Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show Camp Tim CurryThis piece was initially written for a course titled “Revolutionary/Reactionary Hollywood (1963-1976).” The course was taught by Dr. Drew Casper during the spring ’17 semester at USC. It should also be noted that this paper could be expanded considerably and is relatively narrow in its analysis.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. Parts of it are pretty fun too. Much less fun is that misguided TV remake thing that Fox did, which I’ve written about previously.

Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (THRPS) was hardly an immediate hit, but thanks to producer Lou Adler, 20th Century Fox advertising exec Tim Deegan, midnight showings, and scores of passionate fans, the cinematic odd duck eventually found a cult following and became something of a “phenomenon” (Thompson 169-81; Casper 262). Though many initial reviews were less-than-favorable, TRHPS has managed to live on well past its initial theatrical run to become part of American pop culture (Thompson 173; Ebert; Variety). In paying homage to 50s late-night B-movies, TRHPS became a midnight sensation itself; and in responding to the tumultuous, “splintered” society around it, the film eventually contributed to that very society (Casper 1-2, 262; Miller xiii). When 20th Century Fox offered director Jim Sharman the chance to turn his and Richard O’Brien’s stage show hit into a film, he could either “cast[] known box office and rock ‘n’ roll stars in the key roles, in which case he would be granted a full blockbuster budget. . . Or he could stick with the cast, crew and design that he knew and bring the whole thing in for a meager million bucks” in just six weeks. Sharman went with the second option: “A B-movie budget for a B-movie film” (Thompson 147). TRHPS is, in many ways, an unpolished, imperfect work, but that isn’t to say that its thoughtless or lacking depth. As Scott Miller writes, “Though many people might laugh at the notion, Rocky Horror is in many ways . . . a serious social document,” and it’s one that has impacted more than enough people to warrant careful consideration (Miller 113).

That said, reading TRHPS carefully reveals a number of potentially confusing, even contradictory complexities. In his 1976 review of the film, a frustrated Roger Ebert writes, “It’s one of those movies you have to use a lot of hyphens to explain. A horror-rock-transvestite-camp-omnisexual-musical parody” (Ebert). Other terms could easily be added to Ebert’s list (“science-fiction,” “gothic,” “nostalgic,” and “absurd” all among them). TRHPS is a mixed bag—not only does it combine a variety of genres, tones, and influences, it also advances numerous ideas, some of which are at odds with one another. This flashy, over-the-top work is hard to pin down. Still, acknowledging its vacillations and inconsistencies is far more worthwhile than disregarding them, and oversimplifying the film to fit a particular narrative does not do it justice. Throughout Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction, Drew Casper combats “myopic” readings of American cinema and calls attention to the ways the period is characterized both by nuanced works and by oppositional drives (Casper xv-xvii). Casper’s book seeks to bring both balance and breadth to readings of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema, and he repeatedly shows that more liberal films can support conservative ideas and vice versa. Somewhat similarly, I use much of what follows to widen readings of TRHPS. As rough-around-the-edges as it often is, it’s also infused with subtlety and deserves more delicate handling than may immediately be evident. For all its liberal, radical content—including cross-dressing, explicit bisexuality, and free love—TRHPS still has a tendency to undermine a number of its more progressive ideas, and the resulting tension should not be ignored. Like the mercurial “sweet transvestite” at its center, TRHPS undergoes numerous costume, mood, and identity changes over its running time, all of which contribute to the film’s particular shape. Anchored by Tim Curry’s narcissistic, self-indulgent, unapologetically expressive Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Frank), TRHPS demands the space to be fully itself. Love it or hate it, Sharman’s film is far from timid. And while it may not be as “revolutionary” or as “liberated” as some of its devotees might like to think, TRHPS still has plenty to say (Miller xii, 118). Not unlike the narrator of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” this is a film that “contains multitudes.”

