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Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, dressed as a macabre drag queen Tim Curry centre stage in Rocky Horror Picture show
  • Happy 40th birthday Rocky Horror Picture Show: interview with director Jim Sharman

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    Posted on: 05/11/2015

    The greatest audience participation movie in history, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, turned 40 this year. To blow out the candles film critic Luke Buckmaster has a rare interview with its director, Sydney-based theatre and cinema doyen Jim Sharman, who reflects on Rocky Horror’s strange and unprecedented success.

    Four decades ago a gaudy, glitzy, hyper-powered, hyper-coloured, hyper-sexual revisionist rock musical hit the big screen, very likely the most magnificently sleazy cinematic song and dance show from anywhere in the world or any period in time.

    There are a million and one ways to approach The Rocky Horror Picture Show; no thesaurus has enough adjectives to describe the film’s heady concoction of extreme kink, B movie tropes and counter-cultural energy. But one thing is beyond interpretation or dispute: it is the greatest audience participation phenomenon in the history of cinema.

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    Rocky Horror was initially a flop when it opened in 1975 but rocketed to cult status when theatre openers started programming the film at midnight. The crowds came; they saw; their eyes bulged; they started singing and dancing and to this day they haven’t stopped. The film is still regularly screened around the world including at some of the original venues it played at, never disappearing from the bill.

    For 40 years the film’s director, Sydney-based cinema and theatre doyen Jim Sharman, has mostly avoided what he calls the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show press roundabout’ and regards discussing the ins and outs of the film’s cultural impact as a job best left for sociologists.

    “At the time the film broke basic rules of the cinema, like having characters talk to the audience. So it’s no surprise that the audience answered back. It changed the notion of the passive audience into the active audience, even if it was just a party,” he says.   

    “I think the interesting thing is the question that’s really not for me, which is to do with solving the riddle of why it is still there doing what it is doing. I’ve heard many answers along the way but I haven’t actually heard one that’s kind of convincing yet…It’s not one I have much of an answer for, beyond the point of view of the film – the fact that it was kind of inspired by late night cinema.”

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    References to those inspirations are front and centre in the film; the first things we hear. The opening number Science Fiction/Double Feature, famously performed by a pair of bright red lips in front of a pitch black background, tributes a range of B movies later parodied by the film itself including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, King Kong, It Came from Outer Space and The Day of the Triffids

    Rocky Horror is full of strange bits and bobs: literally in its props and costumes and otherwise in madcap humour, lashes of pop culture references and the behaviour of an assortment of loony sexually liberated characters. It seems to takes place in a vacuum divorced from both time and space and the conventions of cinema – a garish, swirling patchwork joyfully here and there.

    When newly engaged couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) take refuge from a storm and enter a remote castle – the premise modelled on director James Whale’s 1932 schlock pic The Old Dark House – there’s a sense anything can happen. Transvestite mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) brings to the film a sense of extreme chaos. 

    The sensational, sleazy, showy spectacle of it all masks some serious undertones. "Let’s Do the Time Warp" again, the film’s most famous song, makes political connections that most people have probably never thought about but seem obvious when one of the lines is quoted: “A jump to the left and a step to the right.”

    Sharman agrees, saying “the film is layered and I think that was not picked up on when it first appeared.” What has been picked up on a great deal more is the empowering effect it has had on youth.

    “There’s a bit of sexual anarchy that is probably very liberating, because it deals with some things that are probably very difficult for young people in a very light way and fun way,” he says.

    “That maybe is something that is helpful at a particular moment in time. As well as probably being quite a good date movie in a bizarre kind of way. Susan Sarandon said a great thing about it. She said it’s like love, don’t try to understand it.”

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    The original cast had their own reactions when they saw Rocky Horror Picture Show 40 years later

    And the sets. Oh boy, the sets. The production design is extravagantly colourful: plastic and fake looking, as if a drug-induced interior designer sneaked into a James Bond villain lair and decorated it with BDSM outfits and rainbow coloured thingmebobs. The film was made and released smack bang in the mid-70s but its aesthetic seems to belong to a different era, or none at all.

    “It’s something that captured its own time but was out of its own time as well, because really its frame of reference was silent movies. You’ve got to remember that when that film was being made social realism was pretty much the only show in town,” Sharman says.

    “It was quite exceptional to make something as extreme as that, but I don’t know how conscious we were. It would be very easy to be wise after the event. I think a lot of what happened was to do with a particular group of people who combusted at a particular moment in time.”

    - Luke Buckmaster

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