Thursday, April 22, 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall

By Ashley Lister

There might be some of you reading this who’ve never encountered the Rocky Horror Picture Show. If that’s the case, you’ll find the next few hundred words either puzzling, peculiar or pointless.

Created by Richard O’Brien, the man who wrote the book, music and lyrics, the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical that parodies science fiction films and B-movie horror flicks. The 1975 film version, taken from the original 1973 stage production, had a cast that included Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Meatloaf, Barry Bostwick, Charles Grey and Richard O’Brien himself. Interest was also shown by Mike Jagger for the role of Frank N Furter whilst Vincent Price considered the part of the Criminology. Now, thirty five years after Jim Sharman directed the version for the cinemas, the Rocky Horror Picture Show remains not so much a musical, as a rite-of-passage experience.

Part of this is to do with the quality of the songs. O’Brien wrote the original score in 1973 yet the songs and the music are as vibrant and enjoyable today as they were when it was first on stage.

There are not many musicals that can make this grand claim.

Part of the success is the fact that the film is parodying recognisable genre stereotypes. The plot is a ridiculous coming-of-age/Frankenstein’s monster/spooky old house/alien invasion combination that would defy a rational synopsis. None of the stories or subplots within the Rocky Horror Picture Show is particularly original. But they all work beautifully together. And each of the parodies fit snugly and seamlessly together.

Obviously, a large part of the success should be credited toward the writer and the cast for pulling off such a wonderful big screen performance. Tim Curry is an astounding Frank N Furter. O’Brien’s Riff Raff is an hilarious combination of sinister and pathetic – which doesn’t hamper his ability to sing or dance. Little Nell and Meatloaf enjoy a genuine onscreen chemistry.

But the main contributor to the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s continuing success has to be the audience participation. If I had the time or skills to research, there’d be a fascinating piece here explaining when and where the first audience participation occurred. But I’m equipped with neither. And, like so many things in life, the first time isn’t really that important.

Most accounts say the audience interaction began with the midnight showings in New York and Texas around 1976. This may or may not be true. What is important is that it continues to happen.

A large percentage of Rocky Horror Picture Show fans go to see the film dressed in costumes similar to the larger-than-life characters on screen. Thanks to VHS and DVD the script is known verbatim to aficionados and this insider knowledge prompts the onscreen dialogue with catcalls and coarse remarks:

RIFF-RAFF (to Brad & Janet): I think perhaps you better both…
RIFF-RAFF: come inside.


Frank N Furter: Whatever happened to Faye Wray?
AUDIENCE: She got fucked by a gorilla.

It sounds childish and reductive. The audience are wearing stockings, corsets and heels. The decorum of the traditional cinema experience is replaced by singing, shouting, dancing in the aisles, the throwing of rice, firing water pistols, and general madcap antics that would have most people announcing the end of civilization. Yet it works.

More than that, the success of the cinema experience has meant that the show has gone back to the stage. Live performances take the interactive experience one step further:

Frank N Furter: Whatever happened to Faye Wray?
AUDIENCE: She got fucked by a gorilla.
Frank N Furter: So did your mother!

Why is it a success? Because it’s fun and sexy. More than that, there are very few films or stage shows that can claim to provide a different experience every time. And perhaps it’s that blend of the familiar with something new that allows this theatre experience to reside in its own legendary time warp. Or, perhaps it’s the sense of anarchic hedonism in the film – physically accessible to the audience through dressing up and shouting in the sanctuary of a theatre – that makes it appeal to creatures of the night? Whatever the reason, the Rocky Horror Picture Show remains an outstanding experience and leaves audiences with a single, compelling message: don’t dream it, be it. It’s difficult to imagine a more apposite phrase for a film that relies so heavily on audience participation.


  1. "Let's do the Time Warp today....'

    LOVE that movie!!!

  2. "It's just a jumpt to the left..."

    It never gets old, does it?


  3. Damnit Janet! I mean Ash.

    Now you got lines from the movie stuck in my head.

    "A mental mind fuck can be nice."

    Oh yeah, love that movie. : )

  4. "Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh - erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever. Can't you just see it? Don't dream it, be it."

  5. Brilliant choice. But you didn't mention who you dress up as. (I used to go as Magenta. with my hair, there was no other choice)

  6. Michelle,

    After I'd written the blog I had to wilfully resist putting the Rocky Horror Show in the DVD player. I've managed to resist so far but I think I'm going to have to watch it over the weekend.


  7. Kathleen,

    I have the body to be riff-raff but I can't miss the opportunity to dress up as Frank.

    And: NO. The photos of those nights will never be posted on the internet.


  8. I was introduced to it back about 1980. Have always loved it. Had a serious crush on ole Frank N. F., so it was a real treat to see Tim Curry live in Spamalot a few years ago.

    The music is so infectious, and the premise so tried-and-true, but I think that what always gets me is the melancholy of it. Yeah, I'm weird. I always cry towards the end.

  9. Erobintica,

    I've seen it live a couple of times. David Badella (who played Satan in Jerry Springer the Opera) was a wonderful Frank. One of my favourite ones online is Anthony Head (Mr Giles from Buffy) playing Frank. He really has a good set of pipes on him :-)

    And it is sad to see Frank meet his end. I can understand the tears.



  10. Let's do the time warp agaaaaaain!

    My kid hasn;t seen this movie yet. Going to put it on my list.

    I think one of the elements that makes this movie work so well is its sheer shameless audacity. A frankenstein in drag. How can anyone not love that? I think some people, maybe you and me, love something when its just bold like that. I know that in England someone has made an opera of the Jerry Springer show complete with dancing Nazi women and so on.

    Good choice. I had forgotten this movie, not I want to watch it with my kid. I already put him through "Bruno".


  11. Correction

    "NOW" I want to watch it with my kid.

    I'm the worst typist.


  12. Garce,

    The Jerry Springer opera would be great if it wasn't for the singing. Nevertheless, the whole concept is offesnively amusing.

    I enjoyed Bruno - my son took me to see that one. I didn't think it was as funny as Borat, but it did make me laugh.

    And I think you're right about the outrageousness of a cross-dressing Frankenstein and the rest of the decadence. It's so over the top it has to be enjoyed :-)



  13. Ah, Ashley!

    I listen to the RHPS soundtrack while I exercise and can probably sing every word.

    I've toyed with the notion of writing a short story featuring a middle-aged Janet, who has been forever changed by that one night in the Frankenfurter castle:

    "The game has been disbanded;
    My mind has been expanded.
    It's a gas that Frankie's landed!
    His lust is so sincere!"

    She has been awakened to the delirious power of lust--then thrown back into the everyday world of nerds like Brad. She would always be searching for what she'd lost that night when the mansion blasted off, back to Transylvania. The ultimate cougar.

    That show had a huge influence on my sexual imagination.

    Great pick! But from your description, it sounds as though the interaction has morphed over the years. I saw the movie only a year or so after it was released and nobody ever mentioned fucking a gorilla...


  14. Lisabet,

    To say that the Rocky Horror Show never pretended to be high art, it's amazing how it captures people's imagination and has them speculating about the lives of the characters after the show finishes.

    And, if I did physical exercise of any description, I think the soundtrack would be perfect for a workout.



  15. Ah, Tim Curry in drag! That was so worth the lecture I got about watching trash. Some people just have no class. *G*

    Frank: Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh - erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever. Can't you just see it? Don't dream it, be it.

    Sigh, oh the memories!



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