The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Reactionary Morality TaleEdmund Connelly
How many of you have ever flown into Auckland Airport (as in New Zealand), assembled your mountain bike, then headed due south, ending up that evening at a nowhere stop that at least had a large pub featuring karaoke night (which had surprisingly good singers)? Further, how many of you, after food and beer, then pitched your little tent across the river from the pub on the other bank in the dark, listening as remaining patrons jeered the police waiting in the dark for drunk drivers? (New Zealand at the time was in the first stages of actually addressing that country’s notorious culture of drunk driving.)
How many of you then heard a car with a robust V8 elude police and rapidly accelerate away from the pub, only to horribly but invisibly crash into something made of steel, with the awful shrieks of fast-moving metal on asphalt? Instantly, but in slow motion, a mass of wreckage then crashed through the brush on the pub side of the river, showers of orange sparks leaping into the river, followed by dead silence. Ten minutes later, the village siren began to wail in earnest and eventually a helicopter with a floodlight arrived right over the river and my tent. I’ll bet none of you readers have ever experienced that. It was a night out I was going to remember for a long time.
The next morning, detectives arrived to interview me, a sort of eyewitness in the dark. Imagine my surprise upon learning that it was in fact a tractor-trailer that had plunged into the river before me, the “orange sparks” actually the running lights of the entire semi. Thus was the stage set for my short ride into the modest town of Hamilton, New Zealand.
“What the dickens is so important about Hamilton, New Zealand?” you might ask. Well, that is where Richard O’Brien spent part of his life working as a hairdresser.
Okay, where exactly is this story going?
Richard O’Brien, you see, is the creative genius behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 musical that has become so famous that Counter-Currents readers likely need no description of it. Thus, all know that O’Brien wrote the original musical stage show called The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, then starred as the creepy butler Riff Raff in the 1975 film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And in 2004, members of the Hamilton City Council in New Zealand honored O’Brien’s contribution to the arts with a statue of Riff Raff, which is the statue I was stunned to see in a sunny and parched open lot when I arrived in Hamilton after my memorable night along the river.
Wikipedia suitably conveys conventional wisdom about the show when it writes, “Beyond its cult status, The Rocky Horror Show is also widely said to have been an influence on countercultural and sexual liberation movements that followed on from the 1960s. It was one of the first popular musicals to depict fluid sexuality during a time of division between generations and a lack of sexual difference acceptance.”
Fair enough, and that’s precisely the impression I got upon first seeing it at a standard midnight showing while a college student, and for some years after as I enjoyed repeat viewings.
Only years later, when I was a professor teaching modern American culture, did I realize that such an impression was entirely wrong, because at the climax of the musical there is an obvious turn of events indicting exactly this kind of behavior. In other words, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the greatest reactionary science fiction musicals ever made!
For those who have never taught film, one thing to know is that a teacher ends up viewing a 20, 30, even 100 times — or at least select scenes from that film. Such an exposure leads to observations about a film that more casual viewers could almost never make, especially tiny things inserted into the set or passing actions made by minor characters.
In my case, I was teaching a group of foreign college students who had surprisingly little knowledge of post-war American history and, quite frankly, almost no interest in learning about it, so I turned to entertainment as a ploy. In addition, I used film versions that had subtitles in the students’ language because otherwise it would have been a total failure trying to teach the content of these films to this group.
I figured it would be good enough to start with the Great Depression and simplify each decade down to literally one word, with The Grapes of Wrath imparting the sense that Americans were “poor” during that period, followed by “war” in the next decade and “happy” during the 1950s. American Graffiti was the leading film I used for those lessons.
Then by the 1960s, I was able to spend more time offering a deeper examination of American culture, beginning with the end of the ‘50s in 1963 with Kennedy’s death, then the emergence of more individual freedom with the “sex, drugs, and rock-‘n’-roll” that followed. Having turned into an old fuddy-duddy by then, I’d try to show students that such behavior inevitably led to some very negative consequences by the early 1970s, including divorce, death from drug overdoses, and a general decline of morals. What better way to teach that progression than a truncated viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
In short, I’d start the lesson with a review of the 1950s, with its conventional morality and innocent teenagers. Life was pretty swell then, I’d teach. Then I’d let the film roll. Admittedly, the opening song and credits are pretty bizarre, but we next meet Brad and Janet at the country church wedding of two friends.
The experience of watching friend Betty Monroe morph into “Mrs. Ralph Hapschatt” kindles ideas of eternal bliss in Brad and Janet, and we suspect they are soon about to take the plunge into marital bliss themselves.
Of course, the whole post-wedding scene is campy, as Rocky generally is in its entirety, and we viewers, upon even the first viewing, take notice of things like the graveyard next to the church, or Brad dropping the engagement ring he tries to put it on Janet’s finger. We also notice the odd “caretakers” in front of the church, especially as they wheel a black casket inside as Brad and Janet imagine through song and dance what a wonderful married life they will soon have. (Susan Sarandon, playing Janet Weiss, was so hot as she sashayed up the aisle.)
