WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: On the way to see the professor who brought them together, young sweethearts Brad and Janet suffer a blow-out, forcing them to seek help from the inhabitants of a mysterious castle. Once indoors, they are subjected to a night that sees the creation of a new life, and an awakening of their sexual selves from which they will never recover.
If you went looking for a definition of the word ‘cult,’ you would have to get in somewhere the idea that the cult object is both incredibly precious and utterly worthless at the same time. This is certainly true of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and in two ways. Sharman’s film of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical has famously become the standard of cult cinema, inspiring bizarre levels of devotion from its keenest fans, at the same time as its detractors write it off as cheap trash; but more than that, the film itself is a contradiction, proving itself a brilliantly original oddity one moment, and a stultifying bore the next. To describe the film as simply good or bad under such circumstances appears pointless, so cult will do very nicely.
Two of the things you really want to get right in a musical (and everything that is good about the film stems directly from the stage), namely the story and the songs, are well served here. The story, pitching newly-betrothed middle Americans Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, the latter labouring under flu during filming but still looking lovely) into the spooky B-movie world of Dr Frank N. Furter, is riotously camp, but with a spicy edge of sexual aggression thrown in. And the songs, whilst I don’t love the opener Science Fiction/Double Feature, are by and large surprisingly complex slices of pop-rock: Over at the Frankenstein Place, Sweet Transvestite, Rose Tint My World and Going Home are my favourites, though it would be remiss not to mention perennial party favourite The Time Warp.
These songs are nicely arranged and all the actors can sing, Bostwick and Sarandon harried around the house by domestics Riff Raff (O’Brien), Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and hanger-on Little Nell. But all these, as well as tragic biker Eddie (Meatloaf), are completely overshadowed by the appearance of original London cast member Tim Curry. His Frank N. Furter is frightening, sexy, posh, effete and bullying all at the same time; and of course he has a belting, rich voice which drips sensuality. Curry is so at home in the role he has struggled to shake it off, but he is undeniably the star of this show.
So far, so good. But even Curry’s presence cannot save the film when the music’s not playing, and the songs only mask the fact that the film looks embarrassingly cheap. From the bare sets to the budget props, from the pitiful number of extras – including the distracting presence of Christopher Biggins – invited to the convention to the unsteady camerawork, the film looks as though it was shot in a couple of days with all expenses spared.
None of which would matter so much if the film flowed nicely, but although the film has humour throughout (I love the line: ‘It’s not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache’), a number of scenes, for example the creation of Rocky, or the meal, are not sufficiently dynamic to hold the interest of a non-participating audience. The only positive thing you can really say about Sharman’s direction is that out of the visuals and the music, he chose to screw up the right one. And a quick word on Rocky himself: Peter Hinwood certainly looks the part, but he is not blessed with a great range of expressions, or, one assumes, his own voice.
Once the Floor Show begins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show keeps its pace up to the end (forgiving the dreadful laser effects) and if you have given yourself up to – rather than given up on – the movie by then you are very likely to come out singing; but in general, the celluloid version fails to replicate the thrills of the live show. There’s a lot to enjoy about this unique movie, not least the fact that there’s nothing quite like it, and it does contain some striking moments; but equally it contains some horrible dead spots. It’s great. It’s terrible. And, therefore, is a true cult classic.