There’s a light in the darkness of everybody’s life. And during the pandemic, one such beacon for me has been the impending return of musical theatre. So when things finally did open up again, I was delighted to see an audio described performance had become available for a show that I’ve been eager to see for ages. And so last weekend I finally saw The Rocky Horror Show live in person. Suffice to say, it was well worth the wait!
I’ll tell you all about that on Halloween itself. But to build up to that, and to turn this into a special Halloween trilogy, I thought I would take a deep dive into my love of Rocky Horror first, by talking about the film, stage productions and other remakes in this post, and then tomorrow I’ll share my Rocky Horror music collection. I was going through all of that stuff in preparation for seeing the live show anyway – not that I needed any excuse to enjoy it all yet again in the first place – so I figured I may as well write about it too. So allow me to take you on a strange journey, and I hope you enjoy!
I’m not sure I need to explain what Rocky Horror is. If you really don’t know anything about it, then you’re either a sweet and innocent child with so much to look forward to in life or, if you’re an adult, I’m curious as to how you’re reading this in that remote cave you’re clearly residing in. I’m not saying everyone has to like it, it’s certainly not for everyone – but to be completely unaware of its basic premise or themes or its most famous song at the very least would be quite some feat, such is the impact it’s had over the years.
Still, everyone has to start somewhere. I can’t remember exactly when I had my first initiation into the Rocky Horror universe, but it was undoubtedly at school during my teenage years. And I can certainly have a pretty good guess at which member of staff in our boarding house introduced my friends and I to the film. I know the stage musical actually came first, and the film was an adaptation of it, but for many people the movie is their grand entrance to the phenomenon, as it was for me.
There’s no way of summarising the story without it sounding totally bizarre – which is of course the whole point. It’s the sheer unabashed absurdity of it all that makes it so much fun. But in essence, it’s a comedy sci-fi horror musical extravaganza written by Richard O’Brien, that makes affectionate references to horror films and B-movies along the way, features lots of wonderful songs, and never takes itself remotely seriously.
Narrated by a criminologist (played by Charles Gray in the film) the story follows engaged lovers Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick & Susan Sarandon in the movie), who break down in their car on a stormy night, and knock on the door of a nearby castle to seek assistance. What they encounter, however, is an excitable and erotically-charged cult of people from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, led by mad scientist and fiercely proud transvestite Dr. Frank N. Furter (played magnificently in the movie by Tim Curry).
Frank has discovered the secret to life and created a fit, muscly creature called Rocky (played by handsome model Peter Hinwood in the film, although his singing voice is dubbed by Trevor White), and he believes he can turn him into the ideal man in just a week. Brad and Janet find themselves not only trapped in this crazy world, but also awakened and seduced by its carnal ways, potentially at the cost of their own relationship.
However, troubled youth and unfortunate delivery boy Eddie (a starring role for Meat Loaf in the film) escapes from his prison in the deep freeze and is killed by Frank – only for Brad & Janet’s former science teacher and Eddie’s uncle, Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams in the movie), to turn up in his wheelchair looking for him. Eddie’s former girlfriend Columbia (played by Nell Campbell AKA Little Nell in the film) also gets upset and angry about how Eddie was treated.
In retaliation, and in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation, Frank forces Brad, Janet, Columbia, Rocky and Dr. Scott to perform in an erotic cabaret Floor Show with him. But siblings Riff Raff and Magenta (played by Richard O’Brien & Patricia Quinn in the film), who had been two of Frank’s most loyal servants, interrupt the performance and take control, revealing that they will all be returning to their home planet without him. Despite his pleas for leniency, Frank is killed, along with Rocky and Columbia. Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are then ordered to evacuate, and are left crawling on the ground in dazed bewilderment as the castle and its surviving inhabitants are transported home.
And that is of course only scratching the surface (with very colourful fingernails), as there’s lots of other twists and turns and fun to be had along the way. But ultimately, the film and the stage show are full of wonderful songs, delightful choreography, great humour, sexy costumes, a blurring of gender boundaries, playful eroticism, and a few moving moments. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it contains something for everyone nonetheless.