Then, however, we have the weird entrance of the “The Narrator,” who is trying to explain what is taking place. In a few short minutes, the viewer has seen the opening of the film with a pair of bright red lips and shining teeth singing a song with enough references to famous science fiction movies of the past that we get an inkling of what is to come, but the cut to the wedding scene has no connection whatsoever (well, to the uninitiated at least) to the opening song. Then there is the abrupt cut to the stodgy narrator to add further confusion. This musical could have fallen on its face very, very easily.
Fortunately, as we all now know, it became a run-away success that has enjoyed many decades of uninterrupted fame, with the same kind of audience participation by college students and others that I had experienced so many moons ago. (I hate to think what has happened during this awful Covid era, however.)
I’ve never seen Rocky performed on the stage (and frankly wouldn’t want to). Instead, to me Rocky is and will always be the 1975 film version with its unparalleled cast and brilliant music. Rocky remains my favorite film by far, and I have never tired of showing the same scenes in class again and again and again. For me, it is as fixed in the cultural landscape as Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are in The Wizard of Oz. It would be sacrilege to change a thing.
At this point in the essay, I would like to switch from the position of first-time viewer to that of the teacher, offering a much more thought-out consideration of the film’s meaning. What we are going to see after the Narrator’s veiled warning is the explosion of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll that creator Richard O’Brien no doubt still strongly remembered from the second half of the 1960s and into the first years of the 1970s. And that is precisely what Brad and Janet also experience as they exit the confines of the stable safety of the 1950s and step foot into the uproar that is the 1960s. Thus, their “journey” will be compacted into a few crazy days at the rural retreat of some wealthy “weirdos.” That party is, in short, an account of the 1960s from the viewpoint of the young people who experienced it. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.”
And, for the majority of the film to follow, Brad and Janet are indeed going to enjoy some of the freedom promised by the ’60s. But throughout, this adventure will be in tension with the undercurrent of “horror” in the title of the film, in the opening song, and in The Narrator’s menacing introduction:
I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.
It seemed a fairly ordinary night when Brad Majors and his fiancée Janet Weiss, two young, ordinary, healthy kids, left Denton that late November evening to visit a Dr. Everett Scott, ex-tutor and now friend to both of them. It’s true there were dark storm clouds heavy, black, and pendulous toward which they were driving. It’s true also that the spare tire they were carrying was badly in need of some air, but they being normal kids on a night out, well . . . They were not going to let a little storm spoil the events of their evening. On a night out . . . It was a night out they were going to remember for a very long time.
The Narrator, played to perfection by the neckless Charles Gray, is absolutely right for the role, as are all the characters in the film release. Formal, old school, and with a commandingly thick British accent, he assumes the role of authority, having overseen a thorough investigation of Brad and Janet’s “night out” and the events at the secluded mansion. His cautious warning of the “night out” inevitably sticks with us as the fun unravels.
Rocky’s plot involves a layering of motifs, beginning with an homage to science fiction B-movies of the past. It also centrally incorporates the Mary Shelley Frankenstein tale, updating it to a more imaginative, hipper Dr. Frankenstein. And finally, this is a thorough-going morality tale, one that Richard O’Brien could in no way have foreseen would be hugely relevant in the 1990s and into the new millennium. This is all wrapped in camp and parody (though, as I will later argue, it actually contains a poignant tragedy revolving around some very serious topics).
Still, on the surface, there is no doubt about Rocky’s lightheartedness, as this description explains:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a film that takes itself too seriously. Because of this, it has in-jokes, fourth-wall breaking and a host of nods, winks, and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. It takes great delight in parodying films from previous eras at certain points. Dr. Frank ‘N Furter even looks directly at the camera in some instances, acknowledging the fact that there is an audience watching.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let us return to Brad and Janet’s plans after the wedding of Betty and Ralph Hapschatt. Brad and Janet are in a suitably boring old station wagon, driving along a dark road under rainy skies. While listening to Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, Brad takes a wrong turn and backs up to get back to the correct road, whereupon he hits something and blows out a rear tire, setting up the occasion for these immortal lines:
Brad: Dammit! I knew I should have gotten that spare tire fixed! Well you just stay here and keep warm, and I’ll go for help.
Janet: Where will you go? We’re in the middle of nowhere.
Brad: Didn’t we pass a castle back down the road a few miles? Maybe they have a telephone I could use.
Brad’s sheer insouciance — no, stupidity — in not noticing anything out of place with a castle plopped out in the wilderness of the American Midwest succinctly captures his naïveté and unreadiness to enter into the confines of that castle — or into the mind-expanding activities of the 1960s.
Before viewing a further demonstration of Brad’s lack of preparation for the ’60s, we observe the rain-soaked couple approach the castle, a line of motorcycles glistening in the flash of lightning. The camera then pans to a turret up in the castle, where the butler Riff Raff sings a beautifully plaintive song, really one lacking in irony or parody, but rather a cry from the heart, dealing with his existential condition:
Darkness must flow down the river of night’s dreaming
Flow Morphia, slow
Let the sun and light come streaming into my life, into my life
Informed now about the state of the butler’s tortured soul, we see him as he answers the door of the castle, the rings of the large doorbell still reverberating off the stone walls. At this point, Janet, at least, understands that they are in more than a little danger. Brad, meanwhile, remains oblivious, hardly the man to protect his fiancée.
