The story centres on a young engaged couple whose car breaks down in the rain near a castle where they seek a telephone to call for help. The castle or country home is occupied by strangers in elaborate costumes celebrating an annual convention. They discover the head of the house is Dr. Frank N. Furter, an apparently mad scientist who actually is an alien transvestite who creates a living muscle man in his laboratory. The couple are seduced separately by the mad scientist and eventually released by the servants who take control.
The film was shot in the United Kingdom at Bray Studios and on location at an old country estate named Oakley Court, best known for its earlier use by Hammer Film Productions. A number of props and set pieces were reused from the Hammer horror films. Although the film is both a parody of and tribute to many kitsch science fiction and horror films, costume designer Sue Blane conducted no research for her designs. Blane stated that costumes from the film have directly affected the development of punk rock fashion trends such as ripped fishnets and dyed hair.
Although largely critically panned on initial release, it soon became known as a midnight movie when audiences began participating with the film at the Waverly Theater in New York City in 1976. Audience members returned to the cinemas frequently and talked back to the screen and began dressing as the characters, spawning similar performance groups across the United States. At almost the same time, fans in costume at the King's Court Theater in Pittsburgh began performing alongside the film. This "shadow cast" mimed the actions on screen above and behind them, while lip-synching their character's lines. Still in limited release four decades after its premiere, it is the longest-running theatrical release in film history. It is often shown close to Halloween. Today, the film has a large international cult following and has been considered by many as one of the greatest musical films of all time. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2005.
A criminologist narrates the tale of the newly engaged couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who find themselves lost and with a flat tire on a cold and rainy late November evening, near a town called Denton in 1974. Seeking a telephone, the couple walk to a nearby castle where they discover a group of strange and outlandish people who are holding an Annual Transylvanian Convention. They are soon swept into the world of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-proclaimed "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania". The ensemble of convention attendees also includes servants Riff Raff, his sister Magenta, and a groupie named Columbia.
In his lab, Frank claims to have discovered the "secret to life itself". His creation, Rocky, is brought to life. The ensuing celebration is soon interrupted by Eddie (an ex-delivery boy, both Frank's ex-lover and Columbia's current partner, as well as partial brain donor to Rocky) who rides out of a deep freeze on a motorcycle. Eddie then proceeds to seduce Columbia, get the Transylvanians dancing and singing and intrigue Brad and Janet. When Rocky starts dancing and enjoying the performance, a jealous Frank kills Eddie with a pickax. Columbia screams in horror, devastated by Eddie's death. Frank justifies killing Eddie as a "mercy killing" to Rocky and they depart to the bridal suite.
Brad and Janet are shown to separate bedrooms, where each is visited and seduced by Frank, who poses as Brad (when visiting Janet) and then as Janet (when visiting Brad). Janet, upset and emotional, wanders off to look for Brad, who she discovers, via a television monitor, is in bed with Frank. She then discovers Rocky, cowering in his birth tank, hiding from Riff Raff, who has been tormenting him. While tending to his wounds, Janet becomes intimate with Rocky, as Magenta and Columbia watch from their bedroom monitor.
After discovering that his creation is missing, Frank returns to the lab with Brad and Riff Raff, where Frank learns that an intruder has entered the building. Brad and Janet's old high school science teacher, Dr. Everett Scott, has come looking for his nephew, Eddie. Frank suspects that Dr. Scott investigates UFOs for the government. Upon learning of Brad and Janet's connection to Dr. Scott, Frank suspects them of working for him; Brad denies any knowledge of it, and Dr. Scott assures Frank that Brad is totally not involved in UFOs. Frank, Dr. Scott, Brad, and Riff Raff then discover Janet and Rocky together under the sheets in Rocky's birth tank, upsetting Frank and Brad. Magenta interrupts the reunion by sounding a massive gong and stating that dinner is prepared.
