The Dark Side of Rocky Horror
With the recent flipflap over the Rocky Horror Picture Show remake on Fox, I’ve been revisiting my own feelings towards the original movie. I didn’t watch the new iteration, and while I don’t begrudge anyone for being enthused about it, to me it looked like a High School Musical version of RHPS . . . a bland, bleached, gussied up retread with the charm, satire, subversiveness, and daring of the original mostly sucked out. To be fair, Rocky Horror can’t quite mean now what it meant in the 70s, not in terms of taboo-breaking. But there’s something very, very specific about the original film — shot for no money on freezing cold soundstages in England, and debuting in the aftermath of glam rock and on the precipice of punk — that helps imbue it with an appeal that can’t easily be recaptured.
My personal experience with Rocky Horror is a little different than the standard, as I became acquainted with the film at home as opposed to the movie theater. The cult element of audience participation has never really overtaken my own individual relationship with the movie, and I bristle somewhat when people talk about Rocky Horror as if it’s only worth watching on the big screen with people throwing toast and yelling mean shit at Brad.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the audience interaction is a blast, and like a good rock concert I hope people can at least blow off some steam and at best have that type of communal experience bordering on the religious. But similar to a concert, liking the actual movie is the equivalent of liking the record the band is now performing live. I genuinely enjoy the movie, 100%. I can watch it in the privacy of my own home and laugh my ass off. For me, it does not demand to be a shared event. (As much as I appreciate the ritual aspect, there’s also something occasionally a little too programmed about the theatrical RHPS experience. Too many rules and cues, like church. If I wanted something that dogmatic I would have stayed Catholic).
The overshadowing of Rocky Horror by the cult around it has also obscured a little bit of its meaning and intention. The film is often reduced to mere camp and viewed exclusively through that lens, a so-bad-it’s-good musical romp about embracing your dreams and desires and letting your freak flag fly. I don’t want to understate or undervalue this dimension of the movie, which I think is the predominant level on which the film operates. As an awkward kid with a big imagination and some ambiguous feelings, often drawn to the strange and the dramatic, Rocky Horror’s message of “don’t dream it, be it” was nothing if not powerful. It creates a world where everyone is weird, has their own kinks, and is free to indulge and just be whatever or whoever the fuck they want. It’s great stuff. You can see why it’s proved so impactful over the years. Also, the satire of classic horror and sci-fi films is spot-on, a cheeky but loving riff on old clichés, goofy plots, and ridiculous costumes. All of this spoke to me.
But revisiting Rocky Horror Picture Show, especially as a supposed adult, reminds me of the more sinister undercurrent in the film. It’s not necessarily that this element is easy to miss, it’s more that, in the celebration of Rocky Horror as a musical comedy and a very specific cultural event, it becomes part of the furniture and therefore less noticeable. Yet indeed, this element is still there.
The darker part of the story offers the flipside to its uplifting message of self-realization. On that level of interpretation, Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is a liberator, an enabler of spiritual and sexual freedom. But the other side of his character is that he’s essentially a sociopath, a murderous, amoral, delusional charlatan who, as Columbia very pointedly states, chews people up and then spits them out again. (Quite literally, in one case, as it’s implied that Frank has served ex-lover Eddie for dinner after murdering him). Frank can’t feel love or empathy, so his casual discarding of others as if they were playthings has little to no impact on him. It’s not difficult to see that Frank is modeled on the modern rock star, a sensation-fueled fuck monster reveling in unabashed beauty, egotism, and excess.
His character also seems to run an intentional parallel to Charles Manson. Both are charismatic figures who earn a devoted following, able to manipulate others by tapping into the deeper recesses their subjects would rather not acknowledge. The hippie movement of the 60s is now mythologically considered to have met its end through the Manson Family. Hippies were supposed to be enlightened, immune to violence and corruption. That changes forever with the introduction of Charles Manson. Rocky Horror seems to present its own version of the death of the hippie movement, as its characters move from an explosive celebration of their desires to burned out, confused pawns. At the movie’s conclusion, Brad and Janet roll around like wasted automatons, brain-blown children abandoned by their god, their future completely uncertain.
Of course, part of this is a parody of the overwrought moralizing common at the end of many older B-movies. But there’s an element of sincerity, as well. Yes, it’s wonderful that Brad and Janet open themselves to their truest desires and fantasies, but the danger in doing so is that they become lost in illusion. This is actually a byproduct of the very conformity in which Brad and Janet are steeped at the beginning, and which they represent to an endearingly nauseating degree. They don’t know themselves. At all. So it’s therefore easy for someone like Frank to come along, taunt and tease them with the forbidden, and then sit back and watch as they destroy themselves. They are easy prey for a narcissistic personality who has no stake in the consequences.
Nowhere is it clearer that Frank is a deranged madman than in the film’s finale, where he comes across as a truly tragic figure, a broken person too overcome by his own melodrama to comprehend what’s going on around him. The climactic musical number (“the floor show!”) is for the most part seductive, yet there’s one brief shot which breaks the magic, a mundane side-view of Frank in the pool, muttering “don’t dream it, be it” as he floats by himself. For that brief moment, he appears almost pathetic. This comes to the fore in “I’m Going Home,” his final song. Frank croons to an imagined audience, performing one last time, oblivious to the very real fact that he’s about to be murdered by his own perpetually abused servants.
