a witty riff on Frankenstein; the monster remains largely mute and afraid of fire, but the master designs him as a source of pleasure rather than a means to make mankind immortal. There are clear hints of King Kong in the final third, as Frank N. Furter wonders "Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" and Rocky dies from falling off the RKO Tower. The film also tips its hat lovingly to Hammer in the casting of Charles Gray, in what is by far his best performance since The Devil Rides Out.
But by far the biggest influence on Rocky Horror is The Wizard of Oz, something which O'Brien readily acknowledges. The film was originally intended to be filmed in black-and-white right up until Frank N. Furter's entrance, to mimic Dorothy's journey from Kansas via the tornado. Moreover, the central story of Brad and Janet is one of innocent, pure individuals being whisked off against their will to a world they don't understand - and like Dorothy, they have to deal with many evils in their desperate bid to get home.
 
While it retains many aspects of the L. Frank Baum story, Rocky Horror subverts or departs from key elements in a way which reveals its deeper message (if it has such a thing). While Oz has a cop-out ending where everything returns to normal, the lives of Brad and Janet are shattered forever; there is no going back to their previous lives of whitewashed churches and pastel dresses. Likewise Dorothy retains her purity or innocence throughout, while both Brad and Janet give in to temptation and find out that they actually quite enjoy it. The final song is a duet between the conflicting desires of Barry Bostwick's 'bleeding' heart and Susan Sarandon's promiscuity. One could almost liken the final scene to a sexualised restaging of the Fall, with Charles Gray looking on as a jealous God who is criminally disappointed in his "insects".
 
Rocky Horror has been hailed as many things in its lifetime, from a call for sexual liberation to some sort of Brechtian challenge to the role of an audience. Most of these accolades have an ounce of credibility but were not the intention of the filmmakers; no-one ever planned that audiences would start dressing up as the characters or talking back to the screen. Its sexual politics are incredibly liberal, with the message being one of accepting each other's identities and preferences rather than encouraging the 1970s equivalent of 'free love'. To suggest that Rocky Horror is a non-ironic advert for sexual promiscuity is to foolishly ignore the film's more sophisticated side.
If Rocky Horror were simply a vehicle to convince people to dress up in fishnets and give in to lust, far less effort would have been expended on the dialogue and the characters. O'Brien's script is witty and in-your-face, and Tim Curry chews his way through every line with relish and panache. The character of Frank N. Furter is much more complex and unpredictable than one might assume; he is not just a mad scientist posing as a drag queen, or indeed vice versa. Like the story he inhabits, he flits from one aspect to another - he is equal parts bawling child, narcissistic drama queen, sexual sadist and English gentleman, and it remains Tim Curry's finest performance.
 
It's very hard to pin down exactly what makes Rocky Horror such a hoot to watch. Some of it is in the songs, which are brilliantly written with syllable-stretching humour. Some of it is in the action scenes, from Meatloaf riding indoors on his motorbike to Dr. Scott's wheelchair becoming magnetised. But most of it comes from the knowledge that the film doesn't really care what you think, and that the cast were obviously having a ball.
 
Inevitably, there are things about Rocky Horror which don't work, at least not anymore. In the final third the songs become more medley-based and the plot steadily peters out. Though the ending itself is befitting, there is a lot of filler in the floor show before we get there. This may be intentional, since cabaret shows are not known for being speedy affairs, but there is a still a sense of the film dragging and getting caught up in its own indulgences, particularly in the lengthy dance sequences.
 
Because the plot is so much of a jumble, the film is incredibly uneven with regard to its tone. Janet's encounter with the monster ('Touch Me') is rather toe-curling, and the increasingly campy tone can become tiresome for the uninitiated. Because everything is so full-on and over-the-top, there will always be some people who won't put up with all the non-sequiturs, and in its darker moments the film wobbles as the desire to laugh begins to falter, and no amount of singing is going to bring that back.
 
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is trashy cinema at its most deliriously enjoyable. The story is silly beyond belief and assembled in a thoroughly ramshackle way, but the music is great and the film is so cheerfully full-on that you can't help falling in love with it just a bit. It isn't by any stretch a masterpiece, or a particularly rounded work, but it remains a milestone of American popular culture which no remake can ever hope to match.

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You can check out my thoughts on other renowed cult classics, including Night of the Living Dead, Eraserhead and Flash Gordon, by checking The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Die Hard (1988)

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