Rocky and the guests share an uncomfortable dinner, which they soon realize has been prepared from Eddie's mutilated remains. Janet runs screaming into Rocky's arms, provoking Frank to chase her through the halls. Janet, Brad, Dr. Scott, Rocky, and Columbia all meet in Frank's lab, where Frank captures them with the Medusa Transducer, transforming them into nude statues. After dressing them in cabaret costume, Frank "unfreezes" them, and they perform a live cabaret floor show, complete with an RKO tower and a swimming pool, with Frank as the leader.
Riff Raff and Magenta interrupt the performance, revealing themselves and Frank to be aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. They stage a coup and announce a plan to return to their home planet. In the process, they kill Columbia and Frank, who has "failed his mission". An enraged Rocky gathers Frank in his arms, climbs to the top of the tower, and plunges to his death in the pool below. Riff Raff and Magenta release Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott, then depart by lifting off in the castle itself. The survivors are then left crawling in the dirt, and the narrator concludes that the human race is equivalent to insects crawling on the planet's surface, "lost in time, and lost in space... and meaning".
Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, an eccentric bisexual transvestite scientist
Little Nell, Patricia Quinn, Tim Curry, and Richard O'Brien in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All were in the original stage show.
Richard O'Brien was living as an unemployed actor in London during the early 1970s. He wrote most of The Rocky Horror Show during one winter just to occupy himself. Since his youth, O'Brien had loved science fiction and B horror movies. He wanted to combine elements of the unintentional humour of B horror movies, portentous dialogue of schlock-horror, Steve Reeves muscle flicks, and fifties rock and roll into his musical. O'Brien conceived and wrote the play set against the backdrop of the glam era that had manifested itself in British popular culture in the 1970s. Allowing his concept to come into being, O'Brien states "glam rock allowed me to be myself more".
O'Brien showed a portion of the unfinished script to Australian director Jim Sharman, who decided to direct it at the small experimental space Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, Chelsea, London, which was used as a project space for new work. O'Brien had appeared briefly in a stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Sharman, and the two also worked together in Sam Shepard's The Unseen Hand. Sharman would bring in production designer Brian Thomson. The original creative team was then rounded out by costume designer Sue Blane, musical director Richard Hartley, and stage producer Michael White, who was brought in to produce. As the musical went into rehearsal, the working title, They Came from Denton High, was changed just before previews at the suggestion of Sharman to The Rocky Horror Show.
Having premiered in the small sixty-seat Royal Court Theatre, it quickly moved to larger venues in London, transferring to the 230-seat Chelsea Classic Cinema on King's Road on 14 August 1973, before finding a quasi-permanent home at the 500-seat King's Road Theatre from 3 November that year, running for six years. The musical made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles in 1974 before being played in New York City as well as other cities. Producer and Ode Records owner Lou Adler attended the London production in the winter of 1973, escorted by friend Britt Ekland. He immediately decided to purchase the U.S. theatrical rights. His production would be staged at his Roxy Theatre in L.A. In 1975, The Rocky Horror Show premiered on Broadway at the 1,000-seat Belasco Theatre.
Filming and locations
The film was shot at Bray Studios and Oakley Court, a country house near Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, and at Elstree Studios for post production, from 21 October to 19 December 1974. Oakley Court, built in 1857 in the Victorian Gothic style, is known for a number of Hammer films. Much of the location shooting took place there, although at the time the manor was not in good condition. Much of the cast were from the original London stage production, including Tim Curry, who had decided that Dr Frank N. Furter should speak like the Queen of England, extravagantly posh. Fox insisted on casting the two characters of Brad and Janet with American actors, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Filming took place during autumn, which made conditions worse. During filming, Sarandon fell ill with pneumonia. Filming of the laboratory scene and the title character's creation occurred on 30 October 1974.
