Monday, November 1, 2021

Halloween Musical Watch: Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Watched:  10/30/2021
Format:  Hulu
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:   1970's
Director:  Jim Sharman

There must be plenty of academia written on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).  And yet, I find it a bit difficult to discuss.

I was fifteen, just moved back to Spring, TX and in the burbs when my mom - not sure what else to do with friendless 'ol me on the weekends - did what she did for a few months when we first got there, and took me to the local video emporium.*   I'd rent 3 or 4 movies and that's what I'd do when my parents turned in and the insomnia that has defined my entire life kicked in.  And among the tapes - I picked up the 15th Anniversary edition of Rocky Horror Picture Show.  

 I had heard of Rocky Horror when I was maybe 13, but had no real concept.  When I was 14 and still in Austin, some friends suggested we all go to a midnight screening.  Austin was, for reasons that make sense if you knew it at the time, one of the first cities outside of New York or LA to have a regular midnight screening of the movie.  I think it was at its semi-permanent location of Northcross Mall by that time.  And my mom greenlit me going - until about 72 hours before it was time to go, and I don't know what he teacher friends told her, but suddenly I was not going. 

Friends, my every other attempt since then to go to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror has thus been thwarted, and there have been many.  And therefore... I have never attended one of these screenings.  Which even I find insane.  I've had people punk out on me in innumerable flavors and I basically quit trying to go I guess by 2002.  Maybe a stab or two when we moved back to Austin in 2006, but by then screenings were sporadic around town.  

But I've still seen the movie about twenty times.  I used to play the soundtrack on repeat in high school in my little red matchbox car.  

I think for us white bread suburbanite kids, Rocky Horror was one of those things that you either got or you got mad at your friends for showing you.  There's not a lot of middle ground.  I didn't fully get every bit of the film at 15, sitting alone in our TV room in the dark, but I got plenty of it.  

At the time I was already a kid with a budding interest in old school sci-fi and horror (but mostly only had access to it through MST3K at the time).  I was on the cusp of making the transition from being a "sports" kid in high school to a theatre nerd.  Also: I was a 15 year old with - at best - a clinical understanding of how things were going to work in the "adult" world and who was already not onboard with "things should be a certain way or we lose our minds", as was the wont of the Texas burbs.**   

Look, I am in no way objective about the film.  The music is etched into the back of my brain.  The jokes and their timing is right these alongside.  I'll save everyone the trouble of what 15 year old me thought about Little Nell as Columbia and probably all the damage that probably did.

not enough girls in sequins when I was in high school

The main title song itself gives a roadmap of mid-20th century American and Brit cinema to review.  Of the 11 movies Science Fiction Double Feature (and Patricia Quinn's considerable lips) sing about, I've seen 9 and have one cooling on my DVR I failed to get to over the past month.  But also acknowledge the strange combo of budding sexuality as someone watching these films and the thrills and chills all getting mixed up into one package.  I mean, I'm sure any Psych major would have a field day with my own blog and podcast and sifting through my personal wreckage.

Emulating the low and no-budget sci-fi and horror films of the 1950's and early 60's, the movie takes Brad Majors, a Hero (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss, a Heroine (Susan Sarandon), and sends them into the clutches of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a Scientist (Tim Curry), his staff and a coterie of revelers from the Transylvania galaxy.  The story is told from the police files of a Criminologist (Charles Gray).  Along the way we also meet Eddie, a rocking delivery boy (Meat Loaf), Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and the titular Rocky (Peter Hinwood in one of two roles he ever played).  

There is a plot.  Brad and Janet go to an old science teacher to tell him they're engaged, and get a flat.  They go to Dr. Frank-n-Furter's castle for shelter and a phone, and stumble upon the night the good doctor is bringing his creation, Rocky, to life in the presence of his fellow Transylvanians.  

On this viewing, I was thinking a lot about how new eyes must see this movie.  I haven't heard the word "transexual" used in years.  We now have all sorts of words for those as gender-fluid as Frank, but similarly, "transvestite" has gone out of vogue and is likely now considered derogatory in a different way than how the film co-opts and embraces the idea.  The word "bisexual" is never bandied about, although its clear - a whole lotta this cast is pretty flexible.  

I'm curious how The Kids(tm) would see it.  The notion of joy in transgression itself is not something that seems like its part of the cultural conversation these days.  Pride Parades used to be celebrate this idea, but how transgressive are you when suburban girls in sun dresses and big sunglasses are texting on the sidewalk as you roll by in your leather harness?   It's progress of a sort, I suppose.  It's also been the turn from "fuck it, I'm just gonna do my thing" to both the real and performative vocalization of concerns over whether someone should not be judged by their cover, so to speak.  

One thing that's fairly oddball about the movie is that the whole thing ends on a bit of a downbeat.  Frank-n-Furter has apparently taken his rocking and rolling and drag show kitsch orgy too far for the unseen powers-that-be of Transylvania and Riffraff and Magenta are gonna clean up this mess with extreme prejudice.  A lot of things get messy, narratively, in the third act.  My assumption is that Frank's non-consensual manipulation of his fellow "performers" was some last straw.  

I did some googling, and someone out there had some ideas about this reflecting Bowie's need to abandon Ziggy Stardust.  Maybe.  But I do think the acknowledgement that "hey, partying and banging non-stop is not a lifestyle, especially, you know, when you're building man-creatures to make it happen" is maybe not that crazy.  We may all like Frank, but the guy did murder someone in front of a crowd and then maybe fed him to people at dinner.

And, yes.  The movie and play are a time capsule.  Based in the rock of the 1970's, it's a reminder that what sounds like a lot of 1950's riffing in sax blasts and Eddie's number were very much a part of the music scene of the era, from the glam movement (I'm a Roxy Music fan and will refer you to their self-titled album) to Grease and Happy Days.  The internet didn't invent generational nostalgia.  But it's also a time capsule of the post Free Love movement and explosion of gay culture in the wake of the Stonewall riots.  In short - a lot of fringe culture and what was happening gets lost as subsequent generations are fed one version of how the past *must* have been, when that's merely the dominant and sanitized narrative.  This was a mainstream stageplay on multiple continents for decades and while the movie initially flopped - those who saw something in it went to *extreme* lengths to give it a life no one could have imagined and additional generations found something to embrace in the show as play and film.

I don't re-watch the movie every year, but often enough.  It still feels fresh on a rewatch, believe it or not.  There's always things I recall, things I see the first time.  

There's tons more to talk about, but this seems adequate for the moment.  Anyhoo.  

*in retrospect, that short-lived mom and pop video store was infinitely better than the Blockbuster that would drive it out of business.  I was able to find tons of things there, and then a dwindling number of interesting titles at Blockbuster.

**All of which was quite the smoke show.  You know who loves gigantic strip clubs, lingerie and sex shops and cheap hooker motels and general spankery?  Apparently a whole lot of people who kept those places in operation just on the periphery of my hood.

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