Also difficult to ignore are the film’s references to fascism. The most blatant of these is the insinuation that Dr. Everett Scott is actually a Nazi scientist now working for the US government a la Dr. Strangelove. (And like Strangelove, he too is confined to a wheelchair, in case you miss the reference). Dr. Scott and Frank are intentionally pitted as two sides of the same coin: both mad scientists, with Scott the repressed & uptight voice of conventional morality to Frank’s anything-goes hedonism. Both men are fascists. Dr. Scott is quite literally a fascist, having once served a totalitarian regime, but he now represents the oppressive fascism of conformity, just like his students Brad and Janet.
Frank, meanwhile, is a different type of fascist. Like cult leaders and rock stars, Frank embodies the fascism of personality, a nonpolitical embrace of the idea that strong egos rule over the weak and the obedient and can do with them as they please. Frank’s fetishistic manner of dress taps into the power fetishism at the very core of all fascism; his leather jacket, fishnets and killer heels are his version of a military outfit and jackboots. The Transylvanians themselves elicit a kind of fascism, too, as their militaristic lightning bolt sigil evokes those used by the Nazis and other far-right organizations. This plays to the film’s subversive nature, as it appropriates right-wing iconography and gives it a queer cultural twist. (This may have found a home in the red triangle on Frank’s lab attire, somewhat reminiscent of the identifiers gay men were forced to wear in concentration camps).
In addition, the Transylvanian lightning bolt recalls David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust symbol, itself highlighting the parallel between rock n’ roll and fascism. Bowie at the time was a queer glam icon, emerging from the same soup of 50s rock and sci-fi as the original Rocky Horror musical.
Mad scientists are in many ways the modern incarnation of the mad monk or mystic, but additionally they tend to demonstrate a totalitarian streak, as they maintain an amoral devotion to the accumulation of knowledge and power for the advancement of their own personal agendas. Frank exists firmly in this tradition. He also represents the perversion of the hippie dream, and the notion that excess will always lead to wisdom. Charles Manson’s promulgation of hippie fascism signified the end of this naivete, at least for a while, and that particular awareness resonates to some degree throughout the film.
It’s actually in Rocky Horror’s understandably-but-unfairly maligned sequel, Shock Treatment, where these ideas go a step further. Quite prescient for 1981, Shock Treatment presents a world where reality is television, everyone wants to be a star, and people are willingly enslaved by corporate interests. Brad and Janet’s hometown of Denton has been transformed into a maze of studio sets, with the citizens clamoring to have their own lives turned into anything from soap operas to game shows to commercials. The whole thing is secretly controlled by Farley Flavors, a cigar-chomping tycoon watching everything unfold from his own private viewing room like some malicious deity. The townspeople are programmed to embrace conformity and to despise the different — a horrifying combination of herd and mob mentality — throwing themselves over the cliffs of insanity like lemmings.
In addition to anticipating the emergent MTV aesthetics which would soon take over the 80s, and also predicting reality television, Shock Treatment is stuffed with fascistic overtones. Farley’s five-F’s logo is very deliberately designed to recall a swastika, the arrow-and-heart sign for Denton also begins to feel like a fascist symbol, pancaked cabaret-nightmare game show host Bert Schnick is strongly hinted to be another Nazi in hiding, and the wave of hysteria which overtakes the town recalls anything from Salem to Nuremberg. Farley Flavors arguably emerges as the classic corporate fascist, a fast food mogul essentially buying and manipulating reality. In true Trumpian capitalist Darwinism, he hates losers, feels entitled to anything because he’s powerful, wants to rule the world, and gives zero shits about anyone but himself.
In their darker hearts, both films paint dystopic visions of America, and offer a cynical and, at times, borderline misanthropic take on humanity. Shock Treatment especially could rank alongside Brazil and Robocop as one of the most vicious satires of the 80s. And even Rocky Horror, despite the film’s humanism and humor and undeniable sense of joy, maintains a certain bemused pessimism, depicting 1950s America losing its mind and its innocence . . . an innocence it never really had in the first place. This aspect of RHPS seems largely lost, even somewhat incompatible, with the Glee-ification of the film as a family friendly exercise in mildly titillating kitsch. Not even the empowering overt sexuality entirely survives, let alone the more subversive nods toward fascism and the dangers inherent in a cult of personality.
In his DVD commentary for Rocky Horror, creator Richard O’Brien recalls his inspiration for the story’s ending: Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory about Hitler’s ascension to power. The Rocky Horror Picture Show therefore closes with the omniscient Criminologist offering a somber observation. “And crawling on the planet’s face/Some insects, called the human race/Lost in time, and lost in space/And meaning.” Frank, that charismatic and hypersexual being from the stars, turns out not to have all the answers, nor to be indestructible. His own excesses and cruelties catch up to him, and he dies trying to flee from them.
But he looks great in lipstick and heels, and I believe that has to count for something.