Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lost in Time, Lost in Space, but Rich in Meaning: The Artistic and Cultural Significance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

At first glance, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) might seem like a unique-yet-pointless musical with an affinity for the strange and the deviant. What could be at all relevant in a movie about singing transvestites from another planet? But peel away the film’s sexual exterior, and beneath all the make-up and lingerie lies a bevy of social and artistic significance.

“I would like, if I may,” says Rocky Horror’s narrator near he beginning of the film, “to take you on a strange journey.” And what a strange journey it is. After getting engaged, straight-laced lovers Brad Majors and Janet Weiss decide to visit their friend and mentor, Dr. Schott. During the trip, their car breaks down in the middle of a pouring rain. Thankfully, there’s a light over in the castle up ahead; help, it seems, is just up the road. But the young couple gets more than they bargained for when they’re drawn into the world of a mad scientist from outer space about to unveil his newest creation – a Frankenstein-like creature with the recycled brain of a man!

A dark castle on a rainy night, a mad scientist and a body created and brought to life through science – these are hardly new themes for the horror genre. Yet that’s the point. The Rocky Horror Picture Show pays homage to the classic horror films of the past by patterning its story after the horror conventions of a bygone era. As horror scholar David Skal says, The Rocky Horror Picture Show “is a campy recap of horror characters and clichés” (323). For example, the opening song of the film, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” is about old horror and sci-fi films. “Flash Gordon was there, in silver underwear,” begins the song, and it continues to mention many other old horror and sci-fi films, like It Came from Outer Space and King Kong.

Though Rocky Horror owes much of its existence to a plethora of sci-fi schlock, the film pays its greatest homage to Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s seminal novel, which came to the silver screen in 1931. The main villain’s name, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is a variation of Dr. Frankenstien. And, unsurprisingly, Dr. Frank-N-Furter performs similar experiments. Frank-N-Furter is “making a man, with blonde hair and a tan” in his castle’s laboratory. Rocky, a well-built man clad only in a golden thong, emerges from mummy-like wrappings that echo shrouds worn in another classic horror film, The Mummy (Skal 168). King Kong and Fay Wray are noted several times in the film as well, both through song and through action. In the climatic final scenes, Rocky watches in horror as his creator perishes. Overcome with grief, he hoists his “father” over his shoulder and climbs a nearby radio tower. Just like the giant ape, Rocky is shot down – only this time, with a sort of laser gun – and plummets into the nearby pool, dead. Through allusions like this, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has the rather post-modern distinction of art commenting on art thought imitation.

But it’s not all about paying homage to the classics though imitation: There’s another, more sinister side to this picture show.

Part II: Morbid Eroticism and the Madness of Overindulgence

Peppered amongst the b-movie themes of the film are the overt sexual overtones to which The Rocky Horror Picture Show owes much of its success. Frank-N-Furter is no ordinary doctor; he’s a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” and he gallops about his crumbling castle in increasingly odd, gender-bending outfits. “The relationship between the (usually) female patient and the (usually) male [surgeon] is often morbidly eroticized along horror-movie lines,” says Skal, and that is exactly the case in Rocky Horror (321). Sexual liberation is just as important as the classic horror elements in the film, and not surprisingly, the original play on which the The Rocky Horror Picture Show is based was written in the early ‘70s, right in the midst of the “Sexual Revolution” that reached its peak with that muddy, three-day long expression of free love, Woodstock.

The ironic pairing of horror clichés from the conservative 1950s and new ideas of sexual freedom gives the film a sarcastic edge. And yet, the movie dedicated to decadence delivers the unmistakable message that overindulgence destroys relationships, ruins lives, and could even lead to humanity’s undoing. “But at the same time,” says a Time Magazine article entitled “Life & Death Versus Death-in-Life,” “in [Rocky’s] story, it rejects the fascination with transgression as a form of madness.” Frank-N-Furter’s obsession with creating the perfect male winds up causing his death. (Says Riff-Raff, the man who replaces and kills him, “Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over. Your mission is a failure; your lifestyle’s too extreme.”) Both members of the young couple yield to their sexual desires, and they wind up writhing in the wreckage of the castle, their relationship and their lives together ruined. The narrator seemingly warns the audience afterwards, calling the human race “insects… lost in time, lost in space… and meaning.”

