I find myself at a fork in the road with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On the one hand, it’s a great musical, complete with costumes and a design that stand on their own despite being remodels of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. The songs are smooth and catchy, they evoke the kind of whimsy Andrew Lloyd Webber will later inject into his stage show Cats. But that’s as far as the movie goes. It is good because its songs and production numbers are good. When I reach out for something more, all I grab is thin air.
I am reviewing Rocky Horror thirty-nine years since its original release. I suspect there will be a great celebration next year when its 40-year anniversary DVD box set is released. My only question to all the celebrators will be: What are you celebrating? The movie? The music? The characters? The whimsy? I suspect many will say that everything is awesome. True, that might be the case. But having sat through better and worse musicals in my lifetime I am inclined to say that Rocky Horror isn’t up there with the greats like My Fair Lady and Hairspray. It is hampered by its cloudy direction and shoddy craftsmanship, despite some really brave performances.
The best comes from Tim Curry. He plays a mad scientist named Dr. Frank N. Furter, who is not a hundred miles removed from Dr. Frankenstein. Many musicals employ a twist to their characters. Eliza Doolittle could be tamed. Sandy Olsson really was a bad girl inside. Frank is a transvestite, and he gets his kicks from breaking up relationships by sleeping with both the boy and the girl. He claims to have found the secret to life, and he shows this off by bringing a well-chiselled man (Peter Hinwood) in a golden pair of briefs to life, who immediately slips into a song-and-dance number.
The boy and the girl are Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), newly engaged and in need of some car assistance. They arrive at Dr. Frank’s castle to use the phone, but when they are greeted by the hunched-back servant Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien), their flat tyre becomes the least of their worries.
Sarandon and Bostwick do about as well as anyone in their roles could do without looking too ridiculous. O’Brien is surprisingly demure for a character of Riff Raff’s potential. Strangely, when he goes on to host the much beloved British game show, The Crystal Maze, a part of Riff Raff goes with him. But the most effective is Curry, who looks like he’s having a lot of fun because his character is a lot of fun. I find him oddly appealing, sentiments no doubt shared by Brad in a rather hilarious bedroom scene. The androgynous theme that permeates the film has a way of confusing the senses.
Next to these standouts, the remaining cast members resemble well-oiled statues. They are of little consequence and don’t add much to the texture of the story. There’s a mysterious appearance by Meatloaf as a motorcycle-crazy delivery boy that doesn’t quite add up. And the other partygoers at the Frank Furter mansion seem to have stepped into the wrong movie.
Rocky Horror is based on the stage play of the same name, written entirely by O’Brien. I get the feeling that he is a quirky sort of fellow; only a quirky fellow could devise a finale like the one seen here. It makes no sense, but the music is good. After watching this film, my first thought wasn’t to go out and buy the DVD, it was to acquire the soundtrack and listen to the songs all over again. What does this tell me? The Rocky Horror Picture Show is meant to be heard, not seen.
Best Moment | Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite” number.
Worst Moment | The horrible dubbing and voiceover work in the opening scene, outside the church.