It’s Halloween time and I guess it’s now appropriate to talk about “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the most famous “Midnight Movie” of all-time. The term “Midnight Movie” will likely be alien to anyone born after 1975 or so, but in the days before cable TV, VCRs, DVD players, Blu-Ray, streaming, etc. … most people could only see movies in actual movie theaters. And many theaters would host special midnight screenings of certain films that weren’t playing during the daylight or early evening hours because the special nature of such films would bring out a certain crowd of (mainly young) night owls looking for fun on a Friday and Saturday night. These films were often ones that would not appeal to either older adults or young kids … they were aimed at teenagers and hip young adults.
“Rocky Horror” may not have been the first “Midnight Movie” blockbuster, but it was the most famous. It was a film adaptation of a very popular British rock musical from the early 1970s called “The Rocky Horror Show.” A Broadway adaptation in the mid-1970s flopped, but a version staged in Los Angeles at Lou Adler’s Roxy Theater was a big success. Based on the popularity of the LA version, Adler convinced 20th Century Fox to pony up for a film adaptation. With the exception of LA, the film flopped just as badly as the original Broadway version. But … something curious started happening in New York City. The film was booked into some midnight screenings in NYC after its main theatrical run and a small, but devoted group of fans started coming to screenings every week. They became so familiar with the film that they started having fun with it … talking back to the screen, dancing in the aisles during the frequent musical numbers, and ultimately, dressing up like the characters. Word started to spread about this phenomenon and more people started to attend screenings not just in NYC … but in every major city in North America. Soon, 20th Century Fox had a major hit on their hands. Over the past 40 years, the film has grossed … adjusted for inflation … the equivalent of $447 million, according to Box Office Mojo, making it the 73rd most popular film of all-time, behind “Lawrence of Arabia” and … ironically … before “Rocky.”
I finally saw “Rocky Horror” in the fall of 1985 at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, Virginia, a terrific venue for seeing the film because unlike other theaters in the area, they let people throw rice, shoot water pistols, dance in the aisles, etc. The only rule is that no one could throw anything at the screen, but otherwise … anything went. The experience was a blast and I wound up going back at least 4 more times, including a very memorable Halloween screening in 1987 where … I kid you not … a black man wearing a full Ku Klux Klan outfit strutted to the front of the theater … which had everyone convulsing in hysterics.
As fun as those screenings were … it was a screening a few months later that ended the fun for me. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to get sour about, but it was an event that put a damper on my enjoyment for many years. As I was shouting things at the screen with the rest of the audience, some “Rocky Horror” “fan” in the other aisle started loudly criticizing me for what I was shouting out. I guess I was saying things that were no longer “cool” at a “Rocky Horror” screening because … well … my life didn’t revolve around the film as much as it did for this person. And it was at this moment that I thought “I may not be cool … but I’m much cooler that this nerd” and that, my friends, was that. I never attended another screening and it was years before I watched it again on video because I held the film and its “cult” audience in contempt for being as elitist as the people they escaped from every Friday and Saturday night to have some fun. I later realized that I was letting one fascist geek ruin a genuinely fun event and I warmed to the film again when I picked up a Special Edition DVD at Target for a ridiculously low $5.
My feelings about the film today? It’s not a great film, by any means. There’s many rock musicals that are much better, specifically the gender-bending rock art films “Velvet Goldmine” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Yet as much as “Goldmine” and “Hedwig” are better films than “Rocky Horror,” they aren’t nearly as much fun. “Rocky Horror” is still playing midnight screenings in the US and while I don’t know what’s allowed and what’s not at such screenings these days (I can only imagine the screenings are much more conservative), I would love to take my kids to a screening because I’m sure it’ll be way more fun than any theater experience they’ve ever had.
If you’re a fan … or curious about the phenomenon … you are encouraged to check out the terrific, nearly 4-hour podcast about the film from The Projection Booth at the link below:
And here’s some links to some of the more memorable songs from the film:
“The Time Warp”
“Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul”
Splendid write-up, Dave. I remember those midnight screenings, being of the same vintage as you. But I’ll admit I went to only one Rocky Horror. I lived in LA making a living as a writer, and dressing up like a character from a movie was for fan boys and oddballs, not serious professional like me (sarcasm)… I’m sure I missed out on further fun but you’ve done a fine job of resurrecting the vibe.