The culture that has grown around The Rocky Horror Picture Show has long become bigger than the film itself. First released in 1975, the movie was written and directed by some unknowns based on an obscure stage play of the same name; the cast was small, the plotline bizarre, and the music ostentatious. But, it caught on. Released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Jim Sharman’s production has quietly become the longest-running theatrical release in film history thanks to its avid fan base.
The enduring popularity has emerged thanks to the catchy tunes and also the sexual freedom, and as one of the earliest films I remember seeing that freely embraced what I would later understand as a queer interpretation of sexuality, Rocky Horror embraces sex as an essential joy of life. Part John Waters, part classical musical, the film is ostentatious in the best way imaginable — totally and completely embracing personal expression when it comes to sex.
Rocky Horror is undeniably silly, but at the heart lies an understanding and appreciation of love beyond the confines of the mainstream. This is a far cry from the free-love movement as well, and though Rocky Horror does ultimately reject monogamy, it encourages liberation and choice above free gratification. While we can argue as to whether the film exploits the female form or not, its fashionable embrace of a performance-based style and sexuality aligns it with personal choice rather than the pleasure of the viewer. Rocky Horror is certainly pleasurable, but more as an expression of the self rather than the pleasure of voyeuristic consumption of the body.
As the film explores sexual pleasure, it does so in an incredibly inclusive way. Regardless of gender, sexuality is presented as a fluid experience, as well as a mode of expression. It is one of the first films I remember watching that expressed how sex is a part of who we are (opposed to being a part of life). Rocky Horror is also about the idea that sex does not (and should not) only exist within the confines of monogamy, which can be limiting and even oppressive. Brad and Janet’s marriage is not explicitly limiting, but as they are “sexually awakened,” they organically uncover that the social constructs of sex will stunt personal growth and are tools of those in power. The towering figure of Frank N. Furter thus becomes both liberator and an oppressor, as he “frees” both of them but equally tries to control the sex of those around him.
The greatness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show really comes from the infectious joy of the community that has emerged over the years. While the songs and performances are catchy and campy fun, these ideas are amplified in a group or a crowd. Sharman’s film benefits above all else through one’s understanding of the movement that has grown around it. For many, the performances and shows have become something of a second home and have offered a sincere sense of meaning to their lives. I treasure The Rocky Horror Picture Show as an example of a film that is political and important through its audience engagement, and I sincerely believe it offers more positivity and opportunity for growth than a vast majority of “important” cinema.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.