Part III: Brutally Beautiful, Beautifully Brutal

One of the more disturbing themes buried in the film is its twisted take on birth and motherhood. Rocky is not the first man Frank-N-Furter has tried to improve through surgery – he has also operated on Eddie, a former lover. One of the most prevalent reoccurring motifs in horror films is the male scientist, “obsessed with impossible, overreaching theories and/or aesthetic standards,” who toils endlessly over a female patient to create the perfect woman, his own “fantasy in the flesh” (Skal 321-3). While this concept in itself if unsettling (consider the real-life mistakes modern plastic surgeons have made on the female body – when liposuction was first being tested, nine French women had essential organs damaged or sucked out, resulting in their deaths), The Rocky Horror Picture Show takes it one step further. An essentially homosexual man “gives birth” to a slave, to be used for his own sexual pleasure. Frank-N-Furter is a kind of “he mother” (Skal 323), a perversion of nature, “Frankenstein restored to Earth” (Skal 323). Furthermore, if one considers Rocky Frank-N-Furter’s son, not only are the pair’s lesions homosexual, but incestual as well.

With Frank-N-Furter constantly experimenting to create the perfect man, what is he trying to say about body image? Few viewers, given the atmosphere of the movie, even think about it. Yet the message is clear: People aren’t worthy of existing unless they are physically perfect. Although the stereotype is “men playing God with women’s bodies,” like everything in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it has been twisted (Skal 320). Frank-N-Furter’s “perfect” man has huge muscles but little intelligence. He says of Eddie, his former lover, that “he had a certain naive charm, but no muscle!” And being a transsexual, it seems Frank-N-Furter wasn’t happy with his own body to begin with. Perhaps the good doctor was his own first patient.

Traditionally, women – and in the current society, men as well – often feel that they are not good enough and need to be physically altered to be more perfect. Take this concept a few steps further, throw in some lingerie and you’ve got Frank-N-Furter’s hand-built specimen. Like the narrator’s disdainful epilogue, Frank-N-Furter’s folly is a warning to society: Attempting to achieve physical perfection is impossible, and may well dehumanize us all.

Part IV: Worshiping at the Church of Rocky

Although much of the film is built around references to pop culture of the past, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a pop culture phenomenon in itself. When the film was released in 1975, it was a box office flop. But a few years later, Rocky Horror started sprouting up in independent theaters. It began drawing crowds that would come to watch the movie night after night. People started dressing as their favorite characters, male or female, regardless of the wearer’s gender. Midnight showings became the celebrated norm. A ritual was forming, but it would not be complete until the single most important aspect of this film’s cultural significance came to be: People started talking to the movie. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a Mass-like ceremony where viewers “speak” to the characters on screen at specific points. For example, after Brad and Janet get a flat tire, Brad says, “I think I saw a castle back there. Maybe it has a phone we can use.” The audience chimes back in unison, “Castles don’t have phones, asshole!” These “call backs” are essentially the same everywhere, so one can participate in a screening at one theater on Friday, then attend another hundreds of miles away on Saturday and go virtually undetected.

After getting the box office boot, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has spawned its own underground culture with its own language and style of dress. Frank-N-Furter has become the Christological figure in the “church” of Rocky, and his followers can never get enough.

On a more general level, the film’s soundtrack has spawned plenty of albums, and one would be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t know of the movie’s most famous track, “The Time Warp.” Played on radio stations across the country just as any song might be, “The Time Warp” has quietly seeped into American consciousness, just as The Rocky Horror Picture Show itself has.

Part V: Listen Closely (Not for Very Much Longer)

Few films can boast such an eclectic mix of social and artistic significance and mindless fun. By standing on the shoulders of early horror and sci-fi films, The Rocky Horro Picture Show was born, and through song and dance, sex and decadence, it became an American cultural mainstay. But perhaps what keeps us coming back to it night after night isn’t so much the catchy music or the larger than life eroticism, but our subconscious attraction to the revolting and the deviant.

Whatever the case may be, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is here to stay.


O’Brien, Richard. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 20th Century Fox, 1975.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Faber and Faber, 1993.

No comments:

Post a Comment