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Let’s time warp back to early 1976 into the offices of 20th Century Fox; executives are dying of panic for one reason: they have a bomb on their hands. The premier screenings for their recent musical comedy were calamitous, the few critics who bothered to attend were firmly unimpressed, and in the months since the premier the box office receipts were microscopic.
The film’s wide release had been aborted to minimise losses, and screenings of the film on college campuses yielded similarly empty seats. Fox executives questioned the wisdom of producing a musical when the previous few years had proved to be a graveyard for star-studded cinematic musicals, they questioned the fiscal irresponsibility of producing a film with no recognisable stars amongst its cast. Finally, they lamented ever trying to sell a film full to the brim with cross-dressing, bisexuality, and sexual freedom.
They resolved to have the film shelved, swept under the rug, hoping for their losses to be recouped by other projects. Still, one executive pitched an idea, midnight film screenings were slowly rising in popularity, so why not dump their latest flop into a limited midnight run and see if it can scrape together a few dollars. They started with a midnight screening at the Waverly Theatre, New York City, April Fool’s Day 1976, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was born.
The brain-child of unemployed actor Richard O’Brien, the ultimate cult classic began life as O’Brien’s parody of science fiction, horror, and B movies from the 30s through to the early 60s, which coalesced to become the profitable 1973 stage musical The Rocky Horror Show. 20th Century Fox soon snapped up the film rights and gave the green light to a film adaptation, however, this was the moment things started to go wrong.
The notoriously meddlesome studio immediately lost faith in the production and became fixated on pre-emptive damage control. Fox started by demanding that the protagonists, your typical small-town heterosexual couple Brad and Janet, be played by American actors, but O’Brien and director Jim Sharman managed to recycle the rest of the cast from the stage production.
Fox reluctantly coughed up a minuscule budget and refused to offer any assistance when the leaking set went without heat during the cold winter shoot and wouldn’t even provide any heating for the pool scene, resulting in Susan Sarandon getting pneumonia. The musical number featuring a dance sequence over what was intended to be the 20th Century Fox logo was forcibly changed to the defunct RKO Radio Pictures as the studio did not want its logo to be prominently featured in a film depicting homosexuality. You’d have thought they wanted it to fail.
The cast and crew pushed on and made it through the gruelling shoot and counterproductive studio and managed to turn in a final cut they hoped would be successful, hopes that would be dashed following the sparsely attended first screenings. But the few initial fans of the film would go on to resurrect its reputation upon its midnight screenings, completely redefining what the lifecycle of a film can be.
As The Rocky Horror Picture Show was exported to ever more midnight screenings, its slowly growing fan base began to elevate the film into a unique social experience, starting with audience members improvising callbacks in response to lines in the film, which grew in popularity to the point that these lines have become canonical to every screening. People then began to attend the screenings in full costume, memorising every celluloid detail in a pre-digital age to recreate the now-iconic outfits, and bringing an array of props to recreate the on-screen action in the cinema.
Especially devoted fans formed ‘shadow casts’ which would attend in full costume and perform and mime every action and lip-synch every word besides the screen.
The proliferating fanbase turned out midnight after midnight and continue to do so even today, giving the film the longest-running continuous theatrical release ever, none stop since 1975, now shown internationally to packed screenings.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s longevity naturally comes with a wide degree of influence, primarily from Tim Curry’s seductively androgynous Dr Frank N. Furter. This charmingly menacing, cross-dressing, sexually ambiguous alien helped generations of audiences embrace their sexuality and gender identity and made watching the film for the first time a spiritual experience that spawned countless unconventional conventionists.
While the mainstream audiences of 1975 might not have been ready for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, its non-derogatory depiction of homosexuality and androgyny made it a cultural touchstone for outcasts and misfits who found love, acceptance, and a strong sense of community among the now legendary fanbase. And although the film is slightly marred by now outdated terminology, its steadfast embrace of nonconformity made it firmly ahead of its time.
Indeed, LGBTQ+ representation onscreen wouldn’t be so positive and self-affirming again for years and was set even further back by the AIDS crisis, with the derogatory and problematic likes of Cruising and Windows reinforcing damaging stereotypes into the public consciousness, embedding prejudices that would significantly lengthen the fight for equality. And through all this the still running Rocky Horror became a rallying point, and still is today, becoming a ubiquitous experience for growing up LGBTQ+, and broadly for anyone who just doesn’t fit into societal norms.
Now that we’re coming on 45 years since The Rocky Horror Picture Show had its first ill-fated premiere, it’s eye-opening to see just how much has changed- and just how much hasn’t. We have equal marriage, effective prevention of HIV, and increasing access to gender affirmation services. But at the same time, there are still the intolerant; public displays of same-sex affection and trans lives are being met with a worrying level of assault and murder.
Throughout these trying times, the most comforting and self-affirming experience of growing up LGBTQ+ continues to be indulging in the absolute pleasure of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This hour and a half of catchy songs, empowering costumes, sci-fi-horror parody, and sexual liberation only improves on each viewing as you become a more fully realised version of yourself.