Science Fiction, Double Feature: Keeping the Rocky Horror Tradition Alive
Halloween marked the 40th anniversary of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Well, it marks the anniversary of the RHPS bombing in theaters. Originally a stage musical, put on by Richard O’Brien in 1973 upstairs in a fringe theater just off of London’s West End, it was put on for a bit of fun. O’Brien’s directorial style emphasized improvisation, often surprising the actors for authentic reactions and “dreaming up” entire musical numbers at the last possible minute. Paying homage to everything glam and absurd in 1950’s B-movies, the show was bright and colorful, and became a great success, travelling all over Europe. And, like all great stage shows, it eventually succumbed to a film version.
While many of the original cast who had made the stage show so memorable, namely Tim Curry, director/song writer/and Riff Raff Richard O’Brien, Nell Campbell and Patricia Quinn, joined the film version—it was a disaster in the box office. Somehow the campy musical, complete with a dance party even Truman Capote would have passed on, a delirious devil in drag, a dubious (at best) love story, Meatloaf, and vaguely incestual Transylvanian aliens didn’t translate well to the screen. Unimpressed with the numbers, 20th Century Fox would have happily shelved the flick and tried to forget the whole thing. Luckily, someone in the office thought of sending it to the Waverly Theater in the Greenwich Village where movies like Pink Flamingos and Night of the Living Dead had previously found their audiences.
Then something went wrong, for Fay Wray and King Kong and here I am, in Spain, 2015, shouting "PUTA!" at Susan Sarandon’s face. There is something about the frenetic energy of the film that invites us to yell at the scream. The film itself is a parody of many spooky flicks including the Frankenstein films and The Old Dark House (1932). If no one had started shouting back at the screen in ‘76, it would have been an easy target for the MST3K guys. Even the production’s composer Richard Hartley told the Guardian:
"I’m staggered it’s such a phenomenon. The film’s a bit long, and it’s so slow. it wilts after an hour then picks up again. That might explain why the audience participation started to play a big part at screenings -- they probably got bored so they started answering back."
Personally, I think the phenomenon is easy to understand. There is something exciting about the possibility that anyone in the theater at any time could yell a punchline, fire some witty retort back at the screen that sends the entire theater into a laughing fit. Before the show I did some research on the cultural aspect of the movie and found a passionate, if not a little overzealous article written by one of the original balcony commentators from those Waverly midnight shows. Sal Piro speaks lovingly about each line he and his friends introduced into the traditional repertoire of callbacks, every new costume, prop, and all of the virgins he turned into die hard fans. Like a comedian at the bar blaming the opener for stealing jokes, Piro feels the need to inform latecomers when they are repeating his bits. Maybe his level of devotion is a little too intense for most people, but the rush of pride when something you yell from the balcony gets a laugh all over the theater is completely understandable. If Waldorf and Statler from the Muppets weren’t, you know, muppets, they would probably agree.
In Spain, Halloween isn’t normally celebrated, and All Saints Day (Nov. 1) was more about traditions surrounding honoring the dead with large family dinners, candles and flowers than goblins and spooks. These past few years, American capitalism has seeped into the culture, bringing with it the tropes of the second biggest consumerist holiday in the states. As the locals have begun enjoying the flamboyant festivities, Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight floor shows has taken root over the past few years. This year the spectacle is flourishing into epic proportions, being shown all over the major cities, including Valencia, where I live.
To an American who has experienced the floor show many times in many American theaters, several of the old lines have since gotten too familiar over the years and lost their charm. Not the case this year. The Spanish audience has breathed a new life into the film, making it exciting all over again for a veteran like me. The movie is typically played here in English with subtitles, while the audience sings along partially in English, partially mimicking the noises of the song, lending a special brand of hilarity to the whole shabang. The floor show hangs out on the stage during the movie yelling their own lines—occasionally some of the original callbacks can be heard but many are lost in translation, forcing audiences to make additions in their own language. What makes the Spanish experience extra special is that after all these years, the theaters are full of people creating fresh new insults to hurl at the screen. And no one, I mean no one, can curse like the Spanish. Colorful lines like I shit on your fucking Mother! Gilipollas!, meaning “asshole,” can be heard shouted at Brad. Chants of INCESTO INCESTO sound out across the theater during Riff Raff and Magenta’s scenes, along with We want to have your babies! to Dr. Frank-n-Furter, Take off your backpack! to Riff Raff and a chorus of Puta! Perra! and Zorra! (variations of bitch) are fired at Janet.
It’s been 40 years and Rocky Horror is still in theaters, making it the longest running movie in history. And for a great reason; the same reason we go see a comedian multiple times. The jokes are often the same—Janet is a whore, Brad is a dick, and the narrator is a bore, but the unexpected moments continue to draw us in. Every screening—in the states or abroad—is different from the last, ensuring that even after 30+ viewings the film remains fresh and dynamic.