The film is both a parody and tribute to many of the science fiction and horror movies from the 1930s up to the 1970s. The film production retains many aspects from the stage version such as production design and music, but adds new scenes not featured in the original stage play. The film's plot, setting, and style echo those of the Hammer Horror films, which had their own instantly recognizable style (just as Universal Studios' horror films did). The originally proposed opening sequence was to contain clips of various films mentioned in the lyrics, as well as the first few sequences shot in black and white, but this was deemed too expensive and scrapped.
Costumes, make-up, and props
In the stage productions, actors generally did their own make-up; however, for the film, the producers chose Pierre La Roche, who had previously been a make-up artist for Mick Jagger and David Bowie, to redesign the make-up for each character. Production stills were taken by rock photographer Mick Rock, who has published a number of books from his work. In Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult, designer Sue Blane discusses the Rocky Horror costumes' influence on punk music style, opining "[It was a] big part of the build-up [to punk]." She states that ripped fishnet stockings, glitter, and coloured hair were directly attributable to Rocky Horror.
A replica costume based on the film's gold sequined swallow-tail coat worn by Little Nell, recreated by fan Mina Credeur of Houston, Texas.
Some of the costumes from the film had been originally used in the stage production. Props and set pieces were reused from old Hammer Horror productions and others. The tank and dummy used for Rocky's birth originally appeared in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). These references to earlier productions, in addition to cutting costs, enhanced the cult status of the film.
Costume designer Sue Blane was not keen on working for the film until she became aware that Curry, an old friend, was committed to the project. Curry and Blane had worked together in Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in a production of The Maids, for which Curry had worn a woman's corset. Blane arranged for the theatre to loan her the corset from the other production for Rocky Horror. Blane admits that she did not conduct research for her designing, had never seen a science fiction film, and is acutely aware that her costumes for Brad and Janet may have been generalizations.
"When I designed Rocky, I never looked at any science fiction movies or comic books. One just automatically knows what spacesuits look like, the same way one intuitively knows how Americans dress. I had never been to the United States, but I had this fixed idea of how people looked there. Americans wore polyester so their clothes wouldn't crease, and their trousers were a bit too short. Since they're very keen on sports, white socks and white T-shirts played an integral part in their wardrobe. Of course, since doing Rocky I have been to the United States and admit it was a bit of a generalization, but my ideas worked perfectly for Brad and Janet."
The budget for the film's costumes was US$1,600, far more than the stage production budget, but having to double up on costumes for the film production was expensive. For filming, corsets for the finale had to be doubled for the pool scene, with one version drying while the other was worn on set. While many of the costumes are exact replicas from the stage productions, other costumes were new to filming, such as Columbia's gold sequined swallow-tail coat and top hat and Magenta's maid's uniform.
Blane was amazed by the recreation and understanding of her designs by fans. When she first heard that people were dressing up, she thought it would be tacky, but was surprised to see the depth to which the fans went to recreate her designs. Rocky Horror fan Mina Credeur, who designs costumes and performed as Columbia for Houston's performance group, states that "the best part is when everyone leaves with a big smile on their face," noting that there's "such a kitschiness and campiness that it seems to be winking at you." The film still plays at many theatre locations and Rocky Horror costumes are often made for Halloween, although many require much time and effort to make.
The film opened in the United Kingdom at Rialto Theater in London on 14 August 1975 and in the United States on 26 September at the UA Westwood in Los Angeles, California. It did well at that location, but not elsewhere. Before the midnight screenings' success, the film was withdrawn from its eight opening cities due to very small audiences, and its planned New York City opening on Halloween night was cancelled. Fox re-released the film around college campuses on a double-bill with another rock music film parody, Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974), but again it drew small audiences.
The iconic "Lips" poster, a parody of the poster for the 1975 film Jaws
A second film poster was created using a set of red, lipstick painted lips with the tagline "A Different Set of Jaws", a spoof of the poster for the film Jaws (which was also released in 1975). The lips of former Playboy model Lorelei Shark are featured on the poster.