Such is its enduring popularity that the film is still shown in some cinemas to this day, making it the longest running theatrical release in movie history since it began in 1975, and the stage show has been touring continuously since 1973. It’s also long been a tradition that film screenings and stage performances involve some degree of dressing up and audience participation from a massive and persistently-growing army of diehard fans. Even the Covid pandemic couldn’t hold it down. So there can be no doubt that it will live on for a very long time, as it rightly should.
[Update: A day after this post was published, the Talk Description To Me podcast for visually impaired people shared an episode all about The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where they spend half an hour going into great descriptive detail about the film and the phenomenon of Rocky Horror in general. Host JJ leads the way here, as he’s a big fan of Rocky Horror, having been in a shadowcast for the movie and a stage adaptation in high school, and his knowledge and enthusiasm comes across really well. So di heck that out, along with their other episodes.]
I currently have the 35th Anniversary edition of the film on Blu-ray, which has the audio and video very nicely remastered, as best they can given its age. There were later releases for the 40th and 45th anniversaries, including a limited edition steelbook last year, but they were basically copies of the 35th edition in new packaging. They’re bound to do another release for the 50th anniversary in 2025 though, so it’ll be interesting to see if they do anything special for that major milestone.
They certainly went to town with this release anyway, cramming it full of features to keep fans busy for a while. For a start, there are multiple ways to watch the movie:
- UK or US Version – This is an easy choice. Go for the UK version, as it’s the complete film. The American version cuts out Brad and Janet’s verses in the song Super Heroes at the end, as they were deemed too depressing, even though they’re important to the story’s conclusion. The result is an awkward and nonsensical jump to the narrator’s closing verse instead.
- Alternate Black & White Opening – As a homage to The Wizard Of Oz, this version of the film is in black and white until Brad & Janet burst through the double doors to see the first chorus of the Time Warp, from which point it’s in colour all the way. Although, as explained in other features on the disc, the actual idea was to keep it in black and white until Sweet Transvestite, revealing Frank’s lips in red first before turning everything else into colour. But in any case, I prefer the whole film in colour. Certainly those big lips during the opening credits (Patricia Quinn miming to Richard O’Brien’s vocals) have much less impact when they’re grey instead of red!
- Audio Commentary by Richard O’Brien & Patricia Quinn – This is a very enjoyable and lively chat between the two of them as they happily reminisce about making the film and share interesting anecdotes. It’s great to get insights from Richard in particular, about the casting, writing the songs, some of his favourite moments in the movie, and the elements he’d like to have changed if he’d had the opportunity.
And then there’s The Midnight Experience, which gives you a sense of what it’s like to attend a special late night cinema screening. You can activate as many of the 4 options at once as you like, as they all appear in different corners of the screen:
- Trivia Track (Top-left) – This displays a lot of interesting facts about the film and the cast.
- Vintage Callback Track (Top-right) – Subtitles for audience participation lines, which are often quite funny, taken from the 1983 Audience Par-Tic-I-Pation album.
- Prop Box (Bottom-left) – This displays a box of props (often referred to by fans as the Survival Kit), which you can scroll through and press Enter to virtually throw at the screen. Or if you leave it alone, the most relevant props will be automatically selected for you at the most appropriate moments. I haven’t watched the whole film with this on, but it’s a fun little gimmick to glance at, and much safer than squirting real water at the TV!
- The Late Night, Double Feature, Picture-in-Picture Show (Bottom-right) – This shows an entertaining and impressive performance by a shadowcast group, who are all dressed up and act along with the film, miming the lines. This has long been a tradition at many screenings, particularly in America. You can watch them in full-screen by pressing the Green button on your remote, and you can see a big documentary about the auditions for this shadowcast among the other extra features.
Away from the movie, the other extras include:
- Rocky-oke: Sing It! – Gives you access to all the songs from the film, with sing-along lyrics in a blood-dripping font on the screen. And you can choose whether or not to hear the lead vocals. Turning them off gives you a chance to hear the instrumentation more closely, which is pretty cool in itself, although you sometimes still get backing vocals, sound effects, etc as well. You would need to find a copy of the Sing It! album for the full instrumentals (which I already own). I notice you can also download an album of the official instrumentals from Bandcamp, but the tracks are in completely the wrong order there.
