“So come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab.”
It was 1975. Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa goes missing. South Vietnam falls. The Superdome opens in New Orleans. Elizabeth Seton becomes the first American saint. Patty Hearst ends her fugitive run. George Carlin hosts the first episode of Saturday Night Live. Phil Collins replaces Peter Gabriel as the lead in Genesis. And The Rocky Horror Picture Show opens to absolutely terrible box office numbers.
Under normal circumstances the Rocky Horror story should have ended there. Thirty-five years later, it should have been just one of thousands of films that came and went with hardly a whimper or notice. Today, that most assuredly would have been the case. But things were just a little bit different in 1975. When a film finished its first run, there were plenty of theaters that ran dollar matinees and midnight showings of these movies. There wasn’t a home-video industry at the time. The next step for these films, particularly the big losers, was a run in these “second run” venues where the studios provided them inexpensively in an attempt to recoup some of their money. It was no different for Rocky Horror. It appeared all over the nation at midnight screens. But something rather extraordinary happened at these screenings. People began to turn these screenings into events. They started to bring props and costumes. Eventually entire amateur troupes were performing shadowcasts of the film during the screenings. Theaters began to take advantage of the growing trend, and Rocky Horror events began to spread like wildfire. Before long the rituals became somewhat standardized, and an entirely new form of entertainment was born. Now this box office failure of a movie is the longest-running film in box office history, and not by a little bit. It’s been 35 years and the film is still playing at movie houses all over the world. Shadowcast groups have turned into generational organizations as the traditions have been handed down and passed along. It was 1975. A cultural phenomenon was born. So let’s do The Time Warp…
It all started as a stage production in London in the early 1970’s. Richard O’Brien was working in a local theater company when he began to write the songs that would collectively become Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was intended mostly as a fun exercise to fill some time in the theater. No one really expected the idea to last very long. It was all just for fun. The play began to catch on, attracting rather famous theater-goers and the eye of Hollywood. The inevitable film used many of the stage performers including O’Brien himself who played the character Riff Raff. The play’s original director became the director and screenwriter for the film. It was all kept pretty much in the family. The movie was made on a very small budget and released to less than enthusiastic crowds.
Likely the same things that eventually led to the film’s success are the very things that made it such a failure initially. The material was quite controversial. The combination of camp, science fiction, and, of course, transvestite aliens was a little too much for the ordinary theater crowd. It seems that the real connoisseurs came out at night … after midnight, to be exact.
The film follows the exploits of Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon). The newly engaged couple are on their way to see their old science professor, Dr. Scott (Adams) to share the news of their engagement. On the way they have a tire blowout on a dark, secluded road in the rain. They seek shelter at a nearby castle where they are greeted by the odd servants Riff Raff (O’Brien) and Magenta (Quinn). It appears the couple has arrived on an auspicious occasion. Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Curry) is about to unveil his latest creation. Rocky (Hinwood) is about to be born through Frank-N-Furter’s genius, and half of the brain of a motorcycle gang delivery boy named Eddie (Meatloaf). The young couple are witness to the strange celebration of the transsexuals from transcendental Transylvania. Just as the party is kicking into high gear, Dr. Scott arrives on the scene to attempt to stop Frank-N-Furter and his crew from their diabolical schemes. The result is a campy romp that makes Young Frankenstein look like Shakespeare in the Park.
I went to my first and only screening of Rocky Horror sometime in the summer of 1976. By then the participation element was in full swing, and the screenings had already captured the world’s attention. I have to admit I didn’t enjoy myself as much as the people around me. I was dragged there by my fellow band members who were quite alarmed that I had not yet been exposed to the hoopla of the event. They loaded the car with a few thousand pounds of rice, and off we went. Why didn’t I enjoy the show? It’s hard to say. I think I found the spectacle of the thing to be a bit intimidating. I was 15 and wasn’t used to my movies being so interactive. By then everyone was pretty much in the groove, and it was easy to feel like an outsider through out it all. I could hardly remember what I might have seen on the screen with all of the theatrics. I never went back. Thirty-five years later Fox has given me a chance to look at the movie, really for the first time. What I saw still didn’t impress me, for what it was on the screen. But there’s no denying that Rocky Horror captured the imaginations of moviegoers in a way that has not been reproduced since. Many have tried. There was even a horrible sequel called Shock Treatment. It ended in the failure that Rocky Horror was born out of.
The truth is, you can’t plan spontaneity. There have been books and college papers written about the movie and the movement it created. To this day, I’m not sure that anyone knows for certain what it is that fostered the kind of reaction the film still gets today. I still had one question that I thought I could answer with the release of Rocky Horror in high-definition Blu-ray for the first time. Could the film stand on its own as a home video release without the hoopla that surrounds the midnight screenings? The answer turned out to be not so simple after all. You see, Fox found a way to bring that element of the film into your living room, at least to some extent (more about that in the features section of the review). There is no denying that this is an important part of cinema history, preserved once and for all on Blu-ray. Love the film or hate it, you likely haven’t heard the last from Rocky Horror.
