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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

by on 2010/10/20

The musical.

A word, a concept, and a genre fraught with extreme opinions.

Relatively speaking, its fans are a small but (ahem) vocal minority.  Rarely does a viewer sit on the fence; you’re in or you’re out, love them or loathe them.  I consider myself one of those rare mixed-up viewers.  I have a soft spot for some, including The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and Annie, but little tolerance for most.  If pushed to decide I’d have to come down on the side of dislike.

So now I’ve disclosed a musical bias.  Why should it matter?  Because today’s subject is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a musical you’ve more than likely heard of, seen at least once, and possibly dressed up for.  I believe I first saw it in high school at a screening for charity.  I remember wondering what the big deal was.  It didn’t seem especially edgy or even very much fun.  Any subsequent enthusiasm for it I feigned only to win the affection of its fans.  Have the decades since then changed my opinion of it?

A recently-engaged young couple, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), suffer a breakdown while driving a back road.  Stranded and lost in a storm-ravaged night, they seek shelter at a nearby castle.  Therein they interrupt the ongoing celebration of their host’s latest triumph:  transvestite doctor Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) has found a way to restore the dead to life.  Over the course of the ensuing night various temptations, transgressions, musical numbers, and a smattering of cannibalism will test the limits of their personal boundaries and interpersonal bonds.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show clearly draws its influences from a variety of other movies including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein, and King Kong (1933).  Furthermore it references numerous others, among them The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet, and When Worlds Collide.  Despite its tips of the hat its overall vibe is more the mutant offspring of A Clockwork Orange and Young Frankenstein.  And despite being replete with many production gimmicks — a self-aware narration, breaking the fourth wall, deliberate overacting, and a surfeit of tracks, zooms, and wipes — this effort does little to suggest it has learned much about character or narrative logic from its forerunners.

Not that I expected a traditional sci-fi or horror classic here.  Given its reputation for wit and debauchery, I waited in vain for something revolutionary or at least more entertaining.  This awkward assemblage of disjointed scraps didn’t seem to know what to say or how.  It does have its moments of capital-A Attitude, with the kind of knowing exaggeration we’ve seen in Heathers, but such posturing felt like a bluff.  The cast wasn’t bad per se but played so on purpose, a dangerous form of cleverness.  For better or worse, the script wasn’t worth their efforts.

I found the song lyrics similarly disappointing.  Some numbers like “Time Warp” enjoy the benefits of a wider popularity.  However those less familiar to me could be heard with fresh ears and objectively didn’t measure up, with banal sentiments, clumsy rhymes, and (to be generous) some uneven vocal performances.  Fortunately the music accompanying those lyrics sounded quite good.  Elaborate audio production recalled the grandeur and polish of the Beatles, ELO, and Queen whenever a song kicked into gear.

The obvious standout — and exception to most of the criticism voiced here — is Tim Curry, of Annie, Clue, Oscar, and Earth 2, among many other roles.  Love him or hate him Frank N. Furter provides an iconic role.  Curry’s commitment to the performance is visible, palpable, and unforgettable.

Then again maybe he just signed on for a bi-poly orgy.

No that’s not just a metaphor, but it’s exactly how Rocky Horror feels, like halloween debauchery for the stoned . . . an affair so manic and lacking in fun that audiences resort to “interactivity” to add an illusion of substance.  Everything goes beyond over the top and ironically lacks any impact for it.  This piece expects to shock its audience but its only weapons are the “adult situations” long since considered taboo.  It throws in too much with bygone controversy and, without their continued effectiveness, the rest comes over empty.

Regardless of what I believe, write, and argue, I suspect viewers will either like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or they won’t.  For my part, nope, I (still) don’t get it.  Who’d have thought I’d find suggestiveness and B-movie references so bland and, in the end, tiresome?  This picture is so eccentric-for-eccentricity’s-sake that, while it’s somewhat amusing in a surreal way, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.  As the catalyst for a social experience I can see its appeal but, taken on its own merits, it strikes me as everything people criticize about Ed Wood’s films, only lacking in their fun.

* *

Rated 14A/R for adult situations, frightening scenes, language, nudity, and violence

100 minutes (U.S. version)

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