- The Search for the 35th Anniversary Shadowcast – Split into 2 half-hour episodes, this is a fun look at the US & UK auditions for the Blu-ray shadowcast, who perform along with the film as part of the Midnight Experience noted above. It’s lovely to see how much enthusiasm they have for Rocky Horror, and incredible to see their attention to detail when it comes to the costumes, body language, etc, while still bringing their own original flair and creativity to the parts. Barry Bostwick (Brad from the movie) features heavily in the second episode too, as he
- Rocky Horror Double Feature Video Show – A great documentary made for the 20th anniversary of the film, featuring many of the people involved, that looks at how Rocky Horror began as a stage show, how the movie was made and then flopped at the cinema, and how it overcame such a setback to become a huge cult phenomenon.
- Deleted Musical Scenes – Once in A While (a nice song that was cut from all versions of the film) & Super Heroes (that was cut out of the US version).
- Outtakes – Alternative takes from a few different scenes. For the Time Warp, you get to see a couple of uncut shots of the Transylvanians dancing while hearing the vocals in isolation. Then there’s a variety of takes and camera angles for Brad & Janet’s undressing, including a moment where Magenta struggles to remove Brad’s trousers. And finally there are alternative takes of Janet’s seduction and the Floor Show preparations.
- Alternate Credit Ending – The credits with The Time Warp playing, instead of the Science Fiction, Double Feature reprise and the instrumental Time Warp edit that actually close the film.
- Misprint Ending – An erroneous edit of Super Heroes that results in Brad and Janet singing their verses on screen (as in the UK version of the film), but what you hear is the audio jumping ahead to the Narrator’s final spoken verse (as in the US version).
- Beacon Theater, New York City – Fun clips from a 10th anniversary screening of the film.
- Time Warp Music Video – A video of fans joining in with the song at a screening, taken from the 15th anniversary VHS.
- Mick Rock Interview & Gallery – A short chat with the photographer who had exclusive access while the film was being made, and a decent selection of his brilliant images from the set.
- Pressbook Gallery – Articles about the film that appeared in the media, and you can actually click on the different sections to read them in full.
- Poster Gallery – A very brief selection of film posters.
- Trailers – Two trailers for the film.
The earlier 25th anniversary DVD, which I used to own, also contained some other extras that haven’t been carried over to later editions. So in hindsight I could have kept that edition as well, but it doesn’t matter, there’s more than enough stuff on the current Blu-ray to keep me happy. For completeness though, here’s what’s missing:
- The Theatrical Experience -Provided cutaways to an actual screening as you watched the film, complete with full audience participation.
- VH1 – Behind The Music & Where Are They Now? – Interviews & outtakes from these programmes, featuring Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn & Meat Loaf. Of all the extras to lose, this is easily the most significant and interesting, which is a shame.
- VH1 – Pop-Up Video: Hot Patootie – Plays the music video with various facts appearing on screen.
- Sing-A-Longs – Karaoke versions of Sweet Transvestite & Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me. This has now been superseded by the more comprehensive Rocky-oke feature with all the songs.
- Photo Gallery – This has been replaced by the Mick Rock gallery, which has a better selection of images.
- DVD-ROM Content – Including a trivia game and screen saver. These would be far too out of date for modern computers, so their absence makes sense.
Remakes & Tributes
There have been a few other noteworthy productions of Rocky Horror, featuring cast members from the original stage production and the movie, and which I’ve enjoyed watching online.
This was a fun tribute concert recorded in 2006 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where the stage show premiered in 1973. It was written by Richard O’Brien and performed in aid of Amnesty International. It has a great cast including Patricia Quinn & Little Nell from the film, plus Adrian Edmondson, Toyah Wilcox, Anthony Head & Michael Ball among other singers. There’s also narration linking the songs from various stars including Tony Slattery, Steve Pemberton, Christopher Biggins & Jamie Theakston. It was released on DVD, but is currently unavailable in the UK, so at least we can see it on Youtube at the moment.
