Every filmmaker hopes their piece of work will go on to become a classic. A film which people watch and discuss for decades to come. Majority of the time, this obviously doesn’t occur. Many films fade from consciousness the minute the credits roll, particularly when they fail at the box office. But every so often, a flop experiences a rebirth as a cult classic, taking on a whole new life of its own. Such is the case with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the longest-running theatrical release in cinema history.
After a successful run as a stage musical in London, Los Angeles, and New York City in 1973/74, production began on the film adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show on 21 October 1974. Renamed to give it a more cinematic title, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed in the UK at Bray Studios and on location at Oakley Court, a Victorian Gothic country estate, once used by Hammer Film Productions. After an arduous two-month shoot during which star Susan Sarandon fell ill with pneumonia from the freezing on-location shoot, the film was ready for its premiere.
Originally released on 14 August 1975 at the Rialto Theatre in London, and 26 September 1975 at the UA Westwood in Los Angeles, the film did decent box office at these two locations, but failed to capture an audience elsewhere. Its planned premiere in New York City on Halloween was cancelled, as was the plan to open the film in a further eight locations. 20th Century Fox officially shelved the film, dismissing it as a failure.
After Fox executive Tim Deegan noted the surprise success of midnight screenings of campy classics Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness, he convinced the studio to consider releasing The Rocky Horror Picture Show in similar fashion. Beginning with midnight sessions in New York City on 1 April 1976, the film grew a huge cult following after midnight runs at the Waverly Theater were overrun with fans in costumes who became infatuated with the film.
From here, midnight screenings grew across the country and the globe. Particularly “fan participation” events where attendees were encouraged to dress up as their favourite character, recite lines from the film, sing-along with the songs, and even use props during certain scenes. The film became a cultural phenomenon, that continues 43 years later. It has never been pulled from its original release, making it the longest-running release of all time.
But what is it about this particular film that has led to its incredible and unprecedented run of success? In a technical sense, the film is far from what we usually associate with something considered a “classic.” Its screenplay is campy and silly. Its narrative is rather absurd. Its production values are purposely cheap and gaudy. It gives its audience a damn good time, but so do most movie musicals. But the film itself is only part of the reason The Rocky Horror Picture Show has endured.
The film appealed (and still appeals) to those who don’t fit the norm. Those who feel disengaged from society. The “weirdos” who don’t fit in. The Rocky Horror Picture Show celebrated the freakier side of life. It threw conservative ideals out the window. It dared to be different. The film’s characters didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of them or their lifestyle. Life was one big party to be enjoyed. It’s no wonder the film connected with those who wished their real lives could be the same.
By giving birth to communal events surrounding the midnight and fan screenings, The Rocky Horror Picture Show created a real community for those disenfranchised with the world. It provided a chance to connect with people of similar beliefs and lifestyles. It gave people a place they could escape to each week, leaving the drudgery of the world behind for 100 minutes. Screenings were an inclusive and uninhibited wonderland for anyone who wanted to venture down the rabbit hole.
If you don’t believe me, attend the next fan screening you see pop up in your area. You’ll never find a more hospitable experience in a cinema. They’ll welcome you with open arms. They’ll teach you all the cues to the interactive elements. You’ll find yourself being entirely taken over by the riotous fun to be had. And who doesn’t want to see the sight of your local librarian letting loose and tap dancing down the aisles in perfect unison with Columbia?
While its shock value may have diminished as the world has become more accepting of “alternative lifestyles”. And its songs have become so mainstream, you’re likely to hear “Time Warp” at your grandmother’s 70th birthday party, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was decidedly confronting in 1975. That could also explain why it was initially shelved. A pansexual transsexual taking advantage of two wholesome youngsters and taking them on a “strange journey” was far from the typical cinematic fare. But therein lies its power.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show challenged movie musicals. It challenged movies, in general. It defied the concept of acceptable cinema. It celebrated corruption and debauchery like few films before it. It didn’t hurt that it also featured a sensational soundtrack and a now-iconic performance from Tim Curry, as one of the most devious and unscrupulous characters you can’t help but adore. In the process, it created a deeply devoted and slightly obsessive fan community, which can genuinely rival any ever seen.
There has never been a cult classic quite like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there likely never will be one. It revels in its ridiculousness and invites you to do the same. 43 years later, and it’s no surprise there’s still a light over at the Frankenstein place.