One way of getting to the vacillating heart of TRHPS is by understanding its camp sensibility. Writing about a decade before Sharman’s film debuted, Susan Sontag sought to define camp, and her insights illuminate a number of TRHPS’s internal contradictions. Like queer identities, countercultural free love, and Frank’s garish makeup, camp is in the business of blurring boundaries. As “the triumph of epicene style,” camp rejects clear distinctions between man and woman, and between human and object (Sontag, 275). Thus, camp encourages “going against the grain of one’s own sex,” as well as “the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms”; campy exaggeration “effaces nature,” thereby moving gender and identity into the realms of the constructed and artificial (Sontag 279-80). Similarly, camp collapses distinctions between substance and artifice. According to Sontag, “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: or artifice and exaggeration” (Sontag 275). The theatricality of camp calls attention to surface and performance and can distract from meaning and depth, causing “the lens of Camp” to “block[] out content” (Sontag 280-1). But blocking out is not the same as eliminating. In “dethron[ing] the serious,” camp does not rid itself of all significance; rather, it forms “a new, more complex relation” to substance. For, in the world of camp, “One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 288). Camp leaves room for discrepancy, and “the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” Thus, works of camp art—such as TRHPS—are often pulled in two directions, including those “between the thing meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice” (Sontag 281). Camp delights in the “private, zany experience of a thing” lurking beneath “the ‘straight’ public sense” in which it would typically be taken and challenges straightforward understanding. At the same time, camp occupies a liminal space between high and low culture, and it “refuses both harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling” (Sontag 287). “The ultimate Camp statement” is “it’s good because it’s awful”—embodiment of camp that he is (more on that later), TRHPS’s Frank would surely appreciate such words (Sontag 292). Camp informs much of TRHPS; thus, reading it without leaving room for it move in multiple directions makes little sense. Camp’s relationship to meaning is complex and unstable, and the same goes for interpretation of Sharman’s film.

Though the topic of genre in TRHPS is quite large, examining it even briefly emphasizes the film’s status as camp object while also complicating efforts to read it as either purely transgressive or as largely conservative. Though often categorized primarily as a musical comedy, TRHPS also draws heavily from horror and science fiction (Miller 126). If one reads Frank as a sort of unusual patriarch and the likes of Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia as his (incestuous) children, then Sharman’s film can also be placed within the realm of family melodrama. By dressing itself in so many genre-guises, TRHPS asserts its challenge to limited, straightforward conceptions of identity at a fundamental level. Genre forms the skeleton of a film, and variety and experimentation—like those valued by 60s counterculture—are built into TRHPS’s bones (Casper 15-17; Miller 120). Like Frank’s numerous outfits, each genre gives viewers a different way to experience and to look at TRHPS. To watch a film that hybridizes and reworks as many genres as Sharman’s is to be presented with a cinematic smorgasbord; though some might be overwhelmed by the options, their sheer number runs counter to more traditional cinema a while reflecting countercultural appetites for novelty, surplus experience, and freedom.

Moreover a film’s genre isn’t incidental, especially when that film has something to say. As Casper argues, genres can be thought of as “culture’s barometer”; they “are acknowledged and accepted representations of cultural values and disavowals . . . coherences and tensions by which a culture comes to reflect on itself” (Casper 132). In engaging as many genres as it does, TRHPS increases its potential to challenge cultural norms and to rewrite conventions. For example, where earlier B-movie takes on Frankenstein (including those by Hammer) depict Victor as motivated by desire for scientific achievement, TRHPS’s Frank is driven almost exclusively by sexual urges, as the lyrics to both “Sweet Transvestite” and “I Can Make You a Man” make clear (Friedman and Kavey 161). The film also takes the musical—“which had been the studio system’s darling”—and infuses it with sheer exploitation (in the form of murder, skimpy clothing, cannibalism, explicit infidelity, and much more) (Casper 252; Miller 125). However, while TRHPS does puts its own stamp things, its use of genres is not purely progressive.