This was an amazing Gala performance from 2015, shown live in over 600 UK & European cinemas, before being edited down for later broadcast on TV around the world, including Sky Arts in the UK and BBC America in the US. Like the tribute show above, this was also performed in aid of Amnesty International, during a 2-week run of the show at London’s Playhouse Theatre. Here Frank N. Furter is played wonderfully by American actor David Bedella, and there are big British stars who appear as guest Narrators, including Richard O’Brien, Stephen Fry, Emma Bunton, Anthony Head, Adrian Edmondson (who also interviewed Richard O’Brien for the occasion). Mel Giedroyc (who also hosted the live broadcast and interviewed some of the people present).
There was a campaign to get it released on DVD, supported by O’Brien himself, and I would love to see it released too. It would surely help to raise a lot of money for Amnesty International. But nothing has come of it yet, sadly. So I’m delighted it can still be watched on Youtube. The live show I saw last weekend also retains many elements from that 40th anniversary tour in 2015-16, including the set and costume design, and a lot of the script, but with some changes of course as the show continues to evolve.
This virtual re-enactment of the film was performed for Halloween in 2020, in aid of the Wisconsin Democrats election campaign to oust Donald Trump. It featured a cast of actors reading from the script together on a video call, interspersed with specially recorded music videos of other stars performing the songs.
At the heart of it all was Tim Curry, playing Frank N. Furter once more. He is in somewhat frail health since he had a major stroke in 2012, and had to be regularly assisted with his lines by fellow movie cast mate Little Nell, who ad-libbed with Tim nicely to keep things flowing. But it was wonderful that he took part and did as much as he was able, and they had also pre-recorded a music video of him singing Planet Schmanet, Janet. So he made a lovely contribution, and I’m glad that he’s kept working as much as he can in general. He was even on Fanmio for a while, doing live video calls with fans who had paid a lot of money for such a special opportunity.
Barry Bostwick, meanwhile, reprised his role as Brad from the film for a few of the song performances, often adding very amusing touches, so it was great to have him on board too. And other actors that took part included Seth Green, Rosario Dawson, Jason Alexander, Jenna Ushkowitz, Colleen Ballinger, Lance Bass & Connie Britton, to name a few. Some people were naturally better than others, but on the whole it was fun, and a lovely thing for them to do for the fans during the pandemic. And if it got people voting as well, then all the better.
There are also panels & interviews from various conventions that you can find online, featuring stars from the film, including several on the GalaxyCon channel for starters. So it’s worth digging around if you like that kind of thing too.
Over in the States, a couple of adaptations have been shown on Fox, that were clearly designed to appeal to a younger demographic. But they’ve both had a lot of poor reviews, with people feeling that they watered down or censored aspects of the production to try and avoid causing offence, and they just didn’t have the same flair, energy and humour as the original stage show or movie.
The Rocky Horror Glee Show was an episode of Glee from 2010 that showed the characters putting on Rocky Horror as a musical at their school, with Barry Bostwick and Meat Loaf from the original film making cameo appearances. The episode was criticised by Richard O’Brien and members of the LGBT community, who noted Glee’s awkward avoidance of the word transsexual, even replacing it with the more derogatory term tranny at one point, along with other changes to song lyrics and costumes.
I haven’t seen the episode myself, not being a fan of the show anyway, but I have seen a couple of the songs and they’re not great.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, meanwhile, was a 2016 TV remake of the whole film, and was co-produced by Lou Adler, who had produced the original movie. Tim Curry appears again as well, but this time playing the narrating Criminologist instead of Frank N. Furter, because a seated speaking role was much easier given his age and poor health. Frank was instead played here by Laverne Cox.
I did actually rent this on Amazon Video, fully aware that it had quite negative feedback, but curious to see what it was like and willing to give it a fair shot. However, I had to give up after less than half an hour, as the acting’s awful and the new song arrangements just don’t feel right. The only redeeming thing about it, apart from seeing Tim Curry on screen again, is Adam Lambert performing Hot Patootie as Eddie, which I jumped ahead to watch as I like him, and even that’s not his best work.
Cast members from the film and stage productions have also appeared in conventions, TV interviews and elsewhere over the years. And there have been countless productions of the show by amateur and professional theatre groups, some of which are quite entertaining (e.g. Geekenders Part 1 & Part 2 is one I recommend). So I’m not going to list all of that stuff, as there’s far too much, but you can have a dig around yourself on Youtube if you want to see what’s there.
