ROCKY HORROR: The CITIZEN KANE of Cult

By Michael Varrati

With the imminent arrival of Barry Bostwick to Midnight Mass HQ, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time pondering the phenomenon that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Created by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman, the film with the longest run in theatrical history has blazed a bizarre, yet unparalleled trail through the history of cinema. Rocky Horror has throngs of fans who still crowd into movie theaters on a weekly basis, shouting and singing along in a fanatical fervor akin to religious devotion. For many creatures of the night, RHPS is more than a movie, it’s a way of life.

Of course, worshipping at the altar of a beloved film is not a foreign concept to me or my boss lady, Peaches Christ.

Ever since Peaches first asked me to write this column, I always envisioned that one day I’d do a piece on Rocky Horror.  However, in approaching the topic, I often found myself at a loss for words. As someone who usually has no shortage of opinion on all things cult cinema, it was particularly aggravating to suddenly come up short with regard to the granddaddy of them all.

However, with a little bit of soul searching, I realized this was exactly the issue: Rocky Horror is so significant, what could I possibly say about the film that hasn’t already been said?

Ultimately, that’s the epiphany. I don’t need to tell you that Rocky Horror is great, you already know. I also don’t need to discuss its amazing history, because if you’re a fan of camp, cult, or horror, you’re already aware. Much like The Beatles are to rock music, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is to cult cinema.

It’s a simple truth: Without Richard O’Brien, most of us wouldn’t be here.

Naturally, the “here” to which I refer is the delicious world of cult and camp, a bloodstained universe of subversive cinema that, for many, Rocky Horror served as the gateway. Indeed, the very concept of the participatory universe of Midnight Mass that Peaches’ has created has its roots in the Rocky Horror experience. The idea that people could come together at a movie theater and celebrate their love of a film in a communal way has inspired a bevy of late night experiences across the country, our very own San Francisco treat included.

Hell, that sense of community is why these sorts of films are called “cult.” Some movies are just more fun when you’re celebrating with others, and Rocky Horror was the movie that made that abundantly clear.

Admittedly, my first experience with Rocky Horror was on home video. As a wee lad, I spied those red luscious lips on the VHS case from across the video store, their vivid cherry color popping off the box and smacking me right in my baby blues. My parents, who generally allowed me to police my own viewing experiences, had no problem with letting me rent the flick. They were hip enough to know Rocky’s cultural significance, and I suppose they figured it was better I see it under their tutelage than in some rogue theater with hookers blowing transients in the back row.

From that initial viewing, I was obsessed.  Eventually acquiring my own copy, I watched the film on a near constant basis. Aware of the theatrical audience participation that occurred in places far distant from my hometown, I would invite friends over from school for viewings, assigning them each roles to act out as the film scrolled across the living room TV. It’s likely they weren’t as into it as I was, and admittedly, I was desperately attempting to capture some of that unknown magic of which I had only heard. I wanted the movie’s all-inclusive insanity to be mine. In the midst of suburbia, I attempted to live Frank-N-Furter’s credo of “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”

After many years of trying to recreate the magic at home (including a nigh fanatical hunt for the film’s follow-up, Shock Treatment, which I now consider to be one of my all-time faves), I did eventually get to see the film as it was intended: With an audience.

My first experience with Rocky Horror live far surpassed anything I could have ever hoped. Rather than attend a theatrical screening, as so many do, I traveled to NYC and saw the Broadway revival.

“This ain’t the fuckin’ Sound of Music!” proclaimed talk show legend Dick Cavett, who was filling the role of the show’s narrating no-neck, The Criminologist.

As future Tony-winner Alice Ripley humped a bannister in front of me and Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer wailed “The Time Warp,” I knew I had arrived. The audience was immersed; they were singing and yelling along. What’s more, this didn’t seem like just another job for the performers. They got it, they understood that this wasn’t a show, it was a faith.  They were preachers of O’Brien’s message, and we were their willing flock.

With rice and innuendo flying, I had realized a delicious dream of cult decadence, and in a way, it’s been something I’ve been chasing ever since.

All the performances I’ve done, B-movies I’ve been in, articles I’ve written, and beyond…

…they’ve all been in the shadow of Rocky.

Granted, there have been other influences along the way. I’ve heavily cited Rhonda Shear and USA Up All Night as crucial to my background, and the work of David Lynch has been hugely influential over my screenwriting. However, even Rhonda and David share something that, for me, stems from Rocky Horror: That sense of cult belonging.

The idea that we can openly celebrate and adore that sense of “the other” is everything for which Rocky Horror stands. It’s a cult community that encourages you to not only come as you are, but do so proudly.

Now, I’m not obtuse enough to believe that Rocky Horror was the sole gateway for this whole horror fandom, but I can’t deny the impact. Whether you got here via John Waters, John Carpenter, or late night cable, you must know that open celebration is something that Richard O’Brien showed us how to do first and most strongly.

If you’ve ever taken a moment to dress as your favorite film character on a day that wasn’t Halloween, or perhaps proudly paraded down the street to your own beat, I guarantee there’s a little bit of Rocky in the history of your step.

Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic, but I truly believe that, for our community, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of our greatest treasures. For all the kids like Peaches…hell, like me…who grew up and wanted more than what suburbia had to offer, who knew there had to be something beyond Pretty Woman at the multiplex, Rocky was the beacon in the night. It introduced a great many of us to our friends, and in fact, to a whole new world.

I live in this world now. My days are filled with fake blood, monsters, and movie idols of yesteryear. I get to create frights and fun for a living, and when I pass “normies” on the street, I can’t help but wonder how boring their lives must be.

We all start as Brad and Janet, but we don’t have to stay that way. If we’re lucky, we find our own castle in the rain, and we dare to be fabulous in the face of everything.

That’s really what Rocky Horror is about to me.

It’s about being who we want to be, and being it proudly.

So, that’s why, my dear children of the popcorn, this movie is so important.

It’s our foundation.

It’s our ethos.

…and when the day comes that the world ends, should I be alive to see it, I hope that there’s some theater, somewhere, screening Rocky Horror.

Because, in those final moments of humanity, as the world burns outside, doesn’t it make sense…

…to do the Time Warp again?

Until next time.

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