Upon entering, Brad and Janet slowly gaze at their new surroundings, eerie and threatening. Riff Raff tries to explain the weird circumstances by understatedly informing the young couple, “You’ve arrived on a rather special night. It’s one of the master’s affairs.” Suddenly, Magenta, the maid and sister to Riff Raff, slides down the railing and screeches, followed by Riff Raff breaking into the popular “Time Warp” tune.
Thrust into the ballroom, Brad and Janet are presented with a wide range of decidedly odd guests thoroughly enjoying dancing “The Time Warp.”
To no one’s surprise at this point, the nerd (okay, asshole) Brad utters the inanity, “Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?” Now Janet really knows she’s in trouble.
Immediately, we hear an ominous cadence and soon see an old cage elevator descending, occupied by someone wearing ostentatious white high heels. Panning upward from the heels, the camera reveals a showman in a cape, and the showman turns around. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has now truly begun.
Glossed lips glistening, our next main character makes a glorious entrance as he throws open the door of the elevator and struts into the ballroom, launching into the song “Sweet Transvestite” where we (assuming it is prior to, say, 1990) are shocked to see that this character is a man in a woman’s garter belt and bodice ensemble.
Jaded and outrageous, he introduces himself through song:
How do you do?
I see you’ve met my, faithful . . . handyman
He’s a little brought down, because when you knocked
He thought you were the candyman
Don’t get strung out by the way I look
Don’t judge a book by its cover
I’m not much of a man by the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover
He throws off his cloak, revealing his transvestite attire: “I’m just a sweet transvestite, from Transsexual Transylvania.”
Well, we certainly have had an unexpected development here. Imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1973 (stage) and 1975 (movie theater) upon seeing this outrageous cabaret. Quite likely, the response was to view it as hilarious fiction, an over-the-top portrayal of an unrealistic and impossible world.
Surprise! Viewers of that era had no idea this very thing was coming to their world in 30 short years, and in 40 years anyone with the temerity to find anything offensive in this behavior would be viciously hounded and condemned. Oh, Rocky was so prescient, indeed.
In any case, I’ve devoted so much time to this introduction because it is so deserving of praise for its brilliance in so many ways. The seemingly disjointed collection of scenes prior now coalesce to give us the framework of the story. Further, it now situates the three main characters: Brad, Janet, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter (and yes, later there is a stale joke that Frank is a real “hot dog”). Perhaps because she has lost faith in Brad’s ability to protect her, but maybe more because she is attracted to drama and power, Janet begins to show tentative interest in Frank as a sex object, a feeling that will grow throughout the movie. Frank, for his part, merely sees Brad and Janet as another sideshow that can provide him with yet more fleeting pleasure — including the pleasure of utterly corrupting them.
Next, we move on to the Frankenstein portion of musical, where Frank-N-Furter indeed attempts to create a man out of inanimate material. Of course this is no monster. Instead, Frank describes his creation as he tells Brad and Janet about his lustful desires:
Why don’t you stay for the night — or maybe a bite
I could show you my favorite obsession
I’ve been making a man
With blonde hair and a tan
And he’s good for relieving my tension
I’m just a sweet transvestite . . .
From Transsexual Transylvania
Sure enough, after some colorful chemical processes, Frank gets his man — Rocky:
Next, to jump ahead a bit, we enter into an unexpected moral dilemma as a scene of irrepressible power and creativity overtakes us. From a large freezer emerges an ice-covered biker carrying a saxophone. The biker is none other than the iconic Meat Loaf, scarred and oozing primal male power, which is apparently what drew Columbia, an old girlfriend, to him.
Meat Loaf as Eddie belts out a powerful rock-‘n’-roll song, completely upstaging the fuming Frank-N-Furter, a vain and spoiled individual. After finishing his sax solo, Eddie rides around the large room on his large Harley, continuing to dominate the scene. Furious, Frank grabs a pick and threatens the much larger Eddie, who fearfully backs into the foggy freezer, from which we hear the horrible sounds of pick ripping flesh, with screams from Columbia. Soon, the bloodied Frank-N-Furter exits, stumbling after such exertion. Rushing over to his love creation, he consoles an agitated Rocky, “Don’t be upset. It was a mercy killing. He had a certain naïve charm — but no muscle.”
To Frank, this is just more typical behavior, as thus far no one has been able to tame his unruly passions. But, in fact, this murder becomes the moral fulcrum of the show by asking us: What exactly are the limits of behavior? Wild parties with plentiful drugs? Unbounded sex? Challenging God’s prerogative of creating humans? Cold-blooded murder?
