Written by Mugo del Jefe
Musgo has had a life long love affair with movies. Not just a single movie but movies as a proper noun “movies”. Some of the earliest memories I have start with the phrase “let’s go to the movies”. Even today it still can raise the hair on my arms. In my youth – for sake of argument let’s call it mid-’70s through late-’80s – movies were usually experienced in a theater. There were TV shows that existed on the small screen and older, classic films on TV, but the theater was where you went to experience the films. The memory of seeing a movie in a theater is so much more than just the movie. When I saw The Great Mouse Detective at a Saturday afternoon matinee, my mother and I ate lunch on the top floor of Jacobsens and walked the Kalamazoo Mall. When I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark on opening Friday night, my mother and father took me to the Pizza Hut on West Main and we went to the arcade afterwards. And so it was on an October night in 1984, a Saturday very close to Halloween when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a midnight showing with a live cast from New York in costume at the Bijou. I can recall that night in that theater like it was last week.
When I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show – 35th Anniversary Edition being released on Blu-ray, I knew I had to give it a spin. I’ve seen the movie about five times in the theater but probably hadn’t attended a screening since 1987. The packaging of the disc caught my eye right away. It’s not the predictable cover shot of Tim Curry (although I wonder why they didn’t go with the iconic lips) – it was the verbiage on the back that promised to “recreate the Midnight Movie experience in your living room.”
The Midnight Movie has been around in one form or another almost as long as there have been movies. But I feel like the decade leading up to the proliferation of VCRs was part of a Golden Age of the Midnight Movie. Growing up, a Midnight Movie on TV meant a really horrible film hosted by a local personality or an Elvira. But a Midnight Movie at the theaters was usually synonomous with cult films. These were films that were usually low budget and appealed to the teenager or college crowd (who else was going to films at midnight?) and would attract viewers to come back multiple times. In the Kalamazoo area, almost every theater had a selection of films that played at Midnight. For years, it was Eraserhead, The Evil Dead, Liquid Sky and the three that played seemingly forever – Heavy Metal, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Pink Floyd The Wall. But the undisputed king was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The movie, released in 1975, had been playing the midnight circuit for at least seven years by the time I first saw it. All of the interactive moments were explained to me before I entered the theater as a “virgin”. I was handed a water pistol, some toast, some rice, and playing cards. The interactive feature of the film was what brought people back. It was an event. You could participate as much or as little as you wanted. You could dress in costume, bring props, shout out lines, and dancing was encouraged. The reward for attending multiple times wasn’t to find out more about the movie – it was the interaction with other fans. It’s in that way that it’s moved beyond movie to experience that has kept it playing in theaters to this very day.
This movie isn’t one to be judged by its plot. But it would be a mistake to overlook the filmatic merits here. The story is an adaptation of a stage play but it effectively uses the film medium to its fullest. It starts off with all the trappings of a classic horror film – at a wedding, the best man Brad’s (Barry Bostwick) fear of marriage is represented by a graveyard, ravens, and a brewing storm. That leads directly into the first song, “Dammit Janet” that tells us we’re in a parody. The song isn’t true classical musical style – the music is much more a takeoff on the type of music of the Elvis or beach films of the ’60s. The music style throughout references back to the late ’50s and early ’60s. Throughout, there are nods to almost all of the horror genres – the rainy night leads to a haunted house, the Frankenstein motif of the Dr. Frank-N-Furter character and his “monster” Rocky, and the Dracula themes with Dr. Scott as a “Van Helsing”.
By the time Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia start “The Time Warp” – that’s the point where most viewers will decide they either love or hate this film. If you’ve held onto the hope that there will be any logical plot or rules in the universe of the film – they all fly out the door at that point. There’s a nod to the viewer, there are breaks in character, and there’s just plain fun going on. An unsuspecting viewer can be put off by the “no rules” attitude that the film takes. Others are excited by it. It’s not surprising that the movie is produced by Lou Adler who would bring us Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke during the same time period – another film that didn’t follow any established rules. Directors like Robert Altman started this trend early in the ’70s with the mixing of genres to the point that expectations and boundaries were always being pushed to the limit.
The cast is ultimately what makes this movie live on. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is irresistable. Tim owns the character, maybe from playing it so many times on stage before bringing him to the screen, and his charisma feels like something you can touch. His supporting cast in the castle – Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff, Patricia Quinn as Magenta and Nell Campbell as Columbia just play off his power. They never try to steal the scene – but they often play the role of the audience. In the brilliant dual scenes where Dr. Frank-N-Furter seduces both Janet and Brad separately – they are our eyes and ears, making the viewer feel like a voyeur instead of those just being a scene in a film. I found myself appreciating the performances of Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as Janet and Brad even more than I remembered them. Their ability to play the horror portion of the story seriously keeps the movie from really flying off the track.
The Blu-ray version was worth waiting 35 years. The disc is made for the hardcore fan as well as the “virgin”. The first thing I noticed was the 7.1 DTS-HD mastered audio and te 4K/2K remastering of the picture. The movie has had some old prints floating around and I’ve seen it in some terrible theaters. I remember seeing the LaserDisc version of the film in the late ’90s and this blows that away by miles. You will be sold on the quality of the presentation from the first sight of Patricia Quinn’s red lips and white teeth in the first shot and the first note of “Science Fiction/Double Feature”.
Other new features include a number of galleries, the search for a 35th Anniversary Shadowcast, and some new karaoke tracks. Some of the repeated features gather from old LaserDisc and DVD releases from the 25th Anniversary. But the audio commentary with Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn is not to be missed for any fan. You get both the US and UK versions of the film (including the deleted “Super Heroes” musical number) and alternate openings (it was supposed to be B&W like The Wizard Of Oz) and alternate credits.
Does the disc “recreate the Midnight Movie experience”? Not in my living room. They set a big task for themselves. All of the components are there except for what makes the movie experience so great – the other people. The Midnight Movie experience doesn’t exist like it did 25-30 years ago. Today’s Midnight Movies are teen comedies like The Breakfast Club or The Goonies that can be watched on disc with your friends any day. The closest thing to that experience happens at Comic Conventions with cult shows like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or the “Once More With Feeling” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a decent film to watch once. There are some really catchy songs and the horror parody holds up well still. But there are points where you find yourself just waiting for the next song – those moments are filled in by the crowd in-person but they drag in silence at home. This movie has become a “Time Warp” itself and I think that those who are initiated will absolutely fall in love all over again with this package. But “virgins” may ask what the hype was all about.