When Rocky Horror Picture Show danced into theatres in 1975, the now-iconic film was met with lackluster enthusiasm and an overall neutral response from critics. The movie was released on the heels of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos in 1973, a smash hit with the underground movie crowd found at midnight screenings. Audiences saw charm and camp in the bizarre, colorful scenes and catchy songs featuring Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N Furter, but little innovation or difference from other shocking flicks at the time. Acclaimed movie reviewer Roger Ebert gave the movie just 2.5 out of four stars, stating that “without the midnight sideshow, it’s cheerful and silly, and kind of sweet, and forgettable.” The “midnight sideshow” he refers to was the abrupt cult following the movie, attained after audiences began creating “counter-dialogue” to the film, which quickly evolved into costumed actors portraying those on the screen, moving exactly in time with the movie itself.
And the rest is history. The movie became a phenomenon and is continuously played in theatres around the U.S. and U.K; it was even introduced into the Library of Congress in 2005. The movie is nearing its 46th birthday and still manages to stay at the forefront of musical and science fiction culture alike. As Ebert questions further in his review, “how long into middle age, after all, can one really continue to dress up like a Transylvanian transsexual?” As the original enthusiasts of Rocky Horror begin to fade out, the movie finds new life in an ever-evolving group: teenagers.
A love letter to B-roll films and sci-fi flicks like Flash Gordon, Rocky Horror Picture Show is a sadistic, glitter-covered parallel to the biblical story of the creation of Adam. The movie chronicles Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” on his mission to create the perfect man. The celebration of his creation, named simply “Rocky,” is interrupted by honeymooners Brad and Janet, looking for a phone after they get lost in a nighttime storm. The ultra-stereotypical couple realizes that they are in deeper than they thought, as the night descends into violent, campy hijinks.
From songs like “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” to the beloved dance moves of the “Time Warp,” Rocky Horror’s reputation as shocking and sexual precedes it. In a country where sex education is highly unstable, often unreliable, and sometimes nonexistent, teens can find an unwavering message in the movie: Sex and sensuality are not shameful or embarrassing subjects; rather, leaning into sexuality and passion supports creativity and confidence. The film’s iconic tagline says it all: “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.”
The movie’s themes go further than just embracing the culture around sex, however. Brad and Janet, the seemingly normal, healthy couple, are the characters who appear to be the center of the story at the exposition of the movie. But at fan-attended screenings of the movie, shouts of “asshole” and “slut” can be heard adorning Brad and Janet’s entries, respectively. Certain posters of the show even depict Dr. Frank-N-Furter with the tagline, “He’s the hero - that’s right, the hero!!” Rocky Horror takes the typical cisgender, heterosexual couple seen in movie culture and flips it on its head--Brad and Janet are seen as bizarre and even immoral, a parallel to the reputation of non-heterosexual relationships at the time.
Frank-N-Furter, both ambiguous in gender and sexuality, is revered, and even sets the standard for his companions and guests. It’s an emphatic message to a target audience of outcasts and societal refugees: you have a place, and you have a right to be yourself. It’s no wonder LGBTQ+ viewers felt such deep connections to the film. The movie and the community have a symbiotic relationship; Rocky Horror wouldn’t have rocketed to international fame if it weren’t for the first group of devoted fans, drawn in by its emphasis on sexual liberation. Some even credit the movie with allowing them to feel comfortable enough to come out. In a time where the LGBTQ+ community grows constantly and knowledge of the spectrum of sexuality becomes more commonplace, the movie remains a guiding light to people, especially newer generations, in every stage of sexual discovery.
Even after decades of age, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city without a running Rocky Horror screening tradition. The movie has scattered its fishnets and heels across the globe and given a home to questioning teens and LGBTQ+ audiences alike. In the words of Frank-N-Furter himself, “Don’t just dream it, be it.”
About the Author
Stella Garner (also known by stella marie) is a high-school student and writer based in Las Vegas. Her work focuses on the music industry, film and literature, and politics, and can be found in local projects such as For the Culture Las Vegas. She is inspired by authors such as Haruki Murakami, Richard Siken, Mary Oliver, and Kurt Vonnegut. In her free time, Stella writes poetry (and hopes to publish a collection one day), plays piano and accordion, and roller skates. Her other indulgences include: crosswords, 80s synthpop, oversized shirts with ironic messages, Coke Zero, and the novel Norweigan Wood.