Frank, being a “sweet transvestite,” shows that he is also playfully bisexual, first slipping into Janet’s solitary bedroom disguised as Brad. Deceived, Janet submits to the bodily temptation and for the first time engages in sex, only to find that it is with the despicable Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who continues his seduction. Still, Janet sobs, “You tricked me — I wouldn’t have — I’ve never — never . . .” Frank purrs back to her, “Yes, yes I know. But it isn’t all bad, is it? I think you really found it quite pleasurable.” Finally, Janet succumbs to this erotic stimulation and asks, “Promise you won’t tell Brad?” “Cross my heart and hope to die,” Frank replies. They then resume intercourse.
The following scene is nearly identical, except now “Janet” enters Brad’s chambers and they begin to have sex. Sure enough, Frank is now impersonating Janet, and Brad is of course outraged, repeating almost line for line what Janet had just said. Exposed but undeterred, Frank continues his seduction, in turn using the same words with Brad that he had with Janet. Like Janet, Brad completes his initiation into the world of sex, even if his first encounter was with a man. Frank’s corruption of the young couple continues apace.
And so Frank’s indulgence of disordered passions proceeds, but we in the audience are increasingly convinced that this “freedom” is justified, as we escape the previous shackles of parents, religion, and general morality. The ’60s are a new age and there is no punishment for realizing desire, nor even for more serious transgressions. So, for instance, we return to the topic of Eddie’s murder when Frank hosts a birthday dinner party. It never crosses Frank’s mind that he has exceeded the limits by what he has done to Eddie. In fact, he celebrates it by throwing the murder in the faces of his dinner guests when, reenacting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, he entertains while the mutilated body of Eddie lies beneath their very dinner table.
Compared to Hitchcock’s Rope, the dinner scene in Rocky is no sophisticated affair, as for instance Janet is nearly naked and Frank is wearing a child’s birthday party hat. Frank then cuts the dinner meat with an electric knife and passes out slices to his guests, but the conversation turns suspect when the character known as Dr. Scott says, “We came here to discuss Eddie,” to which Frank replies, “That’s a rather tender subject,” implying something entirely unsavory. Frank is indeed a depraved man.
As the gnawing suspicion grows that Frank is feeding them the flesh of the deceased Eddie, Frank rips off the tablecloth to reveal a Cubist vision of the vivisected Eddie. All are appalled except for Frank, who blithely continues to assume that power trumps any old-fashioned concepts of morality.
The Narrator, however, reminds of us of the pull of morality:
Fate it seems had decided that Brad and Janet should keep their appointment with their friend Dr. Everett Scott. But it was to be in a situation which none of them could have possibly foreseen. And just a few hours after announcing their engagement, Brad and Janet had both tasted forbidden fruit. This in itself was proof that their host was a man of little morals — and some persuasion. What further indignities were they to be subjected to? And what of the floorshow that had been spoken of? In an empty house in the middle of the night, what diabolical plan had seized Frank’s crazed imagination? What indeed? From what had gone before, it was clear that this was to be no picnic.
Reference to “forbidden fruit” is indeed apt here, for the Garden of Eden story is a parable about God imposing morality on mankind. Transgression is worthy of punishment, so Frank too must be punished, but that will come later. First, we are treated to the floorshow alluded to by Dr. Scott. Here, the musical begins its crescendo to the climax and denouement.
Dr. Frank has turned his guests into stone statues as he prepares his floorshow. He then pulls down a large lever to return Columbia to a living human, and she begins her song, “It was great when it all began, I was a regular Frankie fan.” In turn, the others are unfrozen and sing about their transition to an unrestricted lifestyle. When Brad’s turn comes, he sings:
It’s beyond me
Help me Mommy
I’ll be good and you’ll see
Take this dream away
What’s this, let’s see . . . I feel sexy
What’s come over me
Whoa — here it comes again!
Next is Janet, who is empowered now, welcoming her own initiation into sins of the flesh:
Oh, I . . . I feel released
Bad times deceased
My confidence has increased, reality is here
The game has been disbanded
My mind has been expanded
It’s a gas that Frankie’s landed
His lust is so sincere
Even the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott is enticed by this cultural shift toward freedom and promiscuity, revealing that under his quilt he is wearing black high heels and fishnet stockings. This shift everyone makes to acceptance of the permissive society’s mores is validated when Frank begins his own performance, dressed like a woman as he stands beneath a model of the RKO Tower. Kicking a lever to reveal a stage diving board, Frank slowly ascends it, singing invitingly:
Give yourself over to absolute pleasure
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh
Erotic madness beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams to treasure forever
Can’t you just see it — oh, oh, oh . . .
This is the credo of liberated Western man and woman, as sex has been chemically separated from procreation and guilt while pursuing sexual gratification has been conquered by unbridled imagination. Unrestricted sex leads to physical and emotional nirvana, from the lifestyles of the single liberated woman to Michel Foucault in the bathhouses of San Francisco. No cost is attached to any of this.
