Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ROCKY HORROR - The Queen of All Cult Movies

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the undisputed queen of the “midnight movie” genre. Home video has all but destroyed the tradition of cinemas showing oddball movies in late-night slots, sadly, but in the 60s, 70s and 80s there was a real vogue. It all started with exploitation fare like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). As the counter-culture took hold, audiences embraced campy relics like Reefer Madness (1933) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Soon, underground movies like Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) aimed directly at the midnight movie circuit.

Into this fray appeared The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Originally released wide, the picture died a death at the box office, and it's only thanks to the far-sighted marketing of Tim Deegan at 20th Century Fox that Rocky Horror found a second life as a midnight movie at the Waverly Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. Opening on April 1, 1976, it soon found a following and burgeoned into the beloved audience-participation phenomenon of the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, it became something of a rite of passage among the more arty and alternative teens in middle America, and there is not a coffee shop or community theater where the lyrics to “Dammit, Janet” are not known by heart. While many critics and fans - even some of those involved in its making - find the film an airless, embalmed version of the original stage show, it's very clever on its own terms, and the audience participation brilliantly adds back the raucous energy of a live performance. It's a perfect multi-media event, involving film, theater, ironic deconstruction (of a film that is, itself, an ironic deconstruction) and music. Truly, Rocky Horror is the Queen of All Cult Movies.

Read more about the origins of audience participation and the UK tradition of Pantomime after the jump!

The audience participation angle has its roots in a couple of traditions. First, and most obvious, is the near-universal habit of talking back to the screen. “Don’t go in there!” we shout at the hapless heroines of horror flicks. Liberated by the midnight setting and, perhaps, a certain level of inebriation, audiences were soon sassing back to the portentous dialog and filling its many pregnant pauses with saucy innuendo. Legend has it that the first-ever callback was “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” when Janet uses a newspaper to shield herself from the rain. (Click here for a history of the Rocky Horror cult by Sal Piro.)

The second tradition the Rocky cult draws on is the British Pantomime. In America, a pantomime is a dumb show, a silent acting-out of something. In the UK, “Panto” is a theatrical tradition dating to the 18th Century, based in the same tradition as the commedia dell’arte. By the Victorian era, the Pantomime became a Christmas tradition, a sparkly, spoofy version of traditional fairy like “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Aladdin.” Broad humor and sing-along songs (often parodies of popular tunes) enliven the proceedings, and the well-worn fairy tale plots are spiced with topical references. There are audience-participation rituals such as children clapping to revive Tinkerbell, as well as call-backs from the audience. “I’ll get that Cinderella, oh yes I will!” snarls the wicked Stepmother. “Oh no you won’t!” cries the audience, and so forth. There are often naughty double-entendres aimed at parents, which supposedly goes over the heads of the children. The juvenile male lead (Jack, Peter Pan, etc.) is traditionally given to a gamine young actress, while the older female lead (Wicked Stepmother, etc.) is a man in drag – a Pantomime Dame. Christopher Biggins, the portly Transylvanian party-goer, is now a well-known Dame. These days, Panto is often a star-studded affair, with TV celebrities dragging it up as Widow Twankey or appearing as the back end of a pantomime horse.

Thus it’s very easy to identify Richard O’Brien’s show, with its stock characters and situations, as a panto for adults spoofing the Hammer Frankenstein films with a Panto Dame instead of Peter Cushing. Suddenly the dress-up, call-back and sing-along tradition makes a lot more sense.

It should also be noted that, in a strange way, the participation is embedded in the film from the first song. "Science Fiction Double Feature" is sung by Richard O'Brien, but lip synched by Patricia Quinn (the lips on the poster are either Tim Curry's or Loreli Shark's; sources differ but they are not Quinn's). So you have lip-synching and gender-swapping subliminally present from the very start. It's also worth noting that Frank spends most of his time trying to emulate glamorous movie stars of 1940s cinema.

Interior of the Audience Participation Album. Sal Piro, front right, is seated next to Dori Hartley, as Frank N. Furter. Piro and Hartley were the leading lights of Rocky fandom in the 70s and 80s.