With Pink Flamingos (1972) and Reefer Madness (1936) making money in midnight showings nationwide, a Fox executive, Tim Deegan, was able to talk distributors into midnight screenings, starting in New York City on April Fools' Day of 1976. The cult following started shortly after the film began its midnight run at the Waverly Theater in New York City., then spread to other counties in New York, and to Uniondale, Long Island. Rocky Horror was not only found in the larger cities but throughout the United States, where many attendees would get in free if they arrived in costume. The western division of the film's release included the U.A. Cinemas in Fresno and Merced, the Cinema J. in Sacramento, California, and the Covell in Modesto. In New Orleans, an early organised performance group was active with the release there, as well as in such cities as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago (at the Biograph Theater). Before long, nearly every screening of the film was accompanied by a live fan cast.
19 January 1978, opening at the UA Cinema, Merced, California
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is considered to be the longest-running release in film history. It benefited from a 20th Century Fox policy that made archival films available to theaters at any time. Having never been pulled by 20th Century Fox from its original 1975 release, it continues to play in cinemas. After The Walt Disney Companyacquired 20th Century Fox in 2019 and began withdrawing archival Fox movies from theaters to be placed into the Disney Vault, the company made an exception in the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to allow the traditional midnight screenings to continue.
A Super 8 version of selected scenes of the film was made available. In 1983, Ode Records released "The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Audience Par-Tic-I-Pation Album", recorded at the 8th Street Playhouse. The recording consisted of the film's audio and the standardised call-backs from the audience.
A home video release was made available in 1987 in the UK. In the US, the film (including documentary footage and extras) was released on VHS on 8 November 1990, retailing for $89.95.
The film was released on DVD in 2000 for the film's 25th anniversary. A 35th Anniversary edition Blu-ray was released in the US on 19 October 2010. The disc includes a newly created 7.1 surround sound mix, the original theatrical mono sound mix, and a 4K/2K image transfer from the original camera negative. In addition, new content featuring karaoke and a fan performance were included.
Reception, reaction and legacy
Dori Hartley and Sal Piro at the Waverly Theatre in New York in 1977
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert noted that when first released, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was "ignored by pretty much everyone, including the future fanatics who would eventually count the hundreds of times they'd seen it". He considered it more a "long-running social phenomenon" than a movie, rating it 2.5 out of 4 stars. Bill Henkin noted that Variety thought that the "campy hijinks" of the film seemed labored, and also mentioned that the San Francisco Chronicle's John Wasserman, who had liked the stage play in London, found the film "lacking both charm and dramatic impact". Newsweek, in 1978, called the film "tasteless, plotless and pointless".
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 79% based on 42 reviews, and an average grade of 6.85/10, with the critical consensus reading "The Rocky Horror Picture Show brings its quirky characters in tight, but it's the narrative thrust that really drives audiences insane and keeps 'em doing the time warp again". A number of contemporary critics find it compelling and enjoyable because of its offbeat and bizarre qualities; the BBC summarised: "for those willing to experiment with something a little bit different, a little bit outré, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a lot to offer."The New York Times called it a "low-budget freak show/cult classic/cultural institution" with "catchy" songs.Geoff Andrew, of Time Out, noted that the "string of hummable songs gives it momentum, Gray's admirably straight-faced narrator holds it together, and a run on black lingerie takes care of almost everything else", rating it 4 out of 5 stars. On the other hand, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader considered the wit to be "too weak to sustain a film" and thought that the "songs all sound the same".
