The Other Side of ROCKY HORROR
"It's not easy having a good time; even smiling makes my face ache," the luxuriously perverse yet decadently wounded Dr. Frank-N-Furter says at one point near the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and that sentiment could be seen as the ultimate truth at the heart of the film. Rocky Horror has become a cultural phenomena, having acquired the aura of a "lived" experience more than merely a "watched" one; the evolution of the film into a "midnight movie" cult has transformed the relationship between viewer and film into a procession of textual give and take.
Rocky Horror has formed its own sub-societal order of loyal followers who drape themselves in the folds of the film's own air of manic theatrical display, and through this transformation, the film becomes something more than entertainment. Beneath the campy comedic gestures and genre spoofing, which are quite enjoyable in themselves, there is an often neglected serious side to Rocky Horror. If one doubts the presence of this quiet sincerity at the center of the film, admittedly clothed quite elaborately within a shield of detached, reflexive self-awareness, for one example recall the look on Columbia's (Nell Campbell) face after Frank-N-Furter has finished his closing "explanation" for his actions, the melancholic torch song "I'm Going Home," as he bows and raises his hands in fragile acknowledgment of the applause from an audience which exists only in his mind. The suggestively sad power of the film is that it refuses to offer simple answers as to how an individual's deep feeling of "difference" can be readily made sense of, and how deep the pain may go. As Brad (Barry Bostwick) says in the concluding song "Super Heroes," cut from the US version of the film, "to find the truth, I've even lied, but all I know is down inside I'm bleeding."
The film acts to reassure fans of the acceptability of their own sense of difference yet also continually works to remind them of that very difference.
Speaking to this dichotomy are comments made by both Susan Sarandon, who plays ingenue Janet Weiss, and Richard O'Brien, writer of the original stage musical who also plays the part of the sinister Riff-Raff. Sarandon offers an assessment of the film's appeal by saying that "whatever the movie says, especially to lonely kids," it offers a kind of liberation, a way to act out, in a sense, and become a part of a new kind of community. And yet, as O'Brien, indicates, the ending of the film may provide a catharsis, but as to what kind of release it may ultimately prove to be, he doesn't know; as to Brad and Janet, will what they have been through "scar them for life or bring them joy?" The film strikes a very successful balance between these two positions. At once a parodic reenactment of an earlier genre of horror and science fiction cinema which more often than not displayed the RKO studios' radio tower before their dark little morality plays, and a rock musical developed out of a successful and popular stage production, Rocky Horror represents the intersection point of odd bedfellows. Richard O'Brien's musical has strangeness in its very bones thanks to the offbeat materials with which he chose to build his monster.
The film re-creates the unsettling plasticity of 1950s horror/sci-fi movies perfectly, and by combining the often overtly mannered and stiff style of those films to the reflexive sensibility of an absurdist theatricality, the result is a comedic yet ever so slightly, perhaps almost unconsciously, disturbing hybrid, neither one thing nor another, an eccentric wind-up toy unearthed from some other place and time.
O'Brien's music is both celebratorially campy and bizarrely sublime, ranging from the dementedly joyous rock choruses of "The Time Warp" and "Sweet Transvestite" to the bubbly pop of "Touch Me" to the melodramatically self-aware and yet no less melancholic reflection of the aforementioned "I'm Going Home." All of the music exists in a kind of multi-temporal void which further works to generate the curious "otherness" of the film, combining bits of Broadway reverie and swells with pop and rock anthems from the 1950s and 70s, all evoking the spirit of a sideshow attraction. Presented like a retro artifact, but one seemingly designed after a glance back from some distant future, the film is paste boarded in popping comic book colors and a strikingly bubble-gum gothic decor seeping a garishly urgent and desperate sexuality.
Rocky Horror not only calls attention to its own materiality by way of its mise-en-scene, one part carnivalesque parade and one part soft-core sex flick, but also by the constant breaking of the dramatic fourth wall. It's no wonder that audiences began to yell back at the screen after Rocky Horror's release; the film initiates that dialogue by positioning characters as capable of acknowledging the audience, often addressing viewers with a line of commentary or even a knowing look or raised eyebrow. Indeed, the line of dialogue which begins this review is spoken directly to the camera by Frank-N-Furter as if it was a private moment not to be shared with anyone save the mad doctor and his intimate listeners. Charles Grey's Criminologist narrator is perhaps the most explicit example of this nod to the viewer which is the equivalent of a shared wink, an acknowledgment of artifice which, by heightening the film's reflexivity, makes the narrative's serious turns all the more poignant.
This intimacy between character and viewer can only really succeed, however, when the performative aspect of the work rises beyond mere cliché.The roles in Rocky Horror are meant to be parodically stereotypical in their broad outlines, but the story, as a series of unfolding revelations, both personal and narrative, reveals levels of inner dimensions. The end result is that the film could best be described as one costume party being held within another, a kind of elaborately staged play being performed within the narrative framework of a larger film, wherein a layering of character has a chance to occur. Characters who initially appear to be one dimensional cutouts eventually shed their costuming, usually quite literally, and reveal something more underneath, an endless removal of masks that doesn't seem to end with any clear sense of finality, like a spiraling progression of ever shrinking Russian dolls, each within the body of the next. This depth of character is not merely a narrative contrivance but stems from purposeful intent on the part of the performances, with two in particular standing out, Susan Sarandon as Janet, and Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter.
As described by Sarandon, Janet was in a way a "take off on myself," or more precisely a "Saturday Night Live version of all of the roles I had been playing" up to that point. "You scratch one of those ingenues, there's a bitch somewhere," she remarks. Sarandon plays Janet, one of the most intentionally one dimensional of the stereotypes at the film's beginning, by being honest even to her character's woodenness, by making that cliché feel more like the result of the repression of an inner life rather than propping Janet up as merely a thing to laugh at. The character's transformation, her awakening into something more of her self, is as comically precise as it is organically developed. She comments on the DVD release of the film that she was "brave enough and stupid enough" to go with things that crossed her path and seems quite sanguine with her role as Janet, remarking that "it will be the Rocky Horror Show that is in the time capsule" out of all of her films.
And perhaps this wouldn't be such a terrible thing ultimately, for if actors can perform at their best in even the so called "B" grade productions, then it speaks quite highly of them.
This is particularly true of Tim Curry who is spellbinding as Frank-N-Furter, a role he had already quite snugly settled into during the stage production. Curry camps without undercutting and sneers without being superior, investing an emotional substance in the film while juggling with its essential nature as a comedic parody, finding the perfect balance between outrageous peacocking and surprising fragility.
This duality could be applied to the film as a whole. Yet this is not to suggest that what is at work in the film is the profoundest of explorations of human identity; Rocky Horror is first and foremost a demented comedy, a musical trip down a particular cinematic memory lane, and an entertaining one at that. But it can be revealing to look more closely at a film that has been somewhat simplified in its reception by the theatrical displays of its fandom. This is not to suggest that they are necessarily missing something but that the film does indeed operate at more levels than may seem readily apparent amid all the spectacle.
(Released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and rated "R" for sexual content.)