t’s astounding… time is fleeting…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released 45 years ago, and it still looks so damn good with its killer costumes, extravagant set design, and some of the best high kicks outside the Rockettes. Many share a fierce fascination and commitment to the movie: it’s still playing in theaters around the world, is the longest-running release in cinematic history, and has no intention of going away anytime soon. Maybe it sounds a little bizarre that a musical comedy about a mad alien scientist trying to create the perfect man has caught on so widely, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show — the beautifully batshit brainchild of writer, composer, and actor Richard O’Brien — defies all attempts of logic.
Adapted from O’Brien’s stage show by director Jim Sharman, it’s not so much a film you watch as one you experience. First-time viewers seeing Rocky Horror in theaters with an active audience and live cast are affectionately dubbed “virgins” — but losing your virginity in a movie theater surrounded by rowdy and raunchy strangers has never sounded so fun.
Part of what makes Rocky Horror stand the test of time is how deep a bond it forges with the people who love it. Rocky Horror may center on a mad scientist’s efforts to animate life, but it also animates audiences in its innovative and participatory approach. Rocky Horror is a regular appearance on the midnight movie circuit, and screenings often feature “shadow casts” that mime alongside the action and are replete with opportunities for audience involvement. The songs and sly references come at such an unrelenting pace that there’s barely time for us to catch our breath as we take part in a frenzied fever dream, invited to talk back to the screen, to sing and dance along, to get swept up in the energy.
Don’t let the name fool you — there’s nothing too horrifying about this campy send-up of old-school science fiction films and creature features. It nods to its silly B-movie influences with profound love and is a parodic pastiche of everything from Frankenstein to Hammer Horror. If you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, you’ll learn quickly enough. But here’s an intro to our cast of characters for the unenlightened: Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) are a newly-engaged goody-two-shoes couple whose flat tire leads them to seek refuge at the manor of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), who has created a perfectly coiffed and muscled Adonis named Rocky (Peter Hinwood) to fulfill his every physical desire. Servants Riff Raff and Magenta (O’Brien and Patricia Quinn), groupie Columbia (Nell Campbell), ex-delivery boy Eddie (Meat Loaf), Brad and Janet’s former teacher Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams), the Criminologist narrator (Charles Gray), and a whole bunch of Transylvanians populate the halls of the old country mansion, which becomes a house of horrors and home to unleashed libido.
If you forget who’s who, the much-parodied roll call scene where a few characters are awkwardly caught in a moment of passion will remind you. They all begin frantically looking around and yelling one another’s names: Janet! Doctor Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky! Janet! Doctor Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky! Janet! Doctor Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky! …and so on. This absurdly long gag takes us on a carousel of gazes, expressions of astonishment, and looks of desire — everyone takes part in these exchanges, and we feel right at home yelling our names and quips back.
People call these kinds of movies “cult classics” for a reason: attending a screening or watching the movie with friends is a spiritual experience. Some devoted followers even make Rocky Horror a weekly ritual by attending regular screenings — who needs organized religion when you’ve got fishnets? When Frank-N-Furter (who officially earns the title of sexiest alien of all time) descends in an elevator and makes an entrance like no other while singing ‘Sweet Transvestite,’ clad in heels, dramatic eye makeup, and not much else, you can practically feel your soul leave your body as you ascend to outer space, or another plane entirely.
Rocky Horror transcends the screen and is not just something we see, it’s something we can feel seen by as we watch the raucous musical deconstruct stereotypes and stigmas around gender and sexuality — provoking many a sexual awakening. For queer viewers, the film offered an early chance to see characters exploring liberating desires and fluid identities on-screen, living and loving without a care for what societal prejudice tells them is acceptable. Screenings became a strange yet safe place for misfits of all sorts to reclaim their weirdness and freakiness while having fun together.
Rocky Horror depicts moments of moral depravity and axe murder, but it also celebrates erotic experimentation using sequences of unrestrained passion as colorful as the film’s musical numbers. The characters explore their bodies and each other’s, always ogling or looking longingly, and hands and feet always moving over skin or across the floor. The mood and music make it impossible to sit still.
Maybe Rocky Horror’s most practical message is to be wary of stopping by spooky mansions — but it also makes a compelling statement about being true to yourself and letting your weirdness out. The glorious final scenes where each character is in a corset and streaked makeup is the equivalent of dressing up in your best clothes and going to church. “Don’t dream it, be it,” Frank sings — transform your delirious dreams into a living reality. Maybe your dreams also feature a swimming pool orgy, maybe not… but to each their own.
Rocky Horror is by no means a perfect movie, and in the decades since its release, has attracted criticism from viewers who call for more a nuanced look at the film’s hailing as a sexual celebration. The handling of certain topics hasn’t held up well, from the approach to female sexuality via the treatment of Janet to its more predatory moments as Frank-n-Furter takes advantage of his partners. But part of what makes Rocky Horror so powerful is that we are never expected to take it as gospel — it is flawed, but we can acknowledge the flaws alongside the good.
This is a film we can talk back to, updating the ever-evolving running commentary by its audiences. There’s always room for additions, and there’s no such thing as too much. Today, the songs are just as catchy, the costumes just as ostentatious, and the quips just as campy as ever. If we choose one piece of culture ephemera to beam into space to let aliens know we’re here, let it be this. The universe is filled with weirdos lost in time, lost in space, but through Rocky Horror perhaps we can find one another.