In response to “‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ as Quintessential Fantasy Story” by Elizabeth Allen. Read it here…
To delve into the history and ritual behind the 1975 cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is hardly required; chances are, if you’re interested in examining the mythological underpinnings of the notably weird rock-and-roll musical, you’ve already thrown on your fishnets and seen it at midnight, or at least seen grainy footage of people who have. In her article, Elizabeth Allen attempts to contextualize “Rocky Horror” as following the model of a traditional fantasy (not a sexual fantasy-sorry, folks). While she covers some basic points, this article shall attempt to expand on her analysis for fuller development.
Allen begins by citing Brad Majors and Janet Weiss as protagonists we can understand and sympathize with. Of course, any “Rocky Horror” fan knows the derogatory and unprintable callbacks used on the announcement of those character names. What the film does is turn this fantasy tradition on its head and make the babes-in-the-woods protagonists rather boring, square people, painting instead the deviant villain, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, as the fun guy we want to hang out with. The fun of seeing two whitebread young lovers from sleepy Denton get humiliated and eventually transformed stands as a reversal of, say, the tale of Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping the witch’s house; there’s a reason all the fans love Frank best. His lust is so sincere, indeed.
It is here where Allen’s article becomes more salient, using “Sweet Transvestite” as the key number to highlight the fantasy element of the normal colliding with the weird. “Sweet Transvestite” is an important number for the film in many respects; it’s not until Frank sheds his cape and reveals his lingerie that the picture shows its true colors. Up until this point an unknowing viewer might read the film purely as a spoof of campy genre cinema; showing Tim Curry in womens’ underwear makes for an interpretable enough cue that this is a turning point. “Time Warp” is the first musical number to illustrate the meeting of normal and weird; “Sweet Transvestite” takes it to a new level of weird.
On a side note, given Allen’s enthusiasm for the collision of the fantastic with the mundane, one might point out the entrance of straight-laced Dr. Everett Scott into the mansion of ill repute; he quite literally collides with the laboratory wall and crashes right through it, tearing the barrier down.
It is on the point that the film “responds to its heritage” that Allen’s discussion truly comes up wanting. It certainly does, but Allen fails to specify where, or why it’s important. The song that opens the film, “Science Fiction Double Feature”, is a clear invocation of the heritage, name-checking sources as diverse as the classy “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet” and the, um, less well-reputed “Day of the Triffids” and “Flash Gordon”. While of course the source material is, strictly speaking, science fiction rather than fantasy, the distinction is rather blurry in many early genre pieces, which tend to lean more toward swashbuckling magic than hard speculative science anyway.
“Rocky Horror” pays homage to countless cultural touchstones along the way, but it’s not just on the physical level of including spaceships and weird machines. Filmmakers in the 1970s were continually paying homage to the pictures that inspired them, and “The Wizard of Oz”, a classic fantasy if there ever was one, was a popular choice for many. Not to be outdone, “Rocky Horror” bears a certain structural resemblance-it’s not hard to set sleepy Denton in Kansas, and our female protagonist certainly gains some appreciation for there being no place like home.
Moreover, just like in “The Wizard of Oz”, characters in the normal world are mirrored in the fantasy world, and played by the same actors-Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn and Richard O’Brien are quite recognizable in the Denton wedding chapel scene, of course, but many of the Transylvanians are in the same crowd. Perhaps most salient, though, is the filmmakers’ initial plan of starting the film in black-and-white and only converting to magical color on the reveal of fantasy-meaning, of course, meeting Frank in “Sweet Transvestite”.
To analyze “Rocky Horror” in the context of other specific films would take a book, not an article, but in the end it is the film itself and not its context that is the thrust of Allen’s argument of the piece as a quintessential fantasy. To that end, this die-hard fan advises taking Allen’s notion to heart on your next viewing (this Saturday night, presumably), but remember that whatever “Rocky Horror” approaches, including genre, it does so with irony, and you are as likely to find deliberate reversals of fantasy elements as you are straight (so to speak) uses. As Frank might say, “Well… how ’bout that.”