When I was old enough to drive, my friends and I started hitting the Movies at Midnight at our local mall to educate ourselves on some serious cult cinema. I remember being introduced to two movies that had a big impact on me. The first was the animated feature, Heavy Metal. The second was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had heard a lot about the show but didn’t really have a clue what it was all about. On the day I was going to see it for the first time, I asked a friend what I was in for. He simply replied to me, “You’ll find out, virgin.” I had no clue what he meant by that, but soon, I would. And nothing was ever the same again.
This is one of the original, true cult movies. Released in 1975, it has persisted in some form of limited release since then, becoming the longest-running theatrical release in motion picture history. A big reason for its enduring popularity is…well…we’ll get to that.
The story is supposed to be a send-up of the old B-movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but its level of parody is really just a threadbare to dive headlong into a strange world of its own making without having to explain itself. The story involves two square, whitebread kids—Brad and Janet (played by a young Susan Sarandon) who recently got engaged, but whose car breaks down one night in bad weather. They run to a creepy old house for refuge and are swiftly drawn into a freakshow of epic proportions that involves the cadaverous caretaker Riff Raff, the demented ladies-in-waiting Magenta and Columbia, and the delightfully perverse Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played to immortal perfection by Tim Curry), who pretty much is there to show his courtiers a great time of sex, drugs and rock & roll. At some point, Meat Loaf crashes his party on a motorcycle, and is killed and served for dinner. And Frank-N-Furter brings to life Rocky, a totally ripped android who manages to seduce both Brad and Janet separately. I know that last part sounds a little ambitious, but the guy was rocking abs cut enough to hold business cards, and gold underpants tight enough to make David Bowie blush.
Eventually, everybody kind of descends into this sexual fugue state and performs a bawdy stage show of some kind before Riff Raff and Magenta show up, announce that they’re all really aliens, and they’re going back to their home planet of Transexual. Rocky and Frank-N-Furter die in the process, and the house lifts off into the sky, leaving Brad and Janet behind wondering, what the hell just happened to us? Rocky virgins, man. They’re all the same.
There is no moment of truth in this movie, really. It’s not like there’s any one part of this thing that stands out in a special way that makes you think, okay, this is what the movie’s all about. No, the whole thing is a pretty steady descent into a fever dream of indulging taboo pleasures. But there is a moment of truth to be had here, and it’s when you see it for the first time with a live audience that’s playing along.
In case you don’t know, the thing with Rocky-and the reason why folks come back to see it 10, 25, 50, 100 times or more is because folks re-enact it right at the foot of the stage while everybody in the audience shouts out lines that riff off of what’s happening on the screen. Before there was MST3K, there was Rocky, but it only ever tore into one movie, and it did it out of love. You can’t go to a Rocky show and just shout anything at the screen. There’s a kind of unofficial script to it that you need to get to understand before you can presume to drop an original line in there. The Rocky crowd makes a big deal out of the virgins who are seeing this for the first time, and nobody ever, ever forgets their inaugural participation in the Time Warp. The live portion of the show is like community theatre meets cosplay meets vaudeville meets Thunderdome, and it is just the most strange and beautiful and memorable thing you’re likely to see in a movie theatre. Suffering from a real-life velociraptor attack while watching Jurassic Park would probably top it, I guess. But that’s it. Nothing else ever will. You can see this movie at home if you want, but it’s just not the same. It’s only half of it, and not the best half, at that.
Because this is Rocky Horror. This is a movie that has truly taken on a life of its own beyond the screen, and when you go to see it live, you are first bewildered by the madness and spectacle of it all. But when you see it again, you begin to understand that this is one of those rare things that crosses the boundary between the art and its audience. You really can be part of the show if you want, and just about no other movie ever made lets you do that. It isn’t for everybody, but those for whom it’s ill-suited are the unfortunate ones. Because let me tell you, going to Rocky Horror and having a ball is just about the coolest thing there ever is or ever will be. I just wish I had the guts to perform for it once or twice. Maybe one of these days, I will. After all, what was Frank-N-Furter trying to tell us again? Oh! Now I remember.
Don’t dream it. Be it.