Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Olde Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The following was part of a series reviewing the ASUW film series at the University of Washington that were broadcast on KCMU-FM in 1976--I found the old scripts and thought it might be interesting to post them here--with no editorial alteration. I have no doubt that my attitude to some of these films has changed over the years--ageing does that--but to just erase my opinions from back then and tack on my new-found objections would do a disservice to the reviewer who was just a "stinky kid" back then. It'd be like --I don't know--talking over a movie or something! Or throwing bread at the screen!

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (Jim Sharman, 1975) This Saturday's films at 130 Kane Hall are "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Private Parts." They're a little freaky. No. They're not. They're a LOT freaky.

Take, for example, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Rock biggie Lou Adler produced it. Jim Sharman directed it with assistance from a lot of other people's work, notably Brian DePalma's "Phantom of the Paradise." And like "...Paradise," it's a rock-musical-horror-picture hybrid. Unlike "...Paradise," "Rocky Horror" has a sci-fi element and a great deal less subtlety.

You know the plot. Two nice people--two niiiiice people (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon)--are driving down the road during a rainstorm. They get a flat tire and look for a phone, and, of course, they come upon a light in the House of Dr. Frank N. Furter, scientist.

Dr. Furter (Tim Curry) refers to himself as a "trans-sexual transvestite from Transylvania" and when he first appears in stilletos, garter belt and heavy make-up, there's more than enough evidence to take him at his word. As with Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," the sexuality that's only hinted at in the early "Frankenstein" films of James Whale is made overt. No longer do we have the Father-Creator/Son-Creation love of the first "Frank.." film, this scientist creates "Rocky" as a...toy.

It's bizarre. Maybe too bizarre for some.* But as long as the thing takes itself so lightly, it's harmless and engaging. Half-way through the third reel**, however, the film begins to take itself somewhat half-way seriously and bogs itself down.

But there are things to recommend: the special effects of Wally Veevers, who worked on "2001," the performances of the actors familiar and unfamiliar, especially Susan Sarandon ("Joe," "The Front Page," "The Great Waldo Pepper") and one of my favorite actors Charles Gray--he plays every role the same way, and his, by no means, small role as the Narrator of the film is in his finest arch tradition. But the actor who steals the show is Tim Curry, mincing around the thing like Carol Burnett playing Gloria Swanson. Whatever reservations you may have of the film, it is his force of personality and presence that makes the whole thing work as well as it does.
* This was written in 1976, and "Rocky Horror" had only been released the previous year and died at the box-office. You know...the rest of the story. "Rocky Horror Picture Show" was, appropriately, brought back from the dead at revival houses and turned into a Midnight Movie staple--not so much for the film, but for the lively audience participation. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" struck a chord in the youth market and any excess displayed in 1975 became a part of the popular the horror of some. But you can't argue with success.

** I was watching a 16mm print, but I would hazard a guess to say that I'm referring to the point in the big "RKO" extravaganza where Frank N. Furter must face his demise. Bummer.

One can't argue with "Rocky Horror" as a cultural phenomenon, but it still doesn't hold up too well as a film. Perhaps that's why it ended up as such an "audience participation" project (well, that and the music and the dancing--duh!)--"Mystery Science 3000" never took on any classics. And it bears a re-visit: the print I saw of it had severe sync problems--10 minutes out of sync. That can spoil your appreciation of anything! And Tim Curry vaulted from this into mainstream films--but he's never had a role that so dominated a film as this one.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is part of the National Film Registry. Bra-vo to the Library of Congress. Let's do the Time-Warp again.

Tomorrow: The very wierd, very warped, and probably best-forgotten first film of Paul Bartel.


John said...

I've always argued that Rocky Horror actually is a fine film... that behind all the audience participation and yelling "Where's your fucking neck?!" at the narrator... the film is actually quite brilliant. But perhaps it, like a Wes Anderson film, only has true appeal to fans of adsurdist humor.

Jon said...

Woah, that was close. I almost thought I was going to agree with John about a movie for a change. I too thought RHPS was a fine movie but maybe not technically so great but then you had to go and add that comment about Wes Anderson.

John said...

Yeah, I included that bit after reading your blog article panning Mr. Anderson.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Arguing doesn't make you right and your statement's just a tad elitist.

I'm a big fan of absurdist humor. And I was when I wrote that piece at the tender age of 21 years of age (so you can't use your "age-ist" garbage on me). And I wrote it less than one year after it had been released to theaters and DIED a sad, neglected death.

Absurdist humor has the same risk as any humor--but it has to be funny, and that's in the gut of the beholder.

All that being said, it doesn't improve "Rocky Horror" one jot.

It's a bit "amateur night," boys, despite Curry's star-turn, and I've seen far better incompetent movies than this. "Brilliant" implies an amplitude of light--not dullness.

Still the songs are great, Curry's great, but the thing's just turns into one big "downer." It needed audience participation to perk it up to make it more enjoyable. Seeing it after it became a cause celebre makes it hard to review the film as a film, rather than an event. There are great evenings where the audience rips "Showgirls" to shreds (rightly so). That makes it a fun evening. It doesn't make "Showgirls" a classic.

And Jon, I find "Buckaroo Banzai" a better film than "Rocky Horror," while having a lot of the same qualities--and set-backs (ie., a last act that just doesn't work)