“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman, scr. Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman

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:

http://projection-booth.blogspot.com/2014/10/special-report-rocky-horror-picture-show.html

And here’s some links to some of the more memorable songs from the film:

“The Time Warp”

“Sweet Transvestite”

“Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul”

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Best Moviegoing Memories of the Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk, VA

Video

During my review of the documentary “The Rep,” I mentioned that some of my favorite moviegoing memories from my youth and young adulthood took place at the Naro Expanded Cinema, a repertory theater in Norfolk, VA. I thought I would recount a few of them here:

1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
The very first film I saw at the Naro. After having been to the Naro several times, my Mom took my brother and me to see this revival of “2001” in a 70mm 6-track stereo print during the summer of 1981. At the time, I was weaned on “Star Wars,” so I wasn’t as impressed with “2001” as I would become in later years. But I still remember being impressed with the realism Kubrick conveyed in this vision of space travel. Fortunately, I got to see it several years later in another 70mm revival in Washington D.C. when I was more ready for it and was … finally … bowled over.

2. “North by Northwest” (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Another one my Mom dragged me to because she thought it would be good for me. Initially, being 12-years old or so, I groaned over seeing an “older” unrated film that would have no profanity, nudity or graphic violence. These reservations were instantly dispelled once I realized how much fun this movie was … one that combined action, suspense, comedy, and … yes … sex in a brilliantly sophisticated package. To this day, Eva Marie Saint’s character is still one of the smartiest, sexiest, most complex action heroines of all time. And Cary Grant … as Robert Evans once said, Grant had more grace walking backwards than everyone else had walking forwards.

3. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
I had already seen this multiple times before seeing it at the Naro on a double-bill with “Poltergeist” during the summer of 1983. But … what I remember the most is the glorious stereo soundtrack that the Naro properly showcased. When Indy cracked his whip in the streets of Cairo, I heard the sound of the whip start behind my head, carry through the speakers surrounding the sides, and then exploding upfront. The single most impressive display of filmic sound design I’ve ever experienced. Thanks, Naro!

4. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
The Naro was THE best place to see “Rocky Horror” because back when I first saw it around 1985 or so, the theater owners allowed the audience to go absolutely bats–t crazy. The only rule was that you couldn’t throw anything at the screen. Otherwise, anything went. I’ve since heard things have changed, but that’s OK. Seriously, you don’t want to trash such a wonderful place to see a movie … but it was really really fun.  Especially on Halloween.

5. “Stop Making Sense” (1984) dir. Jonathan Demme
This classic concert film featuring the Talking Heads was nice to see on a huge screen with a booming, bass heavy sound. What was especially cool was the fact that so many people in the audience were taken with the music that they started dancing in front of the screen … which prompted the film to stop until people sat down. This happened at least 8-9 times before the film could finally end.

6. “Suburbia” (1983) dir. Penelope Spheeris
One of the best moviegoing memories from my youth was seeing Penelope Spheeris’s punk melodrama “Suburbia’ in a packed midnight screening at the Naro in 1985 (with an audience full of mohawks and trenchcoats) with a good friend of mine and my friend’s Dad, who attended the screening with us since me and my friend were not legally able to drive.  The audience went completely nuts at the beginning of the film, when the wild dog attacks a toddler (one of the worst mannequin substitutes I’ve ever seen in any idiom), which isn’t funny, but kind of is in the context of the film and the audience.  My friend’s Dad (who, at the time, was roughly about my age now) took the film in stride, enjoyed himself, and later compared the film to “Rebel Without a Cause” on the ride home, which he highly recommended to us.  While I later saw “Rebel” and thought it a much superior film, I have a really soft spot in my heart for “Suburbia.”

7. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I was fortunate enough to see “Blue Velvet” on its original theatrical run when I was one of three paying customers in the audience.  I’m so grateful for this particular experience, because I was able to accept Lynch’s vision the way it was originally intended … an unironic (but not unfunny), highly disturbing nightmare.  When I saw it at the Naro a few months later, the place was packed.  Unfortunately, it was packed with hipsters already predisposed to laugh at everything.  While I remember having a great time that night when I saw it in a packed theater, in retrospect, I also remember being a little pissed that they were treating it all as a big joke.  Again, the film is not unfunny … but it’s not a smug post-modern jokefest.  That night I learned that there’s a danger in thinking you’re smarter than the material you’re watching … especially before you’ve actually seen it.

8.  “Husbands and Wives” (1992) dir. Woody Allen

I remember seeing this at the Naro in early 1993 during a particularly dark period in my life as the second half of a double-bill with another film I don’t remember.  I distinctly remember the Allen film hitting me right between the eyes.  Yes, I remember laughing a lot, but I also remember being completely shattered at the end of it.  One of the most brutally cynical views of marriage and relationships ever created.  It’s no wonder this was filmed and edited during the height of Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s relationship “issues.” I think I skipped the invitation to have a beer after the film that night.

9. “Pink Flamingoes” (1972) dir. John Waters
The very last film I saw at the Naro … and I saw this during the film’s 25th anniversary revival in 1997.  I had seen the film more than a few times on video before and while I thought it was funny, I thought other Waters films (specifically, “Female Trouble” and “Polyester”) were much better.  However, seeing “Pink Flamingoes” in a theater brought a new dimension that I had never considered before … collective embarrassment.   Seeing this film with a paying audience on a huge screen made a lot of “Flamingo’s” notorious scenes seem way dirtier … and funnier.   One of the few times I remember actually convulsing in embarrassed laughter during a theater screening … while turning several shades of red.  Seriously, that s–t hurt!  But it was a lot of fun!