The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped shape conditions of cult film's transition from art-house to grind-house style. The film developed a cult following in 1976 at the Waverly Theatre in New York, which developed into a standardised ritual. According to J. Hoberman, author of Midnight Movies, it was after five months into the film's midnight run when lines began to be shouted by the audience. Louis Farese Jr., a normally quiet teacher, upon seeing the character Janet place a newspaper over her head to protect herself from rain, yelled, "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch." Originally, Louis and other Rocky Horror pioneers—including Amy Lazarus, Theresa Krakauskas, and Bill O'Brian—did this to entertain each other, each week trying to come up with something new to make each other laugh. This quickly caught on with other theater goers and thus began this self-proclaimed "counter point dialogue", which became standard practice and was repeated nearly verbatim at each screening. Performance groups became a staple at Rocky Horror screenings due in part to the prominent New York City fan cast. The New York City cast was originally run by former schoolteacher and stand-up comic Sal Piro and his friend Dori Hartley, the latter of whom portrayed Dr. Frank N. Furter and was one of several performers—including Will Kohler as Brad Majors, Nora Poses as Janet, and Lilias Piro as Magenta—in a flexible rotating cast. The performances of the audience were scripted and actively discouraged improvising, being conformist in a similar way to the repressed characters.
D. Garrett Gafford and Terri Hardin, Tiffany Theater Hollywood, 1978
On Halloween in 1976, people attended in costume and talked back to the screen, and by mid-1978, Rocky Horror was playing in over 50 locations on Fridays and Saturdays at midnight. Newsletters were published by local performance groups, and fans gathered for Rocky Horror conventions. By the end of 1979, there were twice-weekly showings at over 230 theatres. The National Fan Club was established in 1977 and later merged with the International Fan Club. The fan publication The Transylvanian printed a number of issues, and a semi-regular poster magazine was published as well as an official magazine.
Los Angeles, Hollywood
The Los Angeles area performance groups originated in 1977 at the Fox Theatre, where Michael Wolfson won a look-alike contest as Frank N. Furter, and won another at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Wolfson's group eventually performed in all of the L.A. area theaters screening Rocky Horror, including the Balboa Theater in Balboa, The Cove at Hermosa Beach, and The Sands in Glendale. He was invited to perform at the Sombrero Playhouse in Phoenix, Arizona.
At the Tiffany Theatre, the audience performance cast had the theater's full cooperation; the local performers entered early and without charge. The fan playing Frank for this theatre was a transgender performer, D. Garret Gafford, who was out of work in 1978 and trying to raise the funds for a gender reassignment while spending the weekends performing at the Tiffany. Presently, the live action rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is available for attendance in various locations in Los Angeles, typically Saturday nights at midnight.
San Francisco's Strand Theatre, 1979. Linda Woods, Marni Scofidio, Denise Erickson, and Jim Curry
In 1978, Rocky Horror moved from an earlier location to the Strand Theatre located near the Tenderloin on Market Street. The performance group there, Double Feature/Celluloid Jam, was the first to act out and perform almost the entire film, unlike the New York cast at that time. The Strand cast was put together from former members of an early Berkeley group, disbanded due to less than enthusiastic management. Frank N. Furter was portrayed by Marni Scofidio, who, in 1979, attracted many of the older performers from Berkeley. Other members included Mishell Erickson as Columbia, her twin sister Denise Erickson as Magenta, Kathy Dolan as Janet, and Linda "Lou" Woods as Riff Raff. The Strand group performed at two large science fiction conventions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, were offered a spot at The Mabuhay, a local punk club, and performed for children's television of Argentina.
Annual Rocky Horror conventions are held in varying locations, lasting days. Tucson, Arizona has been host a number of times, including 1999 with "El Fishnet Fiesta", and "Queens of the Desert" held in 2006. Vera Dika wrote that, to the fans, Rocky Horror is ritualistic and comparable to a religious event, with a compulsive, repeated cycle of going home and coming back to see the film each weekend. The audience call-backs are similar to responses in church during a mass. Many theatre troupes exist across the United States that produce shadow-cast performances where the actors play each part in the film in full costume, with props, as the movie plays on the big screen in a movie theatre.
The film has a global following and remains popular. Subcultures such as Rocky Horror have also found a place on the Internet. Audience participation scripts for many cities are available for download from the Internet. The Internet has a number of Rocky Horror fan-run websites with various quizzes and information, specializing in different content, allowing fans to participate at a unique level.