Sadly, the release of Rocky Horror on home video has all but killed the late-night audience participation phenomenon. While it’s now easier to appreciate the movie on its own terms – and it is certainly not the lousy film that even many of its fans claim – it’s only in big cities that the midnight cult remains. Even these have lost the spontaneity and invention of the old days – a midnight Rocky Horror screening feels rather fossilized by now. Though there is something wonderful about the traditions in and of themselves, it often seems that the audience’s off-the-cuff riffing is left behind in favor of the floor show. Said floor show is usually performed by a regular troupe, ridden with politics and territorial pissings, who are much more interested in doing “their” version instead of allowing for free-wheeling improv.

You are much more likely to get a thrilling, unexpected experience seeing a theatrical production that re-invents the original show than watching a group of college kids and 40-somethings parrot the routines they heard on the Audience Participation Album. Rocky Horror should celebrate creativity, not mimesis. Even live performances of the play suffer from this - how many sub-par Tim Curry impersonators have we seen? And shouted lines about the Narrator’s neck make sense only the context of Charles Gray and his starchy collar.

Future posts in this series will look at the original stage production frim 1973, a quick glimpse at the many productions around the world, Shock Treatment and my own analysis of the Rocky Horror film and how it is not the movie most fans think it is.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a coming soon from Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly). It's a musical comedy starring Neil Patrick Harris as Doctor Horrible, a low-rent super-villain, with Firefly's Nathan Fillion and Buffy's Felicia Day. This promises to be something interesting! Whedon is a well-known fan of musicals, and created his own "mondo musical" with the acclaimed "Once More With Feeling" episode of Buffy. Stay tuned!

The Doctor Horrible MySpace Page

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


This April Fool's Day sees the DVD release of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). This fabulously gory and stylish adaptation of Sondheim's classic 1979 musical made a blood-red splash in cinemas last Christmas and is now available in single- and double-disc sets. A good half-hour of the stage music (including all the material for the chorus) is cut, and the manic energy and sick, sick humor are downplayed into a quiet intensity more suitable for film. However, the essentials of the piece are preserved and enhanced by Burton's characteristic style, and this modern example of Grand Guignol is now the first goth musical! Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman and Sasha Baron-Cohen all make the most of their roles in this excellent version of the show they said could never be filmed.

What is it with Depp, Burton, and hollow-eyed hairdressers?

But don't forget that the Los Angeles cast, starring Angela Lansbury, is on DVD as well! This 1982 video preserves the original production in all its gory glory, with George Hearn cutting throats as Sweeney and Lansbury grinning like a jack-o-lantern as Mrs. Lovett. Her Tony, Drama Desk and Emmy-winning performance is rightly considered a Broadway legend, and is a must-see for anyone whose mental image of her consists mostly of Murder, She Wrote. Highly, highly recommended. The original show is also represented on DVD by a concert version with Hearn and Patti LuPone, not to mention Neil Patrick Harris.

After the jump, clips from the various versions!


A non-musical version of the film starring the wonderfully-named Tod Slaughter is also available on DVD. It's worth remembering that Sweeney Todd is a venerable part of British urban legend. It's not known if he ever existed or not, but the tale of the demon barber and his maniacal meat-pie mistress has been a subject of show and story in the UK for about 150 years, and for nearly 50 years (until Sondheim's version came out) this was the best-known version of the tale. I've never seen it, but this British production from 1936 is reputed to be a wonderful little shocker. I intend to give it a spin someday.

The funniest song in the show has got to be "A Little Priest," in which Mrs. Lovett comes up with an economical solution for disposing of Sweeney's victims. Here's Angela Lansbury and George Hearn from the classic Los Angeles cast video.

Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in a medley from the 2006 Tonys, where "Sweeney Todd" won the Best Revival award. It's not on DVD but the cast album - in which the actors, sans orchestra, play all their own instruments! - is well worth hearing. The goth style of this revival - which took inspiration from "Marat/Sade" and presented the story as a tale told by inmates of an insane asylum - foreshadow's Burton's version.

Trailer for the 2007 film. They took care to downplay the musical aspect, alas.

Burton's goth style suits Depp and Bonham-Carter to a "T"!