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.

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