With its roots in “experimental theater,” and it’s “unfettered” glam rock soul, TRHPS doesn’t play by the book, but it doesn’t throw it out the window either (Thompson 22; Miller 114). For all its oddity and blurring of boundaries, “The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental,” which can be felt in the nostalgia underpinning much of Sharman’s film (Sontag 280). Whether it’s invoking more classical musicals or paying tribute to the Hammer and Universal horror films that preceded it, TRHPS’s stance toward the past is more loving than its irreverence might indicate. In fact, THRPS was shot at the same location as many Hammer films and has been characterized as “an affectionate tribute to the old studio,” which was all but dead by the early ‘70s (Thompson 156-7). In a sense, Sharman’s film is a celebratory “farewell” to Hammer and the other “‘30s horror and ‘50s B-movies” it references (Thompson 157). There would be no TRHPS without these previous works—numerous Hammer sets and a tank from The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) even appear in the film (Thompson 158). Moreover, when reworking O’Brien’s stage show for the screen, Sharman deliberately “incorporated glimpses of, and references to, as many favorite old movies as he could”; in doing so, he was motivated much more by affection than anything cynical. As Sontag claims, camp is “a mode of enjoyment, or appreciation . . . It only seems like malice”; Camp is also “a kind of love” that “relishes” all it can (Sontag 291). When Frank sings “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” he means it. In his castle (which is also a spaceship), all people (regardless of gender) and all experiences (regardless of morality) are potential sources of indulgence. And while this may get Frank into trouble—he is eventually executed for his “extreme” “lifestyle”—it’s also what makes him him. Camp and TRHPS are at odds with any flat-out rejection of things of the past; they’d rather derive pleasure from them and make them their own instead. Over “good taste” and living respectably, Frank chooses hedonism. Both camp and TRHPS do the same (Sontag 291). In this brash film, there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned—not as long as it contributes to something enjoyable.

The film’s nostalgia and (re)use of older forms is also apparent in its score. As Dave Thompson notes, “when playwright Richard O’ Brien first composed the show’s words and music, his blending of fifties rock ‘n’ roll with early seventies glam rock was the ultimate, blinding collision of ancient and modern” (Thompson xiv). The sounds of TRHPS pull the film both forward and backward. More cutting edge songs like “Sweet Transvestite” and Riff Raff’s section of “Over at the Frankenstein Place” are tempered by the, in 1975, less contemporary “Dammit Janet” and “Hot Patootie –Bless My Soul.” Rather than commit to a singular, more unified sound, Sharman and O’Brien widen the scope of their film by allowing it to engage with multiple musical styles and the cultural leanings that they represent. Moreover, the blending of numerous styles enhances TRHPS’s ability to establish character through score. For the most part, Frank is associated with the hardest, most glam rock tunes, tying him to the glam philosophy that “it [is] okay to be strange, or different, or weird” and that “sexuality is not defined by who you fuck” in any simplistic way (Thompson 26). In associating Frank with glam (both aurally and visually), TRHPS also taps into—and often seems to champion the fact—that it was a “period of rock and roll in which gender became both fluid and irrelevant” (Miller 119). Since the “dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most,” glam (like Frank) is a challenge to the “crushing conformity” of mainstream society (Miller 119; Thompson 26).

On the other hand, those characters who are least like Frank are repeatedly associated with styles of music that predate the arrival of glam. TRHPS is a film that uses its score to flesh out the sexuality of its characters (Miller 113). Thus, the relatively naïve (and sexually inexperienced) Brad and Janet begin the film by singing the more conventional, less threatening “Dammit Janet”; only after their sexual awakenings (through scandalous encounters with Frank) do the young couple participate in bolder songs with more of a ‘70s rock influence, such as “Rose Tint My World” (which they perform dressed as Frank is when he first introduces himself). Moreover, Eddie’s “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” is a ‘50s rock number that mourns a time past in which things were (or at least, seemed) simpler and when gender roles were much more clearly defined. That the song’s lyrics—which begin with the loaded question, “Whatever happened to Saturday night?”—are in the past tense further underscores their mournful, nostalgic nature. That Frank kills Eddie after he sings the song also calls attention to its place in a bygone era—the cross-dressing master of the house might delight in a repurposing of the past, but he has no interest in actually returning to it. And yet, by consuming Eddie’s corpse at dinner in a later secene, Frank betrays the fact that he is influenced by that which came before him. After all, glam rock “lifted as much from the past as it did from contemporary currents,” but it represents a break with tradition all the same (Thompson 29).

Music and character are intertwined in TRHPS, and its sonic admixture is indicative of a larger concern with cultural conflict. A product of a time when “Exploitation as well as nostalgia coursed through [cinema’s] veins,” TRHPS exhibits both (Casper 29). Through its various characters, the film also stages a conflict between ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and the more traditional ‘50s. And yet, in keeping with its general embrace of contradiction, the film refuses to fully align itself with either side of that divide.