This message is then amplified as the feminized Frank leaps into the mist above the pool beneath him, at which point, the mist clearing, he softly launches into repetitively singing lyrics representing the entire message of the movie up to this point:
Don’t dream it, be it
Don’t dream it, be it
It’s a beautiful sequence, to be sure. Frank is 100% sincere in his embrace of this motto, seemingly cleansed of the memory of the many horrible deeds he’s committed. At this point, the sheer beauty of the scene of him standing beneath the RKO Tower, then jumping into the lavish indoor pool, mesmerizes us, pulling us into Frank’s fantasy, just as it has pulled in the other characters. For all intents and purposes, it looks like this is leading to a happy ending.
The careful viewer, however, will see signs of smoke on the horizon, so to speak. For when Frank jumps into the pool, he ends up sitting atop a standard ocean lifesaver as he dreamily paddles about the ornate pool, a large rendering of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Divine Spark image beneath him.
But if one checks the letters on the lifesaver, one will read “SS Titanic.” Perfectly appropriate at this point. Full speed ahead.
Intoxicated with his unrivaled power and the success he’s attained in the pursuit of a hedonistic lifestyle, Frank erupts into a boisterous chorus, leading a line dance of characters upon the stage with a triumphant victory song:
I’m a wild and an untamed thing
I’m a bee with a deadly sting
You gotta hit and your mind goes ping
Your heart’ll thump and your blood will sing
So let the party and the sounds rock on
We’re gonna shake it till the life has gone
Amidst this, however, Dr. Scott struggles against this message, pulled both in the direction of his traditional moral past and in the new direction of eroticism and freedom:
Ach, we’ve got to get out of this trap
Before this decadence saps our wills
I’ve got to be strong and try to hang on
Or else my mind may well . . . SNAP
And my life will be lived
For the thrill
Then, out of nowhere, we get the sudden entrance of the actual alien commander from the planet Transylvania — none other than the self-effacing butler Riff Raff. Having stoically endured his subordinate Frank-N-Furter’s humiliation and abuse, he forcefully turns the tables and issues this edict:
Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over
Your mission is a failure
Your life is too extreme
I’m your new Commander
You now are my prisoner
We return to Transylvania
Prepare the transit beam
Sadly, Frank misinterprets this to mean he will also accompany the commander and Magenta back to Transylvania, but in fact Frank has been condemned to death, which Riff Raff duly effects with his laser beam. It’s a touching scene.
We’ve now reached the end of the film. To be honest, for years I never noticed that Frank’s debauched lifestyle was ultimately condemned in the film and his execution a stark statement about a “life too extreme.” After the execution, Dr. Scott even congratulates Riff Raff for the action by nothing, “Society must be protected.” I think these points are very clear, and they were always there for us to see and hear. Curious, then, that the film has always been celebrated as a paean to sexual and other liberations.
When Riff Raff and Magenta beam the rocket-cum-castle back toward Transsexual Transylvania, Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott are left sullied and bruised by the rocket’s blast — and by their brush with freedom, for they have learned that there are no great adventures without risk. And sure enough, as mentioned, the 1970s saw a rise in divorce and out-of-wedlock births, a rise in venereal disease, drug addiction, nihilism, and so on.
The Narrator captures this sense of chastisement as he prepares to turn out the lights to his office:
And crawling . . . on the planet’s face
Some insects . . . called the human race
Lost in time . . . and lost in space
For me at the time, that was an exquisitely profound pronouncement, commenting as it did on the fallout from the loss of religious faith in the West and the spread of existential angst in the twentieth century. The Rocky Horror Picture Show accomplished so much in its 100-minute run time.
Why do I think the musical is so good? In short, I have always experienced it as a near-perfect production. In addition to the superb cast, the music is just so good. Sure, it’s not Wagner, but the coin of our realm is popular music, and Richard O’Brien hit it out of the park with his compositions, and singers then captured the spirit of the songs wonderfully.
In addition the costumes and cinematography are stunning. Perfect, really. So vivid, so alive, and all done on a tiny budget. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, to my mind, a modern film miracle, as relevant today as it was in 1975. By taking the generic Hansel and Gretel tale of two innocents released among the wilds, Richard O’Brien spun a story that captured the highs and lows of the entire second half of the twentieth century in American culture. And by the year 2000, what was seen as outrageous parody theater had now become our life. I’ll need to watch it yet again to see if some of the joy of the film is at all muted by the action in the musical now becoming the norm. And will there be a correction for this? A price to pay, as Frank-N-Furter paid with his own life for the extreme nature of his visit to Earth? We’ll soon find, out one way or another.
Before reaching my final comments, I’d like to fill in a few blanks for readers, particularly concerning the opening lyrics where we are promised a
Science Fiction double feature
Dr. X will build a creature
See Androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Ahahahaho . . .
At the late night, double-feature Picture Show
To be sure, we easily recognized the Frankenstein horror story, but where was the science fiction beyond that? Upon multiple viewings, of course, we learn that the entire trio of Frank, Riff Raff, and Magenta are aliens literally from another planet, and when you go back to watch the opening wedding scene, it is the trio that play the custodians at the church.
This outrageous mixture of themes never should have worked — yet it did. And still does. I wonder how it will age over the next half-century.
