The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of those cultural icons which has been limited by its own success. While most people enjoy it for its vulgarity, sexuality, and humor, the revelry that surrounds the movie ends up limiting it more often than not. Consider the movie's original tagline of, "Don't dream it. Be it!" taken from Fredrick's of Hollywood, the rallying cry around which hundreds of thousands of fans publicly paraded themselves in lingerie in an open display of sexuality, all the while ignoring that Frank, the line's speaker, is killed less than six minutes after giving voice to the phrase. Rocky is filled with questions if we pay enough attention to ask, and like the sexual era that spawned it, offers few answers. This is not a shortcoming of the film but rather a celebration of its overall message: choice.
So Strange They Made a Movie About It
To understand the significance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show one must understand its origins, which is to say the stage show The Rocky Horror Show. The show was written in the early seventies and first performed in 1973. Any student of modern culture will immediately recognize the time as a break in the sexual revolution when the free love philosophy of the 60's became modernized promiscuity. Hippies were growing up, graduating college, and setting up lives for themselves and were consequently discovering the need to set up boundaries regarding the rampant sexuality which so often - and not altogether unjustly - characterizes the late 60's. At the same time one can hardly expect that sexualy active men and women would turn their sex drives off like a switch. In fact, Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) as well as Masters and Johnson's Human Sexal Response (1966) indicated that such practices were standard and the 60's simply made public what most people had been doing in private. The genie was out of the bottle and was not going back in.
And so as the 60's generation settled in what eventually became modern sexual practices took hold. Pre-marital and extra-martial sex became the norm. Homosexuality was publicly acknowledge, although it has yet to become truly accepted. Drug use, for better or worse, was recognized as something that wasn't going to go away. Yet there still were - and still are - those who demonize such practices, and not without good reasons in some instances. To such people, the hedonistic culture of the 60's atrocious, but the normalization of such culture was monstrous.
Now enter Richard O'Brien (author, Riff Raff), a man who'd grown up on moster movies and recognized the sexual metaphor inherent within most horror stories. Thus was born The Rocky Horror Show inverting the traditional formula where rather than demonize sexuality, O'Brien sexualized demons.
I See Riff But the Virgins Don't
Thus we have our set up for the opening act. While we see little of Denton in Rocky Horror we are clearly made to understand it is a generic Small American Town. The church is ambiguously protestant, the wedding party speaks with a vague midwestern accent (accept for Betty Monroe who is clearly our southern belle), but perhaps most signficant is the artistic reference. As the wedding party moves away from the Church we see Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn (Usherette/Magenta) depicted as the portrait of American Gothic. This is in part a legacy from O'Brien's original conception of the movie as a play off The Wizard of Oz in which ordinary characters would become outlandish in his strange fantasy world, but the final intepretation is more powerful. American Gothic is often interpreted as a glorification of Victorian repression and American, particularly mid-western, values, but just as often as a satire thereof (although artist Grant Wood denied this latter inrepretation). This plays off O'Brien's glorification and disparagement of sexual culture in the movie, but it also gives us our starting point in the story: Victorian values and repression, even as the Transylvanians hide in plain sight.
Equally important is the wedding. Regardless of what the American Family Council would have you believe, the historical purpose of a family has been to provide security and produce children. Brad and Janet have just witnessed Ralph and Betty make that commitment to each other and announce their intentions to carry on the tradition, to do what is right. Brad gives Janet "the ring to prove that [he's] no joker," an indication of his belief that if he loves her as he claims he must prove it but marrying her. They further indicate the propriety of their actions by going to see their teacher, or in literary terms the revered elder, Dr. Everett Scott, who as "the man who began it," it is implied set them on their current path.
Then they enter the woods.
Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum, Sing to us Oh Hairless One
It should come as no surprise that in such an allegorical tale our heroes become stranded in the woods. Despite a sign warning them against entering the Frankenfurter estates, Brad and Janet blow right by the warning while the audience is forced to spend seventeen seconds contemplating it's simple five-word message. Clearly Brad and Janet have missed something. Instead of paying attention to their surroundings we are allowed to listen to two characters telling us their hopes for the coming journey. Janet indicates she is feeling lost but holds out hope for a light. That she sings such a song while Brad is standing their is not to be overlooked. Brad is supposed to be her protector, he is supposed to be her light. Not even married he has already failed his husbandly duties, thus foretelling Janet's seduction.