At the center of the film stands its most subversive figure, the flamboyant-alien-scientist-hedonist Frank. However, while he is undoubtedly the star of the show, Frank’s status as possible “protagonist” is fraught with complications, as is the film’s stance toward the cultural attitudes he embodies. Prophet of self-expression and “absolute pleasure” that he is, Frank is largely a product of ‘60s countercultural ideas; as such, he is also monstrous, especially where more conservative sectors of society are concerned. A bisexual who dresses in women’s clothing without totally disguising his masculinity, Frank has no “clear gender” (Miller 119). Moreover, in refusing to conform to heterosexual monogamy, Frank threatens traditional notions not only of identity, but of family as well. But his staying power is limited. That Frank does not survive TRHPS reflects the fact that the Counterculture had burned itself out by 1975 (Casper 15-7). The film’s most constantly inconstant figure, Frank is also its campiest, which calls further attention to the Counterculture’s lack of societal and political efficacy. “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least, apolitical” (Sontag 277). Camp may celebrate certain types of pleasure and expression, but that doesn’t enable it to effect change. Similarly, as disruptive as the Counterculture was, “the Age of Aquarius never arrived” (The Washington Times, qtd. Casper 16). In TRHPS, Frank burns brightly, but not for very long.

Furthermore, that Frank can be read both as a martyr to his own cause and as a victim of deviant behavior multiplies the ways in which TRHPS can be understood. Through his campy theatricality and his brazenly countercultural behavior, Frank commands attention, but being at the center of things doesn’t save him. In fact, one of most troubling occurrences in TRHPS is Frank’s death, which, after so much campy exuberance, manages to feel both regressive and inevitable. Shortly before his demise, Frank sings, “Whatever happened to Fay Wray?/ That delicate satin draped frame/ As it clung to her thigh/ how I started to cry/ For I wanted to be dressed just the same./ Give yourself over to absolute pleasure/ . . . / Don’t’ dream it. Be it.” Frank’s reference here is to King Kong (1933), and in this moment, O’Brien’s lyrics simultaneously queer (through association with cross-dressing) and pay homage to cinema’s past. Such tension underscores the ways in which Frank and TRHPS cannot be easily assigned a single mindset or read according to a single set of codes. “Don’t dream it. Be it”—both a mantra of hope for the outsider and the philosophy that gets Frank killed.

By going against the grain of mainstream society as boldly and as thoroughly as he does, Frank positions himself as a monster. As Vivian Sobchack writes, the monster in a genre film “can be a scientist, a gangster, a ‘hero,’ but he is almost always a misfit in the sense that he does not conform with accepted modes of social behavior” (Sobchack 51). The monster can be a figure of sympathy, but that does not necessarily save him from punishment for going his own way. The cinematic monster is also an image of “Otherness,” of “what is repressed” by a culture (Wood 65-6). The blurring of seemingly fundamental boundaries—including that implied by bisexuality and gender-bending—cannot be tolerated by the powers that be; rather it must be repressed if life is to carry on as usual. And so, that which “escapes repression has to be dealt with by oppression” (Wood 64). If Brad and Janet are to ever return to something like normal life, Frank has to be destroyed. as Robin Wood argues, “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with . . . in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it” (Wood 65-6). Frank’s death at Riff Raff’s hands ensures that no other young couples will suffer the same fate as Brad and Janet. At the same time, that they end the film not in their own clothes, but in Frank’s can be read as a taming or assimilation of Frank. Brad and Janet in corsets and boas are not nearly as threatening as Frank, for their commitment to “absolute pleasure” is not as all-consuming as his is.

Unlike Frank, Brad and Janet do survive TRHPS. That they do so as the film’s most traditional and nostalgic figures is hardly a coincidence. When viewers first meet the newly engaged couple, they “talk as if they just stepped out of a fifties Doris Day movie and dress like extras in an episode of The Brady Bunch” (Friedman and Kavey 161). Initially, both are completely out of place in Frank’s castle, as is emphasized by Janet’s swooning at the mere sight of Frank and his Transylvanians. Compared to them, Brad and Janet are as wholesome and as ordinary as can be (Miller 122). And while their virginal virtue might not prevent them from “succumb[ing] to the doctor’s sexual advances,” it does enable them to leave his castle alive (Friedman and Kavey 161). By allowing Brad and Janet to live when Frank does not, Sharman positions them as potential protagonists to the transvestite’s villain. Thus, TRHPS seems to undercut all the values and behaviors that Frank supports and to say that sexual experimentation is only acceptable so long as one finds their way back to heterosexuality, normality, and marriage in the end.