Finally, I’ll offer the two closing songs, the first accompanying the launch of the castle and the Narrator’s profound comments on the drama we’ve just experienced. To this day I’m still impressed by the chastised remaining characters’ disorientation, represented by a nauseous spinning of their surroundings as it morphs into the globe, which the Narrator reflects upon before turning out the light. Enjoy this closing here.
Even the closing credits provide an enchanting spectacle as we enjoy a beautiful reprise of the opening song. Full of melancholy and a sense of lost opportunities, the song is slow, ethereal, elegant, with tinkly bells adding a whiff of nostalgia for the long-lost past of King Kong, Faye Ray, and so many others we once knew. Frankie and Rocky, too. Most of all, the song brings perfect closure to an uproarious era, all packed into that night in a mysterious castle. It was quite a journey.
* * *
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Trevor Lynch’s Classics of Right-Wing Cinema
Race and Ethics in John Ford’s Stagecoach
John Wayne’s The Alamo & the Politics of the 1960s
The Banshees of Inisherin
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Indeed, the “man with no neck” had a point. Brad and Janet did end up in quite a pickle. Then Frank gets punished for hubris.
Thanks for this essay.
Until the movie was released on DVD, it was almost impossible to watch the film because of the enormous amount of ‘audience participation’ which, ultimately, because the reason to see the film.
I remember seeing the film a few times before the audience decided it was more important than the film, before the narcissism of RHPS created an audience worth of the narcissism of Frank, and really enjoying the spectacle of it.
At the time, I did not experience the film as an incitement to perversion as much as – to use one of the films tropes – a ‘floor show’ of sexual license provided for ‘entertainment purposes only’.
By the time Riff Raff kills Frank, it seems entirely appropriate, causally so.
Thanks for the comment. BTW, I’d love to hear from readers what the state of Rocky theater showings has been from 2000 until 2019, before Covid hit. Still going strong at midnight around college campuses? What about audience participation those two decades? Finally, what do readers envision for Rocky after/if Covid ever ends? Thanks.
I remember watching it in the basement of a hipster coffee house in 2011. I found it a bit boring (born 1991), but people even younger than me started “audience participating.” Looked to me like they wanted to get some of that 70s mojo or that they’d read about audience participation and were now doing it because “that’s what ought be done”.
This is indeed a hilarious, perfectly cast movie with incredibly catchy songs that creates a vivid and original world all of its own. It seems so far away from today’s LGBT totalitarian ugliness, insanity and utter lack of humour and self-irony, and yet it has to be admitted that it was an ancestor that certainly did help to pave the way to where we are today.
The “reactionary morality” addressed in this article is largely tongue-in-cheek, I’d say, and should not be taken at face value, this being a parody of pre-1960 horror and sci-fi-movies. It does indeed show total sexual liberation and hedonism as coming with a heavy price, but the lingering impression is the flamboyant party-glamour and lascivious wickedness of Frank’n’Furter and his crew, imitated by so many “cult movie” aficionados. When the movie is over, you will primarily remember the campy, over-the-top celebrations of kinky sexual libertinage, and less the punishment for egocentric Frank or the ultimately humiliating corruption of Brad and Janet. It’s really Bela Lugosi’s Dracula that captures the imagination and touches the heart, not the dull and square Edward van Sloan Van Helsing. Likewise, nobody will be rooting for the utterly unattractive, dull and square Dr. von Scott, who is just there for the laughs really.
Still, here is Tim Curry in 1975 conceiving the character he played so iconically in a rather negative way – “It is a parody, but I play it and think of it as a kind of grizzly reality.”
The film certainly could not be made today like this. In the age of wokeness you’re not allowed to think of trannies as either comical (as in “Life of Brian”) or scary and evil (as late as 1990 in “Silence of the Lambs”; or remember similar characters such as Dean Stockwell’s evil faggot in “Blue Velvet”). Frank’n’Furter was both, plus he was charismatic, witty and seductive, and that combination made it work (likewise Dracula had to played by handsome and charismatic men such as Lugosi or Christopher Lee to make it work). If you can’t admit that freaks really are freaks, that demons are demons, aliens are aliens, deviants are deviants, and if really, really anything goes, there is no contrast, no measure, no tension left, nothing to corrupt or seduce or transgress anymore. This is the big, shallow emptiness after the orgy and after all trangressions have been done and tried.
If sexual deviancy has become mainstream, promoted and funded by the state and by big business, there is no point in portraying the deviants as sub-cultural, alien-demonic creatures of darkness who live far away from respectable society, in spooky castles and crypts. Ugly, repulsive “Drag Queen Story Hour” drag queens pose like literal demons, while being made untouchable by political correctness and celebrated and idolised by liberals, who think gender-brainwashing and corrupting children is cool and progressive and on the right side of history. Ridiculing the prudishness and naiveté of Brad and Janet today would be like flogging a dead horse and churning out the usual anti-white or anti-conservative propaganda, while even an “ironic” moral punishment and unhappy ending for Frank would seem highly problematic and transphobic.