Riff Raff, meanwhile, sings a languid song that also tells of us that he desires a light, but while Janet belives there already is "a light in everybody's life," Riff Raff hopes, even begs for, light to come into his life. Janet believes she is already saved if she can just accept it, while Riff is looking for something to save him. Perhaps most significant, however, is that Brad's verse was cut from the song:
I can see the flag fly.In this version Brad is hoping for a journey with Janet, even as she indicates that her journey will be alone. But what does it mean that Brad doesn't sing about his dreams at all? Does he even have any? Perhaps Brad is on his current journey not because he believes in it but because it is expected of him. It is what he is supposed to do but has no true desire to take it.
I can see the rain.
Just the same
There has got to be
something better in this life for
you and me.
When's the Orgy and Who's Invited?
Once in the Frankenfuter castle Brad and Janet are given a quick tour and meet a number of guests, none of whom they know how to deal with. The Transylvanians represent the "cultists" who conservatives long associated with free love groups, but the other characters are not quite so simple.
A Handjob Man
O'Brien has stated on numerous occassions that he believes Riff Raff is the true genius behind Rocky's birth. While Frankenfurter fiddles around with food coloring we see Riff Raff reach off-screen for some device that turns everything white and precipitates Rocky's awakening. Far from the simple assistant, Riff eventually overpowers Frankenfurter, seizes control of the castle, and returns home. But the question of motivation remains. Why would Riff Raff do such a thing?
Jealousy is one possibility. After Riff Raff kills Frankenfurter Magenta points out that she thought Riff Raff liked him, to which Riff Raff replies, "He didn't like me! He never liked me!" Was Riff Raff a spurned lover? O'Brien has never stated for sure, and has indicated that he is not certain himself, but it seems unlikely. Rather, Riff Raff was more likely jealous that he never had a chance to be spurned. For the majority of the movie Riff Raff is reserved, always in tight control of himself, though during "The Time Warp," we see how full of energy he really is, during the dinner scene how much anger he keeps bottled in, and during the mopping scene how much sexuality is pent up within him. And yet Frankenfurter has pursued Columbia and Eddie rather than him, built a playmate, and then had sex with two random strangers all the while ignoring the man who spends his life trying to make him happy.
We never know if Riff Raff is jealous of Frankenfurter or simply the freedom Frankenfurter enjoys, but that is his role in metaphor. Riff Raff is the older conservative population, as even his make up and clothing show us. Regardless of how he wants to be part of this society he knows he has no part in it and must therefore condemn it, even destroying it.
What the Fuck's a Domestic?
Poor Magenta. Marginalized on stage and screen, with only three spoken lines and a handful of lines in songs, she would seem a bit character but for her constant presence. To undrestand Magenta we must think back to the American Gothic parody from the Church scene. Like the farmwife in the picture, it is Magenta's role to soticly support the man in her life. While we can understand the joy Janet takes in her liberation, we must always remember that freedom is purely a negative word that simply says something is bad. Magenta shows us what Janet is leaving behind: servitude.
But she is also a warning. Incest is a grave taboo, not without good reason, but it is also a tremendous kink. And rather than blindly support freewheeling, uncontrolled sexuality, as many fans mistakenly believe Rocky does, the movie is actually a warning that sex does not solve everything. Magenta is dangerously kinky and sexual, and yet she remains the most servile member of the ensemble.
Get a Fucking Last Name
But if we are to simply feel bad for Magenta then we must truly pity Columbia. Columbia is the idealist. By all indications she is not a Transylvanian but rather the first Earthling Frankenfurter seduced ("First you spurned me for Eddie"). Her wants and needs are fairly simple, as indicated in the credits. Columbia is a groupie and her object of desire is Frankenfurter. Like the flowerchildren who attached themselves to famous rock stars in the sixties and seventies, Columbia gives herself freely to Frank who then discards her. Yet still Columbia remains, sustained by her love, but for whom? Or what?
It was great when it all began.Is the dope Frank? Is it Eddie, who's brain lives on (sort of) in Rocky Horror? Is it a drug reference? All we know is that Columbia is aware she is deluding herself but she finds the fantasy infinitely more bearable than reality. She knows she should move on and she tried with Eddie, ("Everybody shoved him. / I very nearly loved him.") but the fantasy of him couldn't save her from her desire for Frank. Perhaps if she truly had loved him rather than nearly loving him she would have been saved. Or perhaps not.
I was a regular Frankie fan.
But it was over when he had the plan
to start a-workin' on a muscle man.
Now the only thing that gives me hope
is my love of a certain dope.
Rose tints my world, keeps me safe from my troubles and pain.
