Let’s face it: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a “good” film. It’s not the kind of film to win prestigious awards or have its subtext delicately analyzed by critics. It’s not the kind of movie you go see on a first date to prove how cultured you are, or watch with your parents as an example of the intellectual high ground you have gained since going away to university. Rocky Horror, in all of its low-cost, tacky, campy and unabashedly queer glory, is so much more than that.
For those unfamiliar, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a bizarre half-horror half-musical movie released in 1975 about an alien transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, his posse of fans and servants, and a straight-laced young couple named Brad and Janet, who stumble across his castle on a night out. If that doesn’t sound weird enough, the movie is chock full of bad special effects, weird musical numbers and sex scenes (of all sexualities and tastes), all wrapped up around a plot that makes sense on your third viewing, if you’re lucky.
How then, you might ask yourself, did a movie like this succeed in the mid-seventies? The answer is: it didn’t. Audiences who were probably intending to watch a nice sci-fi film instead found themselves staring at Tim Curry’s corset-clad figure chasing Susan Sarandon around an old castle (in high heels, no less), and were no doubt scared away. But the movie found a small niche of devout viewership in midnight showings attended by the group of people most adoring of all things strange, distasteful and outright bad: the LGBTQ+ community. The plot of the film explicitly makes fun of the uptight heterosexual life Brad and Janet lead, contrasting it with Frank-N-Furter’s fun, decadent and queer lifestyle. It’s worth noting here that, whilst the film has been embraced by an LGBTQ+ audience, it doesn’t offer the most charitable depiction of queer people, especially coming from a notably cisgender and straight production team.
As word spread amongst the community, these shows became even more campy and unique, with cult followers creating traditions such as dressing up as their favourite characters, dancing along with the numbers, yelling back lines, bringing props or even acting out the whole film as it played. It’s thanks to this near-religious venerating of the film by it’s mostly queer audience that it has managed to be the longest continuously running film of all time, with some cinemas having played it non-stop since 1975.
But what exactly is it about this film that has made its showings into an interactive theatrical extravaganza? It can be said that, for many of its fans, it’s the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is (a little bit) bad. One of the main attractions of cult films is the feeling of having discovered the genius of something that everyone else is blind to. Furthermore, you wouldn’t be drawn to dance or shout during a dramatic, award-winning film, but Rocky Horror’s spiralling plot and low-budget special effects demand that we don’t take it too seriously. The elements that scared the average 70s viewers away are the same that draw audiences in to this day, who, instead of shying away from its campy ridiculousness, decide to embrace it all and, as the song goes, give themselves over to absolute pleasure.
[Leire Zalakain – she/her – @leitxipiron]