PS: I have seen the film a million times in my teenage years, but the “Superheroes” song was not in that cut.
Petronius, I need to block quote all of this:
“This is indeed a hilarious, perfectly cast movie with incredibly catchy songs that creates a vivid and original world all of its own. It seems so far away from today’s LGBT totalitarian ugliness, insanity and utter lack of humour and self-irony, and yet it has to be admitted that it was an ancestor that certainly did help to pave the way to where we are today.”
Yes, you are entirely right here, which is why for years I’d thought about looking into the role Lou Adler had with the show and film. If you know my writing over at TOO, you’d know I’m very interested in what the Tribe is up to. On the whole, however, it looks like Richard O’Brien was mainly responsible for creating the stage show and film musical. There are a ton of YouTube videos with O’Brien, and he does seem to have lived the life he created on the screen (unless it’s an elaborate hoax).
Wiki writes that “O’Brien was born Richard Smith in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire [England]. He emigrated with his family to Tauranga, New Zealand, at the age of 10, where his accountant father had purchased a sheep farm.
Next, Patronius wrote:
“The ‘reactionary morality’ addressed in this article is largely tongue-in-cheek, I’d say, and should not be taken at face value, this being a parody of pre-1960 horror and sci-fi-movies. It does indeed show total sexual liberation and hedonism as coming with a heavy price, but the lingering impression is the flamboyant party-glamour and lascivious wickedness of Frank’n’Furter and his crew, imitated by so many “cult movie” aficionados. When the movie is over, you will primarily remember the campy, over-the-top celebrations of kinky sexual libertinage, and less the punishment for egocentric Frank or the ultimately humiliating corruption of Brad and Janet.”
Yes, that’s perfectly put. I wish I could have included a conclusion like that in my review. I know it took me years to see the “moral” in the tale, but of course I missed it earlier (as I’m sure others have) for exactly the reasons you say.
“PS: I have seen the film a million times in my teenage years, but the “Superheroes” song was not in that cut.”
Wow, really? Let me check … Hmmm, indeed the song “Superheroes” does not seem to be on the classic album, but you can catch it here:
Now it gets more confusing. An American comments under it: “I live in America and I’m so sad that this ending was cut out of the US version. It’s the perfect ending, especially with the narrator’s speech. It shows how Brad and Janet will never be the same again. Ending the movie as the castle is beamed to Transylvania is an okay ending, but this song gives the film an extra pow, and gives a proper ending to Brad and Janet’s character arcs. It truly feels complete after this, after the narrator leaves. The ending in the US version just isn’t as effective and not nearly as beautiful.”
What’s going on? So which version has the Superheroes ending, followed by the Narrator’s “Lost in Space” comments, then the reprise? You suggest you didn’t see that version, but you write as though you’re from the British Commonwealth and not the U.S.
Thanks again for the great comments.
I’m from Middle Europe and my source was a VHS tape of a German TV recording with subtitles. The narrator’s final words were in it, but not the “Superheroes” song. That’s a pity, because indeed it does neatly close the story arc and shows how “darkness has conquered Brad and Janet”, making them feel dirty, broken, humiliated.
I was never able to sit through the 1981 “sequel” everybody forgets about and nobody seems to like, “Shock Treatment” (again a Sharman/O’Brien collaboration), which continues the story of Brad and Janet (with different actors), because it was so annoying and far removed from the world of the previous movie. So I have no idea what the message is here and how it relates to the ending of “Rocky Horror”. Maybe worth a revisit.
Petronius, we really are on the same wavelength. I attended “Shock Treatment” not long after it came out — and it was one of only two theater movies I’ve ever walked out on. The other was “Mahler.”
You missed at least one funny scene 😉
This movie, which I watch religiously every Halloween, has long been one of my guilty pleasures. Now I have been relieved of the guilt of liking it so much by a professional. Thanks.
During a very low period in my life, the late 70’s, I was wandering late at night in downtown Toronto and by chance decided to buy a ticket, partly to get out of the cold. What a comforting pleasure that was, to see the film for the first time with the live audience choreography and responses. Kept me smiling for days.
Tim Curry’s performance was brilliant. I never cease to be impressed by it.
And in all these years I was unaware of the missing separate ending, which I just watched on (pardon me) YouTube. Thanks for that as well.
Same here, it was actually the first time I ever saw the “Superheroes” ending, after having read this article and more than 30 years of watching and re-watching. Why it was cut is a mystery, because this is better than the other cut.
You mean there was a version that ended with the castle/rocket blasting off, then the credits? In that case, did the Narrator come on and spin the globe to utter, “and crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race. Lost in time and lost in space — and meaning.”
Without the longer ending, it has a far different impact, I’d say. It would be interesting to know which version was the premier for major markets and whether these versions changed over the years.
Yes, the narrator spinning the globe was included, but not the song.
Isn’t Frank a modern, pop version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni? The don tries to break up a betrothed couple (Zerlina and Masetto – he invites the pair to stay at his castle and hold their wedding there but attempts Zerlina’s seduction during a masked ball) and ultimately gets dragged to hell as an unrepentant and proud sinner.
