Last Saturday, nearly 300 people packed themselves into the Capri, a decrepit Jackson theater that, as the MC cheerfully informed us, “hasn’t shown a movie in twenty years!” Much of its ceiling was gone, leaving only bare wooden slabs behinds. It had no heating system, nor a working bathroom. (A Port-A-Poddy was outside.) On Friday, my friend Pete insisted that the building’s basement flooded a decade ago… and remains so. Save for three or four scummy couches, there are no seats in the Capri—C., Fjord, and I brought our own. The floor is slightly tilted, concrete, and dirty.
This sounds like prison camp, but the mood was jovial. Popcorn, snacks, hot cider, and beer were being sold in what used to be the concessions area. Everyone was armed with rice, toast, water guns, confetti, noisemakers, newspapers, toilet paper, and paper airplanes. Many people were decked out in their best dresses, lingerie, and high heels. A few of them were actually women.
I can’t think of a better environment for a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Now, technically, I was a Rocky Horror virgin, having seen the movie in its entirety only on television, and having missed the first 30 minutes of it when I attending a Dallas showing a decade ago. So, while I was prepared to pelt people with, and be pelted by, all manner of items both edible and non-edible, I wasn’t quite ready for the full experience. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a mass choreographed dance sequence (“The Timewarp”) until that night. There was more direct audience response to the movie, and most of it unprintable in mainstream newspapers, than I expected. A few lines came back to me—“Meat loaf, again!”; “Hey, it’s Kool-Aid!”—but, mostly, I just listened and guffawed at the people around me. One guy, dressed to the hilt in black lingerie, a Margaret Thatcher perm, and pearls, shouted lines with verve throughout the movie.
Certainly, the audience was more entertaining than the movie itself. The thing about Rocky Horror is that it’s not actually always bad. Just most of the time. Tim Curry, as the gender-bending scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, throws himself so completely into the role—with his high kicks, facial mugging, jaunty hips, and the sheer theatricality of his voice—that he’s thrilling to watch. In fact, most of the actors are surprisingly strong, as if they had decided that, since they were killing our careers, they might as well go out with a bang. Susan Sarandon’s virginal ingénue is utterly convincing. She doesn’t give us a wink at all, to let us know that she knows how silly this is.
Still, the movie makes absolutely no sense. Its many musical sequences are shot as to be as incomprehensible as possible. While it makes witty allusions to several older movies, its parodies do not once, ever, improve on anything that they riff on. There are long, dull stretches that are only entertaining because of what the audience adds to it.
What’s fascinating is that, for all of its then-controversial content and bad songs and shameless mugging and shoddy plot mechanics, Rocky Horror was not a low-budget film. Its estimated budget in 1975 was $1.2 million—about $4.9 million in today’s dollars. That’s by no means a blockbuster effort for American movies, but it’s not loose change, either. Someone agreed to spend big money on this movie. Driving C. home from the movie, we try to imagine what it was like to pitch Rocky Horror to a producer.
Okay, so you’ve got this young couple, Brad and Janet. And they’re, you know, goody-two-shoes, no heavy petting even. So, they’ve just gotten engaged and they’re driving to a friend’s house, and their car breaks down. The only place nearby is this spooky old castle, deep in the woods, right? No, no, nooooo, this won’t be quite a horror movie. So, this hunchback answers the door, lets ‘em in, etc. And this house is decked out, you know? No, not with cobwebs. It’s bright pink and there’s gold filigree everywhere and marble statues, and there seems to be a party going on, with people in their disco finest. You know, it’s hip. And there’s dancing and drinking and carrying-on. Ri— Riiiiight, this one, yeah, it could be great for the youth market. Anyway, the guy who runs this house is this crazy mad scientist who’s created this Frankenstein for himself, only this Frankenstein looks like, well, you remember Charles Atlas, right? Studly, right? Like, um, well, yes, like those magazines you see in the backs of those stores. Well, I’ve never seen one, either, but we can imagine. Heh. So, the good doctor has made Frankenstein for himself, like the Bride of Frankenstein. Only not. Well, yes, he made the guy for himself. That’s correct. Well, because he’s sort of—how do I describe Dr. Frank N. Furter? Yes, that’s his name. Well, he’s brilliant, obviously, but he’s odd, he, um, he dresses funny and, well, he likes fresh meat. A lot. Oh, yes, to eat as well, I guess. Anyway, Brad and Janet decide to stay the night, but only after this motorcycle guy crashes through a wall and gets killed by Dr. Furter. We’re thinking this could be a cameo by a big rock star, fun for the kids, right? Well, it turns out that Dr. Furter and all his assistants and everything, well, they’re aliens. And they like show tunes. Anyway, Brad and Janet get split up in this big house, and find themselves alone with, um, other suitors. They get tempted by— well, they’ve never been exposed to— Well, it won’t be quite like Deep Throat, but it could attract that same type of audience, it could be hip like that, sure. Anyway, Janet and the Frankenstein have, um, relations, which makes the doctor jealous. Why? Well, ahem, so the doctor has relations with Brad— no, noooo, he’s not related to Brad. He has, um— You know, you’re right, a narrator is a good idea for the movie. Sure, I— I agree. He could pop in every now and then, and tells the audience what’s going on. Keep track of things. Sure, that would clarify everything. The, the what? Oh yes, the show tunes. Well, see, we’ve envisioned this as a musical. Yes, with choreography. [long pause] You think this could work? [long pause] Really?!
It’s easier to imagine how Susan Sarandon got involved. She was young, probably broke, and desperate for work. Besides, the stage production had been very successful, so how bad could it be? Still, I imagine she looked over the script for the first time, and thought something like this: “I’m firing my agent. I don’t need to eat this badly.”