Over the years Richard O’Brien has made several attempts to write sequels or follow-ups to Rocky Horror, but most of them have never come to fruition:
- Rocky Horror Shows His Heels – While the script for this gained initial approval from Fox, the director of the first movie (Jim Sharman) didn’t want to do another similar film, and actor Tim Curry wasn’t willing to reprise his role as Frank N. Furter. So the project was shelved, as was an attempt to salvage the songs for a different project called The Brad and Janet Show. But some of the song ideas did eventually find a home in a follow-up movie that did get made (mentioned below).
- Revenge Of The Old Queen – Again the script was sent to Fox, but the project was shelved after studio head Joe Roth left the company. A draft script and a cool demo song called The Moon-Drenched Shores of Transylvania have been leaked online. Several other songs were also written before the project was dropped.
- Rocky Horror: The Second Coming – This was going to be a stage production with the option to make a film, and included elements from both of the previously attempted sequels, along with new songs. A draft script was apparently read by Terry Jones from Monty Python.
However, Richard O’Brien did write and star in Shock Treatment, a comedy musical film that was released in 1981. It’s not a direct sequel to Rocky Horror and isn’t considered canon – its tagline stated that “It’s not a sequel… it’s not a prequel… it’s an equal!” – but it does feature Brad & Janet Majors (played this time by Jessica Harper & Cliff De Young), along with their married friends Betty & Ralph Hapschatt (played by Ruby Wax & Jeremy Newson). Plus there are some actors from the Rocky Horror film playing different roles.
The film is also set in Denton, where Brad and Janet live. However, the town is contained in a huge TV studio, so all the stars, crew and audience members live there, and shows are made for the Denton TV Network. One such programme is Marriage Maze, hosted by Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries), on to which Brad and Janet are chosen as contestants. As a result, Brad ends up trapped in a mental institution that is part of a weird soap opera, while Janet is turned into a singing superstar. It’s all part of an elaborate plan by fast food magnate Farley Flavours (Cliff De Young again) to take Janet away from Brad, as Farley is Brad’s jealous long-lost twin brother. But Farley is found out, and eventually Brad and Janet escape.
The TV studio idea came about after production was severely disrupted by a Screen Actors Guild strike, which meant they had to build all the sets on a sound stage, and rework the script to compensate for it. And as mentioned above, some of the musical numbers in the film are adaptations of songs from the abandoned project Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, and there is a Shock Treatment soundtrack album.
Also, amongst the other stars in the film, it’s worth noting that the late great Rik Mayall briefly appears as”Rest Home” Ricky, one of his lesser-known movie roles. It’s nice for him to be involved when you consider that Adrian Edmondson, his comedy partner, has played Brad in some of the live stage productions of Rocky Horror. So the pair of them both have connections to this crazy world.
Shock Treatment was a critical and commercial failure though. It has garnered a small cult following among some Rocky Horror fans since then, and was adapted into a stage musical in 2015. But it’s never been anywhere near as successful or popular as Rocky Horror – and let’s face it, they were always big heels to fill!
I tried watching it again recently whilst I was looking through the other Rocky Horror stuff, having first watched it some years ago, and I just can’t get into it. I’m not a fan of the new portrayals of Brad and Janet, plus the other characters don’t appeal to me either, and it’s just too weird and complicated on the whole. Some of the songs are ok, but they’re often just strange and they don’t stick in my head in the same way as those from Rocky Horror. So this follow-up movie just doesn’t hold my interest.
Still, for those who are fans, it has been released on DVD & Blu-ray, and with a lot of extra features too, including an old audio introduction by Richard O’Brien, 2 audio commentaries (one with actresses Patricia Quinn & Little Nell, the other with fan club presidents Mad Man Mike Ellenbogen & Bill Brennan), an isolated music and effects audio track, behind-the-scenes and retrospective featurettes, an interview with Patricia Quinn by film critic Mark Kermode, trailers and other promotional material.
And that’s it for the first part of this epic trilogy for Halloween, I hope you enjoyed looking through that. It’s certainly been fun for me to revisit the different adaptations of Rocky Horror. I could ever tire of seeing the film or some of the live shows, no matter how many times I watch them, they’re always a joy. And in my next post tomorrow I’ll be sharing the music I have in my collection, so I’ll see you then!