Members of the LGBT community comprised a large part of the Rocky Horror cult following: they identified with the embrace of sexual liberation and androgyny, and attended show after show, slowly forming a community. Judith A. Peraino compares Brad and Janet's initiation into Frank N. Furter's world to the self-discovery of 'queer identity', and to the traditional initiation of 'virgins' in the shadow screenings. June Thomas describes the midnight screenings in Delaware as a 'very queer scene,' which increased visibility for the LGBT community: “The folks standing in line outside the State in fishnets and makeup every Saturday night undoubtedly widened the sphere of possibilities for gender expression on Main Street.”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a cultural phenomenon in both the U.S. and U.K. Cult film participants are often people on the fringe of society that find connection and community at the screenings, although the film attracts fans of differing backgrounds all over the world.
In 1979, O'Brien wrote a projected sequel to the film entitled Rocky Horror Shows His Heels. This script would have featured the return of all of the characters from the original film, and O'Brien wished to largely use the original production team to make the new film; however, Sharman did not wish to revisit the original concept so directly, and Tim Curry did not wish to reprise his role.
Instead, in 1981, Sharman reunited with O'Brien to film Shock Treatment, a stand-alone feature that was not a direct sequel to the original film. This film was originally conceived and written in 1980 under the title 'The Brad and Janet Show', using most of the songs from the original project Rocky Horror Shows His Heels with lyrical adjustments, and depicting the characters' continuing adventures in the town of Denton; however, these plans had to be adjusted due to a Screen Actor's Guild strike. The eventual production would entail the entire film being shot within a sound stage. Shock Treatment was poorly received by critics and audiences upon release (in no small part due to the principal cast of Curry, Sarandon and Bostwick not returning) but over time has built a small cult following, though not nearly as strong as the first film.
Ten years later, O'Brien wrote another script intended as a direct sequel to the cult classic, entitled Revenge of the Old Queen. Producer Michael White had hoped to begin work on the production and described the script as being "in the same style as the other one. It has reflections of the past in it."Revenge of the Old Queen had apparently commenced pre-production; however, after studio head Joe Roth was ousted from Fox in 1993, the project was shelved indefinitely. Although the script has not been published, bootleg copies can be read on the Internet, and one song from the project's original demo tape circulates among fans. The script is currently owned by Fox, which produced the two original films. Most individuals associated with the project, including O'Brien, agree that the film will probably never be made, owing to the failure of Shock Treatment and the aging of the original cast.
Between 1999 and 2001, O'Brien was working on a third attempted sequel project with the working title Rocky Horror: The Second Coming, first to be made as a stage production, with an option to create a film if met with success. This script would largely integrate plot elements from Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, but with all-new songs. O'Brien completed a first draft of this script (which was read by Terry Jones) but had difficulties finalizing anything beyond the first act, and little more has been heard of this project since the mid-2000s.
In 2015, O'Brien produced Shock Treatment for the theatrical stage. The production premiered at the King's Head theatre in Islington, London in the United Kingdom in the spring.
"The Rocky Horror Glee Show" aired on October 26, 2010—as part of the second season of the television series Glee—and recreated several scenes from the film, including the opening credits. It featured Barry Bostwick and Meat Loaf in cameo roles. An EP album covering seven songs from the movie was released on 19 October 2010.
Santino, Jack (1994). Halloween and other festivals of death and life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN978-0-87049-813-8.
Smith, Justin (2010). Withnail and us cult films and film cults in British cinema. London New York: I.B. Tauris Distributed in the United States and Canada exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN978-0-85771-793-1.
Stewart, Jim (2011). Folsom Street blues: a memoir of 1970s SoMa and leatherfolk in gay San Francisco. San Francisco, CA: Palm Drive Pub. ISBN978-1-890834-03-6.
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