And yet, through Brad and Janet, Frank’s influence might live on. With his frequent costume changes—he wears five outfits in an evening—grand entrances, exaggerated gesticulation, and volatile temperament, Frank is constantly shifting and performing. His words are calculated for maximum effect (his long pause when uttering “I see you shiver with antici . . . pation” is but one example), and whenever he’s in a room, he ensures all eyes are on him. He is narcissistic and self-absorbed. He is a violent murderer too. But he is also glam, camp, and counterculture made flesh. TRHPS does celebrate him, but only to point. In killing him, the film acknowledges that the world is not quite ready for the likes of Frank. He’s an alien. A fantasy. A delightful, but dangerous dream. Whether Brad and Janet are better off for having known him is up for debate. They will never be him, but they will never be the same either. The Counterculture may not have realized its aims, and much of it may have been defeated, but its “legacy was manifold” and far-reaching all the same (Casper 16-7).

As outrageous and as strange as it often is, TRHPS isn’t so much incomprehensible as it is multifaceted, and it exhibits both the revolution and the reaction of its day. Rather than reduce the world to nonsense, the film approaches its subject matter from a very particular point of view, one which carves out space for the nostalgic and the progressive alike. The film makes few claims to coherence, and it invites readings from multiple angles. “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists indeed, a good taste of bad taste”—TRHPS demonstrates this near-paradox repeatedly, which may explain why so many critics where “baffled” by it in 1975 (Sontag 291; Thompson 173). The same film that exudes exploitation and exhibits all sorts of taboo sexual behavior also has an eye firmly fixed on the past, putting it completely out of step with the cinemagoing standards of [its] day” (Thompson 164). Like Frank, Sharman’s film does not mesh well with external standards of acceptability. Rather, it allows the diversity and the confusion of its time to show plainly on its heavily decorated face. And while it may not have the broad, centrist appeal of many popular films from its era, TRHPS still ventures further to the right than Frank’s fishnets would seem to suggest (Casper xvii-xvii).

At the very end of the film, The Criminologist solemnly recites the following lyrics: “And crawling on the planet’s face/Some insects called the human race/Lost in time, and lost in space/And meaning.” Following a spinning overhead shot of Brad, Janet, and Dr. Everett Scott shrouded in smoke, dazed in the aftermath of what they’ve experienced, TRHPS returns to its narrator. However, where a conventional film might end with a more definitive, reassuring resolution, Sharman’s Criminologist offers up something darker and more open-ended instead. Viewers of TRHPS are not told what becomes of Brad and Janet once they return to “normal” society. Rather, they are left with words underscoring the sheer difficulty of distilling any coherent message from what they’ve just seen. In its final scenes, TRHPS rejects the notion that it can be read in any straightforward fashion. Like the gender-bending, bisexual Frank-N-Furter, and like the camp sensibility running through so much of it, TRHPS courts uncertainty and contradiction. If its viewers are left disoriented, “lost” and unable to find “meaning” in it, that may just be the point. As Frank and his castle of freakish Transylvanians work to unsettle and confuse the supremely ordinary Brad and Janet, so too does Sharman’s film ask audiences to let go of preconceived notions concerning everything from sex and gender to style, genre, and more. TRHPS may aim to delight and entertain, but it questions and challenges as well. The film consistently refuses to be consistent. It will not limit itself to being only one thing, nor will it pretend that the answers to society’s questions are easy to come by. What viewers—or Brad and Janet—chose to do with that, is up to them.

Until Next Time
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Bibliography
Casper, Drew. Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Reviews: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 18 Aug. 1976. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1976. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

Friedman, Lester D. and Allison B. Kavey. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2016. Print.

Miller, Scott. “The Rocky Horror Show.” Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Musicals. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 2011. 112-139. Print.

“Review: ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Variety. 31 Dec. 1974. http://variety.com/1974/film/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1200423333/. Accessed 26 Mar 2017.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Richard O’Brien.  20th Century Fox, 1975. Blu-ray.

Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of Genre: Definitions and Themes.” Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 17-63. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador Series. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. 275-292. Print.

Thompson, Dave. The Rocky Horror Picture Show FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Campy Cult Classic. Applause Theater and Cinema Books. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2016. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. 1986. Expanded and Rev. Ed. Rpt. as Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.

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