London gets cold in the winter. So during the early 1970s, an under-employed actor named Richard O’Brien began keeping himself warm on long nights by indulging in memories of what he had loved since he was a kid: science fiction and B-movies, shlock that might be unintentionally funny but completely loveable.
Working off his memories, which became intertwined with the glam of the ‘70s, he eventually created The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which would come to define the concept of the cult movie.
O’Brien started off in the world he knew best — London theater, which is where he found Tim Curry. Curry was a burgeoning actor at the time, working in a small theater in what he has since described as a dreadful, Marxist musical that never even made it to the critics to boo. His main memory of the show, he would tell NPR in 2015, were arguments about if the musical was Marxist enough. But the theater had a new play coming in, O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, and Curry got the part.
Curry first played the starring role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter a bit like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove — a very odd German. But riding the bus one day, he heard a woman with a posh accent and decided the character should sound both more close to home by sounding like Queen Elizabeth II.
That decision, the mixture of rich accent with ripped stockings, helped birth the“sweet transvestite from Tran-Sexual, Transylvania," and ensure the character was unlike any other seen on screen at the time.
It’s possible to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, despite what you might have heard, as a straight-up movie musical. The numbers are fun and charming, like “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” where leads Brad and Janet discuss how they should get out of the rain by walking over to a creepy mansion.
But as Roger Ebert noted in his 1976 review, the movie “would be more fun, I suspect, if it weren't a picture show. It belongs on a stage, with the performers and audience joining in a collective send-up.” And that’s exactly what happened.
The movie can work at face value, but it’s clearly an adaptation of something more. During the classic number “Time Warp,” Rocky Horror quite clearly offers the viewers step by step instructions on how to move. Every firm handshake Barry Bostwick makes, every look of desire in Susan Sarandon’s eyes, every move from Tim Curry, are all begging to be examined and yelled at.
While Picture Show’s roots are clearly in the theater, having a movie offers clear advantages: the audience can yell and holler and the show will continue on schedule. This led to rice being thrown during the movie’s opening square-as-can-be wedding scene, firing water pistols during shots of rain, and pieces of toast when Dr. Frank proposes a toast.
The movie’s premise, where the straight-laced couple are the freaks and the gender-fluid fetish wearing dancers are normal, is a powerful inversion that has kept the movie watchable even though it’s technically tame by today’s standards. A flop when it came out, Rocky Horror eventually found its people.
The movie’s collective spirit has made it stand out amidst all others, which is why when it became a Disney movie after the studio’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, it remained the one film still open for repertory screenings. Not having Rocky Horror in theaters would be a disgrace, and if theaters can ever come back after the Covid-19 pandemic, expect a time warp like you’ve never seen before.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is streaming on Hulu in the U.S. until December 8.