We Had Meatloaf Last Night
If Columbia holds our for ideal love, Eddie whines about nostalgia. Unlike conservative Riff Raff who simply represses everything, Eddie wants excitement but just a little bit. Eddie sings about going out on dates and what a thrill it was trying to get dressed up, go dancing, sing to someone, all for the chance to kiss them. But even his romanticized, limited sexuality is shown to be a lie when he mentions how "you climbed in the back seat. / You really had a good time." If Eddie can't even stick to his own limits how can he expect all of society to conform. It should come as no surprise when he is killed after less than five minutes' screen time.
A Creation of Really Bad Writing
Rocky's role in the movie is one of constant speculation and misunderstanding. Strangely, O'brien opted to take out all of Rocky's lines from the show. Whereas Raynor Burton depicted Rocky Horror as a noble savage, Peter Hinwood's Rocky is a brute, a thing that exists only to screw and be screwed. In fact, in his line, "Now the only thing I've come to trust / is an orgasmic rush of lust," Rocky tells us that not only doesn't he aspire to anything higher but he fears it. His death is foretold at this point, not by the horror genre's standards of killing off the promiscous characters (which admittedly must be relaxed for Rocky Horror or nobody gets out alive), but rather because of the film's high-mindedness: whether Frank's sexuality is successful or not, a surviving character must have something to them besides sex.
The Bastard Love-Child of R2-D2 and Marry Poppins (and a Statement to Prove It)
Dr. Scott, as previously mentioned, serves the role of societal elders. He arrives to protect the younger generation, thinking it is just Eddie, but then discovers that he must take Brad and Janet under his protection. He utterly fails in this regard but his appearance sends a message to the other elders: they are going to have to deal with this sex thing at some point.
I Feel Real Cheap
As the movie closes we return to our heroes. Brad and Janet have each had different experiences in Frankenfurter's castle. Janet feels released and happy, excited by her experience with Frankenfurter, while Brad is confused. Janet openly declares her sexuality, dancing evocatively and offerring herself to anyone watching. Brad on the other hand, sings about his inability to come to terms with things. Brad declares everything a bad dream and is left twitching on the floor begging his mother come take it away, having lost his fiance, his virginity, his homosexual virginity, his values, everything that matters to him. Perhaps Brad will get by, but certainly not with Janet (note: in a sequel O'Brien wrote but never produced, Brad cemented his status as a homosexual, becoming a cheap cabaret singer).
You'll Go Down on Anything Frank, Why Not the Curtain?
Of course a word or two must be said about Frankenfurter. Frank, of course, represents hedonism, unrestrained sexuality. It is a fun world, but inevitably one that cannot succeed. While it is Riff Raff, the ultimate repressor, that kills Frank, we must note that Frank's world is crumbling long before he is anti-matter lasered to death. His children have turned on him, the heroes are outraged, and he is only able to preserve the illusion of happiness by freezing people in place, by stripping away the freedom he revels in.
Several literary critics have speculated that Frank's death is a foreshadowing of the AIDS crisis that would soon impact America. While O'Brien could not have known about AIDS when he penned the show, if his metaphor was accurate it seems he was able to predict a reckoning of some sort.
Last One in Has to be in the Sequel
Finally a word on the future of Rocky, not referring to the show but what happens after. O'Brien penned two sequels, Rocky Horror Shows His Heels and Revenge of the Old Queen. Neither was ever produced, though the scripts are fairly easy to find online, at least for the latter, though summary notes can be found for the former without too much trouble. Rumors have also come up that O'Brien is working on another stage play, Rocky Horror: The Second Coming though nothing is concrete.
Instead we have Shock Treatment (1981). Shock Treatment was made cannibalized from Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, reusing many of the songs intended for the aborted film. Widely derided by both critics and fans, Shock Treatment is still worth seeing, both in its own right and as a commentary on Rocky Horror. For starters, the script was written to impede the ability to do call-backs in the hopes that the audience might actually think about the movie. In this regard O'Brien was unnsuccessful, which is a shame.
If Rocky Horror is a commentary on the 60's and 70's, Shock Treatment is a prediction of the 80's. While Rocky Horror begins with Ralph Hapschatt and Betty Monroe getting married and Brad and Janet getting engaged, Shock Treatment begins with Ralph and Betty already divorced and Brad and Janet's marriage in danger of falling apart (at this point one should note that Shock Treatment is neither a sequel nor a prequel. Rather, O'Brien often describes it as "an equal"). O'Brien predicted sex and drugs as they key issues of the 70's but he predicts commercialism, money, and emotional distance as the issues of the 80's. The movie predicts a number of trends, including reality television, grunge rock, and mainstream cultural rejection. There is very little sex and a great deal of thinking. Perahps that's why fans don't like it.