Vintage Viewings: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Layne Robinson, Writer

It is often thought by our generation that older movies have some inherently boring quality. Many believe that without the flashy CGI and recognizable names of the modern-day, the cinema of the past has nothing to offer them. However, this could not be further from the truth, and there is one film that, more than any other, signifies the unique energy held by many films of decades past, and the reason that younger audiences should give them a chance. The cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show may be unknown to many who were not present when it was released in 1975, but as the decades passed, it cemented its place as a classic of the season that can add some spice to any spooky fall activities.

Despite its name, Rocky Horror is not a scary movie. In fact, it is a campy musical built on flamboyance and overt queer themes. After my own first viewing last year, I described it as a “99-minute fever dream,” permeated by a sense of unreality that thrives on the inconsistency of characters and plots. None of this, however, detracts from the film’s quality. It is sexual, it is bizarre, and it puts a modern twist on centuries of monster lore, from Frankenstein to aliens. As the name suggests, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is truly an experience, more like a live show than a regular movie.

The film stars a re-imagining of Victor Frankenstein by the name of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. He lives in a castle together with a group of his assistants, where he has built Rocky Horror, a living man designed for the sole purpose of being a sexual device for him. On the night that Rocky is to be unveiled, however, boy-next-door Brad and his fiance Janet show up looking for shelter from the rain. The ensuing night of adventure is the subject of the rest of the film.

From the start, even before Frank-N-Furter and the Transylvanians are introduced, the tone of the film is set by its songs. The first song features only Brad and Janet, in a fairly normal church setting. However, the very fact that they are breaking into song begins to acclimate viewers to the idea that this story is totally divorced from reality, so that later, more outrageous songs come as less of a shock. Music is the first element of worldbuilding in Rocky Horror and creates a gentle introduction that will make average audiences less likely to be frightened away. Throughout the rest of the film, the songs remain enjoyable, varying in style, tone, and purpose to the story. Adding up to an unlucky thirteen, they are the one thread of consistency this film maintains from start to finish.

The more technical aspects of the production, though they are often overshadowed, also ooze with intentional design that should not be overlooked. It is common enough for good movies to tell compelling stories and have fair production quality while neglecting their cinematography. Something as simple as the way a shot is set up may not seem important, but the camera is the frame through which a movie is seen, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show recognizes its importance. The film makes use of tilted angles and point-of-view shots that place the audience in the middle of the action and create a much-needed sense of immersion into its bizarre world.

The choreography and production design add just as much value to the experience. Elaborate dances bring life to the songs and help the characters be even more full of personality than they are otherwise. The sets and costumes are over the top, and though they span a wide range of themes, they share a unified chaos that cements the world in the eyes of the viewer, from the marble statues with painted fingernails to the glittering corsets. Attention and effort are clear in every frame, including minor details that will go unnoticed by most, and multiple references to RKO Radio Pictures, a production company that was long defunct even in 1975 and would not be understood by a strong majority of viewers. These details, however, enhance the world even more for those who notice them, furthering the unreality of Rocky Horror by placing it in an ambiguous time as well as an unfamiliar place.

Before I get into the aspects of Rocky Horror that leave something to be desired, it would be amiss to not mention Tim Curry’s stunning performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Every member of the cast brings life to their character that infuses the entire movie with the fun that it thrives on, but the star stands out above the rest. Through facial expressions and impeccable delivery, every moment he spends on screen is elevated to a whole new level of over-the-top insanity. It is truly a highlight of the film.

However, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not without fault, and there are a few areas that lack the flair that characterizes every other aspect of the production. There is little attempt at a central message or theme for most of the film’s runtime, which is fine and works for the story it is trying to tell. But in the third act, suddenly there are pieces of a heartfelt theme of self-discovery that does not at all fit the tone of the rest of the movie. This could have worked if it was incorporated from the start, but as is, it is essentially a hard left turn from everything that has been happening for the past hour. Additionally, and without getting into spoilers, the ending also doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the movie, and something more wacky and lighthearted would have felt much more natural than what we ended up with.

All of this being said, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a fantastic movie. It is full to the brim with fun and life, and I had a great time following the plot down all of its twists and turns. Any movie fan will be able to appreciate all of the subtle work that clearly went into it, but average audiences will find it just as enjoyable. For any moviegoer who is tired of the same summer blockbusters, or is yearning for something unique and strange, I cannot recommend Rocky Horror enough.