Then & Now: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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Geoff Harris

Then

While driving home after a friend’s wedding, Brad and Janet, two straight-laced upstanding young Americans, are delayed by a flat tire. Seeking refuse and a phone at the nearby Frankenstein Place, they are quickly drawn into a world of debauchery, obsession, and the degradation of morality ruled over by the mysterious Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Frank-N-Furter revels his plans to create a man made from the salvaged remains of corpses. Downward they descend into a maelstrom of twisted sexual motifs and weird science ultimately leading to a climax of explosive proportions.

Few films have such a reputation that the mere mention of their name can indite a fever of geek passion. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is such a movie. Since its initial debut as a stage play to the big screen and finally becoming a vanguard of the midnight movie circuit, Rocky Horror has established itself well in the zeitgeist of the twentieth century. I was too young for the early days and admittedly missed out on seeing it live for a couple of decades and all it did was fuel an almost Howard the Duck level of obsession to see this movie. (Go to our archives and look up that article.) When it finally came out on VHS I got my chance. I was actually underwhelmed. The plot is pretty straightforward. Innocents meet corrupting influence. Influence draws out the darker nature of Innocents. A truth is revealed. (Riff-Raff and Magenta were Frank’s jailers until some off-screen event turned the tables and they became his slaves.) The Innocents are left broken and bleeding as the true villains (?) return to their home planet.

So what makes Rocky Horror stand out? It’s a rock musical. Songs weave the story together in a wonderful blend of styles. Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter steals every scene he’s in. Credit goes to writer/actor Richard O’Brian for taking the rather bland tale of aliens hiding out on Earth and creates a morality tale of liberation and the limits of Free Will. I groked the themes almost immediately. (Read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein to learn more about what it means to “grok” something…and send your grammatical correction of usage to thecinemasocast@gmail.com then get a day job.)

The true essence comes out when you see the movie with an audience.  This is the bridge between Then & Now. I would not see the movie at a theater for almost a decade after watching the VHS version. The DVD has an option to watch it with an audience audio track. The experience is people talking back to the movie. This usually happens at any given film but it works with Rocky Horror on a level no one could have anticipated. O’Brian has said on record he never intended for the gaps in dialog to be filled with quips and puns from viewers. Different regions have their own takes on jokes and inserts. The other component and the most suppressed, for logical reasons, is the use of props. Rice, toast, and toilet paper are thrown skyward. Water pistols are fired to create rain with newspaper used as makeshift umbrellas. It’s an immersive experience. Add to all that, the shadow cast. People acting out the movie at the foot of the screen as the movie plays. It takes timing, a detailed memory, and lots of practice but the result makes for a complete package of awesome.

Now

As I write this I can stare up and see the Rocky Horror Picture Show poster hanging over my computer desk. A coquettish Frank languishes seductively upon the iconic red lips of which every fan is intimately aware. My knowledge of alternate lifestyles, gender identity, and hedonism has expanded in a cosmic level of understanding. I had a working understanding of transvestites and why they do what they do. It’s about expressing one’s masculine/feminine self without necessarily being gay or lesbian. Now, there are those who are both cross-dressers and homosexual. Then there are transgenders, originally refereed to as transsexuals, who use hormones and surgery to literally become the gender they truly believe they are meant to be. Frank-N-Furter comes from a world where every fetish is indulged. Gender identity is as fluid as water. There are no presumed limits. (I seriously doubt Richard O’Brian would support child and animal abuse however.) This is a planet of consenting adults doing whatever kink makes them feel good. Frank is exiled to Earth because he sought to create life out of death. An act that reviles the most jaded necrophiliac. There are also elements of BDSM (BDSM is short for Bondage/Domination/Sadism/Masochism.) and incest. Mind you, these are handled in the most fringe way possible and not as in your face as say, Fifty Shades of Gray. The Seventies had some wild moments and a growing subculture that can be traced back to the early bohemians of the Victorian Era.

In this world of poly plural panssexuals and sensual exploration, a movie like RHPS seems tame. A relic from the past, and it is, but an important one. We are encouraged to “Don’t dream it. Be it.” Shakespeare wrote “To thine self be true.” As long as no one gets hurt, where’s the crime? Well, as Brad and Janet learn, limits exist for a reason. Somethings, like a couple I’ve previously mentioned, are so vile the mention of them is enough to sickens the very air we breathe. Actions have consequences. I am not saying that being gay or bi or whatever society labels you is bad. Far from it. I support liberty in all its forms. Frank tried to play God and was killed for his hubris. He acted beyond the understood consent between himself and his lovers and sought to create an absolute slave. One that would not question. Obedient. And, yes, a bit dim. Frank hid behind the consent of others to indulge his own carnal desires and then cast them aside once they became too bothersome, jealous, or he just got bored. The real horror is how willingly people fall for his charm. Deep inside all of us the potential for great good and endless darkness. Brad and Janet give in to their darkness and become lost within it.

I’ve done my share of stupid shit over the course of my life til now. I have asked for and received penance more than once. I have explored many of life’s pleasures. Some I liked while others just weren’t for me. To each their own. I have friends who range in interest and preference marking me as blessed for knowing them. When the lights go down and the music comes up, I am once again surrounded by my tribe. In my time, I’ve been one character or another. Playing the role of he would-be alpha or the scheming beta. There’s a lot of me in this movie. Slap on your fishnets and let’s all do the Time Warp again!

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