BwTFS: How to Read ROCKY HORROR
“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
“Michael Rennie was ill the day the Earth stood still, but he told us where we stand…”
These are the first words you hear in 1975’s cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as sung by the pair of disembodied lips featured in the opening credits. Most viewers of the movie are already swept up in the callbacks and floor show at midnight screenings, so even though they might have the lyrics to “Science Fiction/Double Feature” memorized, they’re not necessarily actively engaging with the message being delivered by the song.
Just like Michael Rennie, the movie itself is telling us where we stand, giving us a road map of the proper way to read the manic hijinks that are about to ensure over the next 95 minutes. The lyrics are an avalanche of science fiction and horror film references from the 30’s to the 50’s, including Forbidden Planet, It Came from Outer Space, King Kong, and The Invisible Man. This is essentially a glossary of all the films and subgenres that songwriter/co-scriptwriter Richard O’Brien has tossed into a blender while crafting his curious creation.
He has taken the plot formulas for both the Frankenstein franchise and the Old Dark House movies of the 30’s (basically any gothic horror classic James Whale had his hand in) and grafted them onto the mad science thrillers of the 50’s, where bland young white couples frequently had to battle the dreadful results of nuclear era experimentation. In Rocky, that bland young white couple would be Brad and Janet, but instead of triumphing over the mad scientist and his creation they are forever changed by the eye-opening sexual experiences delivered by the former and especially the latter (Peter Hinwood in a golden speedo will do that to a person).
This important change is the focal point that the film is built around. By dragging the tropes and clichés of these older genre films into a modern 70’s rock ’n roll musical, he’s also dragging Brad and Janet along with them, leaving them battered and bruised by the push and pull between the buttoned-up traditional values of the 50’s and the lascivious, delectable world of the flesh that 70’s rock was opening up.
This focus on the film genres of the past only serves to accentuate the bold, new, stylized direction the film is taking. And there’s a whole other layer on top of it, to boot. In a way, the audiences of the 1970’s are themselves the Brad and Janet. The Rocky Horror Picture Show took viewers to a place beyond the imagination, where gender and sexuality are proved almost irrelevant, pushed and exaggerated to the point that they’re just pure performance and spectacle.
This idea is one that mainstream cinema certainly had never dished out in quite the same way. The film seems birthed from a world entirely different than our own, and just like Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his crew, it pulled audiences out of their comfort zones into an entirely new experience. It showed them what the future of cinema and gender could be, in the most confrontationally glitzy manner possible.
This is something the movie tips us off about from the very beginning, thanks to the quiet power of “Science Fiction/Double Feature.” The lyric promises something warm and nostalgic, but the extreme stylization of the disembodied character delivering it proves that the movie is going to be pushing nostalgia to the very limit and exploding it completely out of its bounds. Rocky Horror isn’t just a fun slice of camp. It’s a missive from the future, one that’s beckoning us with open, fishnet glove covered arms.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also co-hosts the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf!.