Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 105: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

"It's not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache."

It is generally accepted that the official death of The Rocky Horror Picture Show occurred on the day of it's fifteenth anniversary, when it was released on VHS. For me however, an eleven year-old from the suburbs, this was the birth of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I still remember that VHS, with the red flap, promising something unlike anything you'd experienced before. The purists will claim superiority over me and those of my ilk, who were denied the experience of seeing it for the first time on the big screen, at midnight, in a raucous theater filled with people in costume screaming and throwing shit at the screen. I've seen it four times in the theater since I first saw it on video, but for me, RHPS is a personal kind of experience and not the shared, communal experience it is for millions of others around the world.

If, by some miracle, you haven't seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there's no way to explain what it is exactly. It's a musical, based on a stage show, simply titled "The Rocky Horror Show," written by Richard O'Brien (who has since come to be known to my daughters as the voice of Ferb's dad on Phineas & Ferb). It features a white bread couple from Denton, the home of happiness, named Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), who are traveling to meet with a professor of theirs, Dr. Scott (Jonathan Adams) in anticipation of being married. Their car gets a flat tire, and they go looking for help at the only house they can find, a large mansion populated by some pretty odd denizens like Riff-Raff (O'Brien), Magenta (Patricia Quinn) & Columbia (Little Nell).

Their leader is a self proclaimed sweet transvestite from transexual Transylvania, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), and the young couple has arrived on a special night, as the good doctor is about to give life to his newest creation, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). They couple are exposed to some pretty eye-opening behavior, and before the night is over, they and their lives are changed forever.

That's it in a nutshell, and re-watching the film for the first time in several years (on a pristine looking blu-ray put out two years ago), I was amazed by how iconic so much of the imagery in the film is. For being an unmitigated failure upon its first theatrical release, the film has now been mocked, imitated, & stolen from so often, it's hard to believe just how much of it originated here. Camp musicals had been done before, DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise is just one example of a film released just a year prior, but never before had something so original, yet oddly familiar been done before. The film takes pretty firm root in the B-movie monster films of the 50s, but it's also its own animal entirely.

It's interesting how tame a lot of the film is in retrospect. I'm sure that in its day it was pretty shocking, but the film is almost a sweet relic now. It's as quaint now as the films it was influenced by were when it was made. The performances are all pretty solid across the board. Several of the cast members were reprising their roles from the stage show, like O'Brien, Quinn, Nell, Meat Loaf, and others, but the true standout is Curry. He is phenomenal. It is the performance of a lifetime, and he has never equaled it or even come close. It's funny to me how much goodwill I continue to have towards him in spite of the fact that he hasn't done anything even remotely this good since.

Looking at Susan Sarandon in this film, it's hard to tell she would go on to be as successful and, frankly, great as she has become, but she and Bostwick both play their roles well, and they clearly understand the campiness at the heart of this thing. The one cast member not wholly successful here has got to be Peter Hinshaw as Rocky. To say he's the screen equivalent of a wet sandwich is almost an insult to wet sandwiches. He was right to call it a day after this film as I don't think he would've gone far, but hey, stranger things have happened.

The music is fantastic, endlessly singable, and some of the most iconic music ever written for a Broadway show (or a film for that matter). Director Jim Sharman does a serviceable job behind the camera, creating some iconic imagery, but the film doesn't have a ton of momentum behind it, for which I would tend to lay the blame at his feet. He seems to be biding his time between set pieces, and a lot of the film just kind of sags, especially the interminable Criminologist asides. Part of what makes the audience participation at the theaters so great is the amount of funny lines that lay in these valleys, but at home you really feel the weight of the sags.

Overall, there's nothing I can say or do to convince you that you're going to like Rocky Horror if you don't already like it. Watching it again is not going to change your mind. Going to see it at a theater might be a fun outing, but it's not going to make you like the movie any more. You either love this movie or you don't, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's plenty of great movies that are totally polarizing, and I think that's part of what makes them great movies. Rocky Horror is in no way, shape, or form a great movie, but it's one of my all-time favorites, and nothing that anyone can do or say can ever take that away from me.

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