It’s astounding, time is fleeting, madness takes its toll.
So begins “The Time Warp,” perhaps the most famous song from cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you’ve ever attended a live screening of the film, or perhaps been shown it in close quarters with a devout fanatic, those particular opening lyrics could describe one’s reaction whether one adores or bemoans it. But here we are, some 41 years after its initial release and this bizarre musical about extraterrestrial carnal exploration is still sweeping up outsiders into its loving fishnet-clad arms. If seeing those iconic red lips has ever put goosebumps on your heart and made you shiver in antici…pation, chances are at one point you were caught up in whatever Rocky Horror is, and have felt what its phenomenon has continued to stir up worldwide.
But have you seen this thing lately? As in after a distance from how it may have affected you? Revisiting it, either the 1975 film or the stage-musical or the new light shining from last week’s Fox made-for-television remake, if anything, has turned up the volume on the “What am I watching?” echo. Seriously, what is this?
My first exposure to Rocky Horror came when I was in the single digit age hanging out with my dad late one Saturday night. He was channel surfing when suddenly he landed on the ‘Hot Dog’ section of “Planet Schmanet Janet.” I distinctly remember him asking me ‘Have you seen this? It’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie that people watch and throw things at the screen.’ The long name and the concept of throwing things intrigued me, and as far as I could tell this was a movie about a person in make-up who turned people who called him a “hot dog” into statues, with this particular broadcast cutting into a theater full of people watching and acting out the movie. When you’re six, something this weird is a lot easier to just accept as a “thing” and then my Dad changed the channel and we watched something else.
I have no idea why that particular moment stuck with me, other than the aforementioned intriguing prospect of something with a cool title where people throw things en masse in an environment where such tomfoolery isn’t typically allowed, let alone encouraged and accepted. Fast forward to the Halloween of my freshmen year of high school coinciding with Rocky Horror’s 25th anniversary and suddenly Rocky Horror-hoopla was absolutely everywhere. VH1 did a Behind the Music, special editions were rolling out on this new-fangled DVD technology and local screenings were popping up all over the Twin Cities. Being this was also a time I was in a school musical with other 14-to-17-year-olds trying to figure life out, Rocky Horror became a rite of passage for all of us. Even the most shy and awkward teen could find some sort of sensation in what this onslaught of sensuality, rebellion and fringe interests (the nods to drive-in cinema always did more for me than the “elbow sex”-elements) served-up in childlike wonderment over 100 minutes.
Perhaps that’s what so liberating about something like Rocky Horror and the experience it comes with. The guilt-free smorgasbord of things a 1970’s world would mow down with shame, presented in such cartoonish madcap lunacy that its refusal to take anything seriously becomes one wish-fulfillment box checked after another. Add in the addicting nature of the live show’s sub-culture, and you have a communal regular weekend gathering where like-minded peers gather on a regular bases to perform a series of rituals. Partaking in such an endeavor is often sold on first-timers, or “virgins,” as an “experience,” something that even if hated will at least give the participant something to talk about forever. The rituals haven’t changed much since the midnight cult started four decades ago, and while there’s much to be found in the comfort of tradition, there’s something to be said for trying to figure out exactly how the film fits into the present day.
Fox’s remake last week was groundbreaking for the casting of transgender actress Lavern Cox as “Dr. Frank-N-Furter.” Rightfully praised for her tremendous job, there was some controversy in the filmmakers’ choice to have Cox’s sing the Doctor’s original “I’m just a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania” lyrics unaltered, which Cox has stated was the source of her only apprehension when choosing the role. Ultimately, Cox felt the song represented an important historical context for the film and its subsequent lore, so it remained.
But the difference 41 years makes also brings up the most controversial element which is unavoidable when seeing the original film with new eyes: there sure seems to be more non-consensual sexual elements than one would expect/remember. There’s really no definitive way to address or deconstruct it, physical intimacy through false consent is integral to the plot. Regardless how it makes an individual viewer feel about the movie or the experience, it’s something that’s smack dab in the film more-than-once and when viewed outside of the vacuum of nostalgia or the '50s sci-fi campiness of the presentation, sticks out as pretty problematic.
That in mind, it’s interesting to note the whole live-performance Rocky Horror was born out of how the film made a rape survivor feel empowered. Artist Dori Hartley, widely credited as the very first person to dress as Dr. Frank and perform the movie live in front of the screen, attributes the film with helping her recover from her rape and “probably saved [her] life." Hartley says that at age 18, the film transformed her into a new person and helped her regain the power in her life. She’s not alone, searching the countless fan sites and communities for the film reveal similar stories..
Outside of the film, it’s also amazing how the stage-musical is still regularly performed and has embraced the movie’s celebrated interactive elements. I caught a summer 2001 Broadway performance with Luke Perry as “Brad” where each audience member was given a newspaper, toilet paper and spoons to use as a particular time, as well as featured chorus-line cast-members whose roles were sitting in the audience and yelling at the stage in ritual at the proper moments. Maybe this is where the core of Rocky Horror’s appeal is most prevalent, getting the chance to align with likeminded friends to talk back together at what the world has put in front of you.
As a film, Rocky Horror has its flaws, but the embracing of the lunatic campy elements as an outsider’s life-affirming sexually charged fantasy love-letter to 1950s sci-fi cinema is really what makes it such a one-of-a-kind object of obsession. Its strange sequel Shock Treatment, which is more so a deconstruction of suburban fidelity through satirizing network television game show culture, doesn’t have quite the same level of loyalists or prominence, but in terms of looking like absolutely nothing else out there falls right in line. There’s also something to be said for the fraternity that the bonds of performing in a live production of Rocky Horror can create.
But when the clock strikes midnight, and the silver screen turns black and red, there’s a reason after four decades why so many still find themselves just a jump to the left.
The Rocky Horror
Picture Zombie Show, with live shadow cast K.A.O.S. employing a walker theme, is at The Frida Cinema, 305 E. 4th St., Santa Ana (thefridacinema.org) on Sat. at 11:30 p.m. with tickets $8-$10.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Halloween Edition by the Midnight Insanity shadow cast is at Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th St., Long Beach (562-438-5435 or longbeachrockyhorror.com) on (Halloween) Mon. at 9:30 p.m. for $8-$11.
Watch Fox's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do The Time Warp Again here: fox.tv/WatchRockyHorror.