The music of Rocky Horror really captures the mood. From the opening lines of Science Fiction Double Feature we are told that O’Brien loves the kind of films we all grew up on. The movie pays many a loving homage to such films as King Kong and The Day The Earth Stands Still. The Time Warp is still very prevalent today. It was part of stager shows at both Busch Gardens and Universal’s Halloween events this year. It has been for as long as I’ve been going. It was Tim Curry’s first film. Meatloaf was not yet the noted musician he later became. I don’t think it is much of a coincidence that his own style of rock ‘n’ roll bears a strong resemblance to the style of Rocky Horror. The cast really got into the camp spirit of the film, and it shows. O’Brien, who created it all, often steals the show as the loyal Ygor character Riff Raff. Brian Bostwick and Susan Sarandon were both young actors who were at the very beginning of their careers. I wonder if Sarandon in particular would have embraced such a role today. I’m quite sure Bostwick would. These characters have all become iconic over the last 35 years. New generations of players continue to put their spin on them, but it’s hard to beat the cast that this film delivered.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of about 22-25 mbps. The movie has been given the full 4k restoration treatment, and it absolutely shows. Fortunately, the techs did not go crazy with the cleaning process, and the film’s original grain elements remain pretty much intact. Red is a vital color in this movie, from the opening lips singing Science Fiction Double Feature. The film is filled with other bright colors, but it is the red that this image continues to gravitate toward. The image contains detail that might have been lost on the film’s midnight fans. It’s hard to pay attention to the nuances of color and detail with all of that party atmosphere going on. The film itself had almost become background noise for what was happening in front of the screen. Still, there is plenty of detail to be discovered here. Perhaps that is one of the advantages of this high-definition image presentation. You might be getting a good look at the film itself for the first time ever. It won’t disappoint. Black levels are solid.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 brings out the musical numbers in ways that the best movie houses that 1975 had to offer never could. The last time I heard most of this stuff was on vinyl, so you can image what a dynamic upgrade this release sounds like to folks like me. It’s all quite clean and crystal clear. It’s almost as though the music had been reproduced under more modern conditions. The dialog doesn’t impress near as much. There is even some minor distortion here. You do have the option of listening to the original mono track, if you so desire. I’m not exactly sure why you would do that, however.
There is an Audio Commentary by Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn. They have a ton of fun looking back on both the film and stage production.
The disc is contained in a full color hard-back book.
There are five additional ways that you can experience the movie. This is Fox’s attempt to bring some of that interactive experience into your living rooms. These features can collectively be found under The Midnight Experience in the menu.
Trivia Track: This allows those pop-up trivia boxes.
Lines From The 1983 Album: This mode plays some of those yell-back lines from an album that captured some of the audience participation back in the 1980’s.
Prop Box: This option brings up a menu of props that you can throw at the screen, in virtual reality, of course.
Shadowcast Live Performance: This is likely the most interesting mode offered here. Fox gathered the best from the country’s Rocky Horror troupes and filmed them performing the entire movie. This appears as a picture-in-picture, but you can toggle it to full screen and watch only the new performance.
Rocky-oke: Sing-a-long mode
The Search For The 35th Anniversary Shadowcast: (58:14) This two-part feature covers the audition process for the Blu-ray Shadowcast option. You get to see a lot of dedicated fans trying out for the parts they’ve been playing at midnight screenings. Brian Bostwick helps out with the selection process and offers his thoughts on the characters and the hopefuls.
A Few From The Vault: These standard definition features are from the DVD release of the film.
2 Deleted Scenes, 11 Outtakes, Alternate Credit Ending, Misprint Ending, 1995 Shadowcast Video Shoot, Time Warp Music Video, Trailers and Stills.
You get both the British and American versions of the film.
Finally, you have the option of viewing the original black and white opening. The film was originally intended to be in black & white until we meet Frank-N-Furter for the first time. It was a Wizard Of Oz idea.
There will never be another movie like Rocky Horror. The conditions no longer exist to allow a film like this to come into existence. Space at the local multiplex is very competitive these days. Even big-budget blockbusters don’t last very long when those box office dollars begin to drop. You can blame George Lucas for a large part of that. He is the father of the current model that sees a film’s entire take go back to the studio. The theater only makes money on the concessions these days. Maybe you’ll understand why popcorn is 20 bucks a bucket now. Patience is no longer a virtue in the world of entertainment. But in 1975 there was a system in place that allowed one little movie to evolve in to something so much more. Now that film is forever preserved on Blu-ray. “I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”