Let’s do the time warp again, and again, and again.
Everyone remembers the first time they watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For me, I remember sitting on the couch with my dad, expecting to watch a great piece of cinema that everyone would talk about online. At some point, I looked at my dad and asked, “What’s the plot?” and he shrugged, saying he didn’t know. I laughed as I realized that Rocky Horror was celebrated for its masterful take on absurdity.
Going to a live showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a completely different experience than watching the film on a couch. The three-hour-long experience, sometimes longer, includes props, callouts, games, and dance parties. How did this satirical horror-comedy musical become one of the most beloved cult films?
Overkill Analysis walks us through the history of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and how it found fame in cult cinema. Check out her full video below.
What is a Cult Film?
Let’s break down what a cult film is in case you are not familiar with the term.
A cult film is a film that originally did not perform well at the box office or with mainstream audiences but later found success through a dedicated, passionate, cult-like fanbase. These fanbases, also known as cult followings, are an elaborate subculture in which members engage in repeated viewings of the film where they quote the dialogue and have moments of audience participation.
Films like The Room, The Big Lebowski, Jennifer’s Body, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls were all films that existed outside of the critical and cultural circles, but some viewers find a layer of genius to the work or what it represents to minority groups. Other times, people just like cult films ironically.
The Creation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
During one winter of the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien began writing the script for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, originally called They Came From Denton High, to keep himself busy between acting gigs. At one of O’Brien’s auditions, he met with theater director Jim Sharman, and eventually showed Sharman the 10-page script he had been working on and played a few songs from the play.
The concept of the show included things that O’Brien and Sharman both loved from their childhood like B-movies, science-fiction, and rock n’ roll, as well as O'Brien's struggles with his sexual identity. Sharman loved the concept and reserved a space upstairs in the Royal Court Theatre for O’Brien to bring the show to life.
The original screenplay for the show was only 40 minutes long, but no one seemed to mind since the cast and crew were focused on having fun rather than turning The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a phenomenon.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in a small 60-seat venue but quickly moved to larger venues in London like the 230-seat Chelsea Classic Cinema on King’s Road before finding a quasi-permanent home at the 500-seat King’s Road Theatre. The musical comedy horror caught the attention of Ode Records owner Lou Adler who decided to purchase the U.S. theatrical rights to the show after watching it. Lou Adler and Michael White loved the musical so much that they believed it could be adapted for the screen.
20th Century Fox didn’t have much faith in the project, so they gave Rocky Horror a small budget of $1.6 million and a very short period to film the movie. Most of the original cast from the show in London starred in the film, but the studio demanded that two American actors fill the leading roles of Brad and Janet.
The Success of Being a Failure
Movie adaptations tend to go one of two ways: they are either adored and praised or shunned by the fanbase. The latter tends to happen because of meddling studios, or because the film didn’t respect the creator’s original intent. Rocky Horror stayed true to the creator’s vision, and the studio didn’t care about the film at all, so what happened?
In September 1975, Rocky Horror premiered at Westwood Theatre in L.A., and the studio realized that many of the people coming to these sold-out shows were repeat offenders. Other test screenings were not doing as well. With ugly reviews from critics pouring in, the film’s national release was canceled.
As a way to salvage the film, a young advertising executive for the studio managed to talk to Bill Quigley who happened to work for the company that owned the Waverley Theater. The Waverly was and is still a well-known arthouse theater that specializes in midnight showings, and the young executive thought that Rocky Horror could do well in that setting. Little did anyone know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became the midnight movie to watch.
The Fans Kept the Fire Burning
Although the midnight screenings saved Rocky Horror, the fans and their traditions are what kept the film alive after all of these years.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings are, in a sense, a festival. Fans that attend the screening and sit in the same seats every time, making friends with the other loyal fans who do the same. This led to the creation of a community within the theater that would make inside jokes that only true fans would understand.
It started on Labor Day in 1976 when Louis Fariz yelled at the screen, “Buy an umbrella you cheap bitch,” to Janet (Susan Sarandon) as she held a newspaper over her head to block the rain. This callout forever changed how fans interacted with the film. Fariz coined this playful heckling as counterpoint dialogue or commentary.
Audiences would wait for the perfect moment to yell quick quips and funny remarks, hoping to get a laugh out of the audience. This evolved as fans brought props for certain scenes and threw items like rice during the wedding scene or hot dogs when appropriate. The next natural progression was dressing up as the characters, and some fans would walk up the screen, dressed as the character being projected above them, and would lip-sync like they were the actors. This act created famous people in the fandom.
The word about the Waverly Theater’s antics got out, and people wanted to have a slice of that sweet, sweet Dr. Frank-N-Furter pie. Midnight screenings started to pop up all over the country, creating new traditions and new loyal fan bases wherever the film was shown.
But What Makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show a Cult Classic?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is pure indulgence. It is campy, glamorous, influenced by the 50s, 60s, and 70s, a parody and a tribute to B-movies, and a message to people who feel like they don’t belong.
We can't overlook the importance of Rocky Horror for the members of the LGBTQ+ community. The film embraced sexual liberation and androgyny, showcasing queer visibility on the silver screen. The film gave people the courage to be who they were on the inside. Positive representation on the screen allows people to see themselves in roles of empowerment and freedom that they don’t feel in their everyday lives.
Rocky Horror is that light for people who feel outside of social norms. Whether this feeling of isolation is based on their sexuality, gender, identity, or for being too unique for the mainstream, Rocky Horror is there with a hug, asking you to look around at the people next to you and see that you’ve come home. The film is what the play always was—a unique, outlandish experience that doesn’t want to exist as it is.
In the end, what makes Rocky Horror a cult classic is you, the fan. It is the dedicated odd-balls, glamazons, and creatures of the night that kept Rocky Horror alive for all these years. If it weren’t for an advertising executive, the Waverly, and the extravagant fanbase, then we wouldn’t have this cut classic to yell at in public with 100 strangers at 2 a.m.
Have you been to The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Let us know your favorite viewing in the comments below!