From Critically Panned Horror-Comedy to Queer Staple: The Legacy of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Death Becomes Her’
These movies thrive due to queer community.
Rushing through the doors is a thoroughly costumed mass, decked out in kitschy, over-the-top statement pieces. Their outfits (which are almost entirely self-made) are intentionally raunchy or overdrawn, for it’s not about fashion – it’s about expression. As they pile into the cinema, prop newspapers in hand, the antici – wait for it – pation grows. And soon, those iconic red lips flash up on the screen, introducing the cult-classic film that everyone has come to enjoy: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Another thing about this audience is that they are doubtlessly queer. In fact, The Rocky Horror Picture Show itself is an undeniably queer film. The plot of the film is built around gender expression and oozes a sense of maximalism and camp. True to form, the film also scored horribly with critics. These critiques ranged in form, from Roger Ebert’s argument that film was not the proper medium, to Newsweek’s simple, cutting takedown: “tasteless, plotless and pointless.” Though the film was panned by critics, it thrived with audiences. This audience was narrow and specific, but stuck to the film with a particular fervor, to such an extent that many cinemas still show The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Halloween. That audience, above all, is distinctly queer.
So what is it about outrageous, bawdy horror comedies that are so hated by critics, but so loved by queer people? Of course, there is a sense of rubbernecking to this enjoyment. We love to watch a car crash. Hell, The Room is still shown in cinemas everywhere just for people to laugh and scoff at. But there’s something more there, something irrevocably tied to the performance and exuberance of these films. As queer people, much of our identity is found in our expression of being. It’s not just about who you are, but how you show it.
These films, from the arthouse Rocky Horror to the comedic Death Becomes Her, are built around an obscene, vulgar sense of humor that is not palatable to the masses. That feels a hell of a lot like queerness, an expression of self that may not be understood by those around you. Maybe that’s overdrawn; at a minimum, these rejected horror comedies form a queer community like no other.
In some act of blasphemy, my first interaction with Rocky Horror was not actually with the 1975 film, but with the 2016 live Fox remake. This version was seemingly neutered, sanitizing much of the grit and the gore that gave Rocky Horror its funk. Still, the message persisted. As I sat on the floor of my local JCC, and as I watched that campy, maximalist story about genderqueerness and hilarious villainy, I felt a sense of permanence.
Also Read: What Makes Horror Queer?
Soon I would be inspired to go see the original film (which I can assure you is much better) and found a ritual of watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show almost every year. That sense of permanence was irrefutably linked to my burgeoning queer identity. Rocky Horror isn’t a tragic AIDS story, it isn’t even a whistful gay romance that seemed so forlorn. No, it was just stupid fun and that’s all that I wanted. From the audiences Rocky Horror has amassed, many other people wanted that too.
It was about two years later that I watched Death Becomes Her. Again, somewhat embarrassing beginnings; I was first inspired to watch the film after the themed RuPaul’s Drag Race runway. After finding the film on HBOMax, I forced some friends to watch it with me. They were a bit appalled, as the film is surely a bit abrasive. I, on the other hand, was deeply hooked. There were irreverent, obscene gags abound and leading performances by legends Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. What’s not to love?
Well, critics everywhere would disagree with me. Death Becomes Her earned a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was given a thumbs-down by Roger Ebert for a seemingly hollow plotline. Yet Death Becomes Her maintained an audience, eventually earning $96 million worldwide. Death Becomes Her was a hit, whether Roger Ebert liked it or not.
Part of this success was surely the queer fanbase that Death Becomes Her amassed. The film featured some mainstays of queer culture: an obsession with glamour and image, flowing gowns, and witty, quotable one-liners. In one of the most iconic moments of the film, Madeline (Meryl Streep) dramatically reaches for a rifle, shooting Helen (Goldie Hawn) into a pool. Helen, seething with anger, rises from the pool to reveal a large hole in the middle of her stomach. There’s no extended shock, no moment of recognition. There is only pure fury.
This scene represents not only the awe-inspiring special effects of the film but also just how dumbly funny it can be. Death Becomes Her is a maximalist comedy at its principle. Sure, there’s gore and blood, with Meryl Streep twisting her neck back into place after being hit over the head with a shovel. But these moments are obscured by their sheer farce, making for a joyful, uproarious viewing experience.
No matter where you are, Death Becomes Her and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are communal viewing experiences. Even if viewed alone, one can feel the latent queerness and verbalized extravagance of the films, something that may not easily be replicated. The queer origins of these films are a bit unclear. Maybe it’s the colorful tableaus that cannot help but inspire awe, maybe it’s the over-the-top expression of self. Nonetheless, these horror-comedies have indefinitely become queer hits, and the history can be felt beneath the skin of each film.
You can imagine yourself, surrounded by queer people, newspaper overhead for a Rocky Horror viewing. You can imagine yourself laughing with your queer friends over Meryl Streep’s iconic quip, “I can see right through you!”. Or, you need not imagine. You could do it yourself, find that community. That’s the connective tissue that films like these provide; they inspire friendship, expression, and an affirmation of queerness that is indelibly powerful.