I can’t sit through more than about 30 seconds of this obnoxious, “gender-bending” malignancy, and have never “gotten” its appeal. I don’t care if it has Leni Riefenstahl’s personal stamp of approval. Hard pass.
Unlike you, Richard, I have never tried to watch this movie. Not even the least bit curious. In fact, when people mention it I quickly change the subject. That’s how revolted I am by it all.
Thanks for writing this article! This is the lens through which I’ve always viewed the movie. I saw it dozens of times before attending a single audience participation screening, and I think that helped me appreciate it for what it is and not what most people think it is. Those screenings are fun, though, or at least they were at a time.
As recently as a decade ago, seeing Rocky Horror in the theater meant indulging in debauchery while recognizing it for what it was, which is very different from pretending that it’s normal or should be. We’d make all kinds of politically incorrect jokes. Now, it’s a little different.
Enjoyed this piece. However, I think it may be a bit Procrustean, chopping off bits and pieces of the film to suit the point it – mostly successfully – tries to make.
Couple of things. First off: “Brad’s sheer insouciance — no, stupidity — in not noticing anything out of place with a castle plopped out in the wilderness of the American Midwest succinctly captures his naïveté and unreadiness to enter into the confines of that castle — or into the mind-expanding activities of the 1960s.”
I would imagine that the inclusion of a castle in the plot is nowhere near as controversial in the earlier UK stage version that the film was based on. After all, on this small island there are castles a-plenty. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick (who is amazing in another, much more recent cult flick, FDR: American Badass) were inserted so the film could be sold to American audiences, which explains the rest of the cast being English. The Americanised version of the play probably just didn’t change that aspect of the script, though, not having seen the play, I have no idea.
You missed out on mentioning the actual lyrics of the brilliant songs in the film: Richard O’Brien clearly has a touch of the Irish lyrical genius in him. I love how it takes you multiple viewings to catch stuff like:
“Whatever happened to Saturday Night
When you dressed up sharp and you felt alright
It don’t seem the same since cosmic light
Came into my life, I thought I was divine” (from Hot Patootie, sung by Meatloaf; I always kind of wondered by a biker was singing about fucking in a car, mind you) and:
“Well I was walking down the street just a-having a think
When a snake of a guy give me an evil wink
He shook-a me up, he took me by surprise
He had a pickup truck, and the devil’s eyes
He starred at me and I felt a change
Time meant nothing, never would again” (from Time Warp)
It’s only later you consider that these are the characters of Eddie and Magenta are humans singing about being abducted by Frank-N-Furter, in the form of an alien and a ‘snake of a guy.’
I don’t think that the sweet transvestite from Transylvania was acting alone in this. If you recall, Riff Raff and Magenta tell Frankie:
“Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over
Your mission is a failure
Your lifestyle’s too extreme
I’m your new commander
You now are my prisoner
We return to Transylvania
Prepare the transit beam”
This strongly implies that Frankie’s decadent madness has been an experiment on the part of aliens higher-up in the other-planetary hierarchy than he is, and they may well have been using him as a sort of test subject for their own decadent whims to see how they work out. Indeed, as he doesn’t even seem to know that he is being watched, and part of an experiment, he may well have constantly been controlled by his alien overlords/overseers as well, and may actually be a true innocent, doing things beyond his ability to control. So his excesses may well not even be his.
I don’t know,.These are just a thought or two. I did enjoy reading your thoughts on this, though, Mr. Connelly, so thanks for this article. The Rocky Horror Picture Show will remain a classic forever, and the Hell with its deeply conservative modern descendants.
What ever Richard O’Brien thought he was creating there are hidden depths in any powerful work of art that only reveal themselves slowly.
I just noticed that the groupie Columbia has the same name as the female avatar of North America.
Depends on how you see things doesn’t it ? If O’Brien lifted the name from Columbia Pictures (like his many references to RKO pictures) then there is a direct link. Names like this are memes that burrow deep into the human psyche and can stay dormant for generations, just like the eggs of the brine shrimp in the salt flats waiting for the rains to come again.
Colombia, once a pure goddess full of hope and promise, later a powerful movie studio, later still a whore in thrall to an alien degenerate.
I wouldn’t overanalyze it. It’s probably simply about these people they are after and nothing more. One was a secret cross dresser or something.
rocky horror is memorable for the catchy songs with clever lyrics, the unique situations, the excellent actors, oh, something called talent that has gone from the world like frank n furter’s spaceship. It’s an nostalgic homage to fifty’s three chord rock an role and cheesy sci-fi movies at the drive in.
watching it as an older adult, I thought the first half was a lot better than the second. It goes downhill. Still, it’s one of the great musicals.
I actually once bumped into Charles Gray in a Knightsbridge pub, for just a few seconds. I had just bought half a pint of cider, which he noticed and which prompted him to say “I’d buy you a drink any time, you’re <I>awfully</I> cheap”. I did not choose to pursue this train of thought.
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