What is ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’?

Danielle Ryan
TV Movies
TV Movies

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cultural touchpoint for the weird and wonderful. Based on a stage show created by Richard O’Brien, it’s a strange b-movie about a transvestite alien mad scientist. It’s also about sexual awakenings, fetishism, and letting your freak flag fly. The film was initially panned by critics and did poorly at the box office. In an attempt to market it as a cult film (which it most certainly would become), Fox released it during midnight screenings in 1976.

The midnight screenings became a special place for anyone who didn’t feel like they fit in. It didn’t matter what your sexual orientation, race, gender, or political views were, as long as you were cool with throwing toast and shouting out “audience participation” lines. These varied from theater to theater and gave each local midnight screening its own flavor. The cult phenomenon has continued to this day, with a number of theaters still doing midnight showings every week. This month, Fox will release a Rocky Horror reboot on television, starring Laverne Cox.

The Time Warp, Transvestites, and Tap-Dancing

So what exactly is The Rocky Horror Picture Show about? The film follows the newly engaged Brad Majors and Janet Weiss of Denton, Ohio, as they drive home from a wedding one stormy night. The tire on their car goes flat and Brad doesn’t have a spare, so they walk up to a freaky-looking mansion to ask to borrow the phone. They’re greeted by a hunchbacked butler and his crazy maid sister. On their way to get the phone, everyone breaks out into a dance routine called the “Time Warp”, complete with step-by-step dance instructions.

Post-Time-Warp, the home’s master, a caped-and-corseted Tim Curry, reveals himself. He informs Brad and Janet that they can’t leave yet, because tonight is the night he unveils his great creation. He’s created a man, much like Dr. Frankenstein (his name is Frank-N-Furter). Brad and Janet are ushered into the lab, where Frank brings Rocky Horror to life. Several songs later, he sneaks into Brad and Janet’s rooms and has sex with each of them under false pretenses.

Things continue to get weirder from there. This is a musical featuring cannibalism, a muscle-man in tiny gold underoos, and implied incest. It’s R-rated to its core, and it’s absolutely bizarre. The film makes very little sense and the acting is all over the place. Some of the actors revel in the camp (Curry and Susan Sarandon are standouts), while others take it too seriously and aren’t any good.

Rocky Horror didn’t gain cult success because it’s a good movie. Like so many other midnight movies, including Reefer Madness and Pink Flamingos, part of Rocky Horror‘s charm is that it’s terrible. It’s a godawful movie with good music and a (mostly) good message. It’s the opposite of mass-produced Hollywood crap, and in 1976, it was a breath of glittery fresh air.

Audience Partici… pation


Rocky Horror‘s audience participation grew organically. It began with people memorizing the songs and singing along, while others yelled jokes at the screen. Soon people were throwing rice for the wedding scene, had squirt-guns for fake rain, and more. This eventually evolved into shadow casts, where audience members dressed up as their favorite character and acted out the film in front of the screen. Shadow casts can be extremely dedicated, with the actors making screen-accurate costumes and rehearsing every move. It’s a kind of local theater, just a little bit weirder and for people who might not be able to actually sing.

The shadow casts have been embraced by O’Brien, who is known to attend showings in new cities and bestow a name upon each cast troupe. These are usually a little sexual and a little silly in nature, but the communities that exist beneath these titles are very real. Rocky Horror has allowed people to find themselves for the past few decades. It has united misfits and given people a chance to be as weird as they want to be, even if it’s only on Fridays at midnight.

All of this begs the question – can the Rocky Horror remake work? Will it connect to today’s audience, who can instantly connect with other weirdos via internet? It’s not likely. The theater experience is so important for Rocky Horror. People who have only seen the film on tv or home video miss out, and there’s a reason those who haven’t been to live shows are called “virgins”. Rocky Horror isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. That’s going to be hard to replicate with a broadcast showing. It’s going to be especially difficult given broadcast TV standards, as the original film has to be edited to even be shown on cable.

Even if the remake doesn’t land its mark, hopefully, it will help new fans discover the property. They can look into its history and discover the vast cultural impact. Maybe it will rejuvenate some midnight screenings. Regardless, there’s more Rocky Horror in the world, and that’s a mighty fine thing.

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN, CHUD.com, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.
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