The Rocky Horror Picture Show makes the leap from midnight movies to television screens tonight with Fox's made-for-TV adaptation of the stage show and 1975 film, representing a final leap for the production from cult success to mainstream hit.
One of the unique aspects of "Rocky Horror's" cult status is the extreme success the film has found outside of cult audiences. According to Box Office Mojo, adjusting for today's ticket prices, "Rocky Horror" is the 74th highest grossing film of all time, coming in right under "Lawrence of Arabia" and above "Rocky," "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
Because the film has traveled outside of the cult fanbase and into popular culture at large, many people find the bizarre plotting of "Rocky Horror" baffling, as the film plays with ideas and plots from cult horror and science fiction movies that don't have the same profile that "Rocky Horror" has garnered. Now, in advance of the TV production, and the Carroll Arts Center's annual screening of the classic film on Oct. 29, the Times has gathered up some of the major references, thematic connections and similarities of "Rocky Horror" and the films it's parodying.
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show," a guide to B-movies
The film opens with the song "Science Fiction Double Feature," as a giant pair of lips sing about the direct influences of the film. Throughout the song, classic monster movies, less-than-classic low-budget sci-fi pictures and old serials are all name checked as a way to prepare the audience for the film that is about to follow.
The basic structure of "Rocky Horror" mirrors the 1932 film "The Old Dark House" — James Whale and Boris Karloff's immediate follow-up to "Frankenstein." The film features a trio of normal citizens who pull into a creepy mansion to avoid an ever-worsening thunderstorm, only to confront the slew of weird and unusual characters who live there.
The connection between "The Old Dark House" and "Rocky Horror" is cemented in the use of the Oakley Court Manor as the setting for Frank N. Furter's home. Oakley Court, famous for its appearances in films from British horror studios Hammer and Amicus, was used in the 1963 remake of "The Old Dark House." In creating his parody of British horror, director Jim Sharman set his film in one of their most famous landmarks.
The film also shares DNA with the classic horror film "The Island of Lost Souls," the 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau." In that film, a lost sailor washes up onto an abandoned island where a friendly, but cruel and demented doctor is creating life with implied sexual relationships between creator and creation, i.e. Dr. Frank N. Furter and Rocky in "Rocky Horror" and Dr. Moreau and the Panther Woman in "Island of Lost Souls."
References extend beyond plot similarities to other films. The background of "Rocky Horror" is peppered with in-jokes and visual nods to other films that reflect the themes of the work.
During one of the scenes of the Criminologist-as-narrator, a copy of the comic book "Weird Fantasy" is pictured as evidence. "Weird Fantasy" was published in the 1950s by comic book publisher EC Comics, best known for their "Tales from the Crypt" series which spawned its own television series and several feature films in the '90s. EC comics of the era were known for their repetitive and formulaic plot structure — with imaginative ideas placed on that framework — where an act of selfishness or evil is repaid in a horrific or ironic twist. "Rocky Horror" follows this structure precisely, but repaints Dr. Frank N. Furter's downfall as tragic rather than justified comeuppance.
During Dr. Scott's journey through the mansion, a poster for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the sexually charged film written by Roger Ebert and directed by exploitation-master Russ Meyer, is prominently displayed. The film follows three women's descent into a world of debauchery, much as the chaste Brad and Janet are inducted into the world of Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Sexual mores in horror history
"Rocky Horror's" focus on sex, particularly sexual activities outside of the pop-cultural mainstream at the time, may seem strange, but is part of a long history of horror films' embrace.
James Whale, who made "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man," was an out gay director working in Hollywood from 1930 to 1949. The relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius is heavily coded as romantic as the two work to create human life together.
In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hammer horror films pushed the limits of sex and violence, as Dracula now bit down on necks that bled and women in plunging necklines. Contemporary to "Rocky Horror" was Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy, "The Vampire Lovers," "Lust for a Vampire," and "Twins of Evil," featuring explicit lesbian themes as vibrant communities of vampire women rid the world of stuffy, controlling men.
Throughout the film are frequent references to both the Universal Frankenstein series from the '30s and '40s and the Hammer Frankenstein series which ran in the '50s and '60s. They range from the obvious — the song "Over at the Frankenstein Place," Magenta's "Bride of Frankenstein" hairdo in the final moments of the film —to the more subtle and obscure — Riff Raff attacking Rocky with the candlestick mirrors Fritz attacking the Monster in "Frankenstein," and the creation of Rocky features identical machinery and costuming as the creation of the monster in Hammer's "Curse of Frankenstein."
Character tropes and classic archetypes
Many of the characters in the film reflect certain archetypes that found themselves appearing again and again in B-movie pictures, from the chaste and dull leads of Brad and Janet to "The Wild Angels"-esque Eddie, played by musician Meatloaf in the film.
While parodying a specific biker-movie cliche, Eddie also has his roots in the Eric Von Zipper role played by Harvey Lembeck in the '60s series of beach party movies. Von Zipper is an ineffectual bully who runs his own biker gang, the Rat Pack. The final beach party movie produced by American International Pictures, the originator of the genre, "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini," features a blend of the beach party and "The Old Dark House" genres as a bunch of dancing teens are kept in a decrepit mansion full of weird characters and supernatural experiences.
Rocky himself fulfills the bodybuilder type foreshadowed by Frank N. Furter in his song "Sweet Transvestite." The doctor sings that Brad and Janet might prefer to "take in an old Steve Reeves movie." Steve Reeves was a bodybuilder-turned-actor who made a number of Hercules and sword-and-sandel cheapie epics.
The somewhat nonsensical third-act twist that reveals that Brad and Janet's high school science teacher is a secret German and UFO expert for the government is one that comes from a number of post-WWII cheapie pictures, where characters are revealed to have been secret Nazis. One of the most famous of these reveals comes from an A-picture, "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" where the titular doctor — in a wheelchair, much like Dr. Scott — is revealed to have joined the U.S. government during Operation Paperclip. This trope continued to the modern day with films like "The Rocketeer" and "The Frighteners" returning to the secret-Nazi twist.
Science Fiction Double Feature
This reveal, and the sonic transducer scene signal the film's shift from horror references to straight science fiction. The movie switches gears entirely, changing the plot and genre elements making it essentially feel like a "Science-Fiction Double Feature" as the opening song explains.
The final scene of the film takes place in front of a giant replica of the RKO Pictures logo, a now-defunct movie studio that was one of the five majors during the Hollywood Golden Age. RKO, best known for the classic films "Citizen Kane" and "King Kong" spent much of its existence cranking out B-pictures to fill double features and drive-in screens, the very films that inspired "Rocky Horror's" existence.
Once Magenta and Riff Raff come out dressed similarly to Flash Gordon extras they begin blasting away at Rocky who carries Dr. Frank-N-Furter up the RKO tower identically to King Kong — again an RKO picture — carrying Fay Wray, who is name-checked in the song "Don't Dream It" just minutes prior.
As the film ends, the Criminologist narrates the final moments of the story. Having a narrator, particularly one involved in law enforcement, was a common trope in low-budget films, to be used as a way to smooth over scenes the production was unable or unwilling to film and explain and confusing plot points in post.
Classic horror tales like "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and even the EC horror comics bookended their stories with a narrator or implication that the movie the audience just watched was merely a story being told. As the Criminologist closes his book, the story and the film ends; however, the story of the film continues on to today as "Rocky Horror" became as large a cultural reference point as the movies it was inspired by.