Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the first of a series I’ve taken to christening “Oldies, But Goodies.” Here, I will aim to write odes to films of yore, from back when you were but a glint in the milkman’s eye, or even when that milkman himself was the glint of another milkman’s eye, and so forth.
These will be reviews of films of old, across all genres and international origins. Some are hailed classics, and some are countercultural classics known only to and celebrated by niche audiences. Some will be American, some will be English, some will be French, Italian, Japanese…
From this standpoint, I shall argue that these movies have aged like fine wine. They have stood against the test of time and deserve yours, even if for a moment. The first of these handsomely aged films I will defend?
Well, if the cult film could constitute a kingdom, Plan 9 From Outer Space would be the King…
And the Queen? Beyond the shadow of a doubt, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It’s been thirty-nine years since it first rocked the cinemas and the stage, since it made many a heterosexual man and woman question their sexuality, since it catapulted Tim Curry to stardom, and since it defined the very notion of “the cult film.”
Nearly four decades old, and it’s every bit as funny, catchy, campy, daring, scandalous and sexually energized as it ever was. This locomotive has not lost a single ounce of steam. Even with all that, some have decried it as “simple, stupid” and – in some cases – offensive camp. Others have criticized it as simple and stupid simply because of its camp nature, as if "camp" were a dirty word.
In recent years, the term has taken a bit of a beating. It’s been prone to misuse, erroneously attributed to anything with a lighthearted disposition. Here’s where I clear the air: camp is a genre and an artistic aesthetic. It creates fiction that weave their narrative web with strands of theatricality and high emotion. A more sophisticated term for it would be – and if it’s aiming for something less comedic – “melodrama,” a term we've come to ascribe to either soap opera schlock in a derogatory fashion... or when we're feeling generous and in a good mood, we heap the same word in a more positive context onto high-minded literature. Best case example? Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
This is high school and college-mandated literature. We treat it as a classic in respect to its age and its then-groundbreaking take on dark subject matter, but is it really any more sophisticated than The Rocky Horror Picture Show? It's a succession of over romanticized tall tales, with emphasis on all manner of contrivances and high emotion where all the characters have their turn chewing the scenery with such gusto they threaten to eat the pages of the book itself.
But that's its stroke of brilliance. It's deliberately set up this way by the character of Nelly Dean, just to mess with Lockwood, the gullible, ignorant, high-society snob, the caricature of Victorian ideals. Through this method, Brontë - through the proxy of Nelly Dean - can interweave cultural critique and subversion through what we today would call (with some derision, depending on the person) "camp."
The Rocky Horror Picture Show operates through a similar modus operandi, under that same banner of what I like to call "subversive camp," wherein all that theatricality, high drama and flamboyancy is employed as a smokescreen to deliver a scathing or vicious critique of... oh, just about anything. Brontë tackled the gender inequality and classism of Victorian Britain, and Richard O'Brian decided to have a little fun at the expense of what normally constitutes sex and gender in our culture.
Subversive camp often operates by – par exemple – marrying regular mundane reality (straight-laced Brad and Janet, anyone?) with, say, “gay culture” to illustrate a point about heterosexual preconceptions of sexuality and gender identity. It's almost appropriate, then, that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the "queen" of subversive camp.
Mind you, not all camp, of course, is subversive or out to make a point of any sort. Some camp fiction - without nary anything resembling an axe to grind - simply love to indulge in theatrical antics and a larger than life attitude for the sheer sake of it. I love a lot of this camp, myself. 80's slasher films, exploitation flicks, B-Movies, 80's high-fantasy (Highlander, The Beastmaster, Willow, Krull, Hawk the Slayer, etc), a few over the top romances here and there... they're all part and parcel of the aesthetic.
Not to mention there's a slew of, shall we say, LGBT-focused camp that embraces flamboyancy and the aesthetic of gay culture (of which camp is often considered a byproduct of) faster than you can say, "Fabuloooooooooous!" No major social critique in mind or anything, some "girls" just want to have fun.
Some camp, hilariously enough, can be macho and ostensibly heterosexual. Because, after all, what's more heterosexual than shirtless musclemen smashing their bodies together, n'est-ce-pas? Isn't that right, Top Gun?
80’s action or dudebro films have retroactively been collected into a sort of “canon” of macho camp. Intentionally or no, they provide over exaggerated ideals of traditional masculinity and milk their entertainment out of it. Macho camp can also be done deliberately as an aesthetic instead of an unintentional byproduct of the 80's, best exemplified in - what else - Zack Snyder's 300. It was dumb, over the top, and quite possibly the most unintentional homoerotic action movie since, well, Top Gun... and it's glorious.
But that's a topic for another day.
What point am I trying to make, and how does all of this connect to The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
What I'm proposing, ladies and gentlemen, is a defence on the behalf of camp as a genre and artistic aesthetic, camp of all stripes - from the camp-for-camp's sake of To Wong Fu, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar to the macho self-indulgence of 300 and Top Gun. The latter two are not "smart" movies, yes, but to apply the standards of a straightforward narrative and expecting a solid drama, and then feeling betrayed when you find instead the cinematic equivalent of a burlesque show... you have to know what you're getting into.
But then you have the camp films that are quite intelligent, that do have a point to all their flamboyance and spectacle. Like the camp described above, the style of subversive camp should not be discarded because they enjoy their own absurdity without a shred of self-aware irony, not at all. They should be celebrated for their honesty.
And what makes The Rocky Horror Picture one of the best - and smartest - camp films of all time? Somehow striking a balance between subtle craft and cinematic slight of hand... and having a big damn grand ball with itself. In other words, it wants to be pure fun in of itself.
Yes, it has a point to make, but that doesn’t mean it can’t throw a party on the side. Its orgy of spoofs and parodies of Universal Horror, Hammer Horror and the sci-fi B-Movies of the 50’s, operatic rock, bright and vibrant colour schemes and equally flamboyant cast of crazy characters satirically illustrates the malleability of sex, sexuality and gender roles... all of these and more contribute to one hell of a party.
Forty years later, and that party is still ongoing, taking only small breaks on the side, its partygoers are still dancing to its music. Around the world, but especially in Europe and North America, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is hailed as one of the seminal countercultural classics, a staple of gay culture… and overall a damn good time.
Going to a live show is equal parts attending theatre and going to a rave, where fans can dance and sing the nightaway, bond with one another over their mutual love of the movie, the magic, sex and a fun outing.
For us modern folks of the 21st century, your enjoyment of the film will be predicated on the following:
- Whether or not camp as a genre and artistic aesthetic is something you can groove to
- Whether or not you have a fondness for classic rock of the 50's, 60's and 70's
- Whether you can swallow the gleeful decadence onscreen, as this is not a film or show for the prudish
- Whether or not you can get over the lack of CGI (zing! Obligatory stab at modern overuse of CGI!)
- Whether or not you don't mind seeing an absolutely gay twist on Frankenstein
- Whether or not you can simply let loose without a care in the world
If you can stomach it all, then by God what are you waiting for? Wear your sauciest lingerie, your best suit, your Frenchiest maid uniform, your shortest shorts, your spiffiest top hat, your tightest corset, or the shiniest golden underwear, and join the show! You’ll soon find, that in the heat of it, time… is as flexible as the sexuality of the dancer standing next to you.
... Or, you know, find the movie on Netflix or something, sit down with some friends, and have a good time. That works too.
Time to end this dedication to the greatest camp cult classic of all time... with something a little appropriate.
Ladies and gentlemen...
LET'S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN!