Why The Rocky Horror Picture Show Still Has Meaning (But the Remake is a Terrible Idea)


In 1973, the Rocky Horror Show opened in London. In 1975 it was adapted into The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry in arguably his most iconic performance, and the fandom that grew up around that theatrical flop came to define the cultural reference of what a cult film following looks like. You can go to just about any city in America and find a midnight showing of the film, and the show is all but guaranteed to show up at Halloween (in America and its home country of England). And FOX, after hemming and hawing about it for years, is finally looking to cash in on that sweet, sweet remake money (or “reimagining,” but hold that thought). This is the worst idea, and not in the usual “worst idea” way in that remakes tend to be poorly thought out and offer little new interpretive value beyond “we cast younger actors and got better cameras, money please.”

The deeper trouble is that Rocky Horror is in the unenviable position of having become a cultural mainstay for long enough that it is really starting to show its age. The disparity between what queer culture was when the stage show and film were produced and what it is now are whole universes apart. And that has resulted in a gap of sorts: you have the predominately straight or mainstream audience who views the film as a fun exercise in camp and potentially takes the parody on display at face value (thus perpetuating harmful stereotypes), and you have a young queer audience who’ve grown up in a world where a spectrum of positive, diverse representation from Steven Universe to Orange is the New Black exists, and they dismiss the film as harmful trash with no redeeming value whatsoever. The truth, by my estimation, is somewhere between these extremes: Rocky Horror has certainly aged poorly in some regards, and to say that those outdated portions are more harmful than helpful is a perfectly valid position; at the same time, not only has the film been a respite for thousands of outcasts since its release (and the play before it), but it continues to be subversive in some interesting ways that I rarely see addressed.

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Singing and Maiming, Together at Last

This is the time of year when I’m reminded of my Stockholm Syndrome for horror stories. Traditionally I’m filled with a desire to consume them, which then conflicts with my need to sleep over the next several days. But then in high school I was introduced to Army of Darkness, and camp horror swooped in to rescue my circadian rhythms.

What’s camp, you reluctantly ask after I’ve singled you out? That’s an excellent question, theoretical reader. There’re a couple different definitions, which have evolved with time, but it comes down to a few basic components: theatricality, excessiveness, comparative mediocrity, and above all absurd exaggeration of the subject at hand. This generally comes in ‘deliberate’ and ‘accidental’ flavors. Drag shows can be camp, for example, as a means of playing up the ridiculousness of the ‘costume’ of gender roles. The films of Ed Wood (Plan 9 and so on) are camp because they hurtle past any bounds of empathy or believable fantasy and right on into self-parody. It’s a fine line, and achieving it deliberately is a lot harder than doing it accidentally – accidental camp comes with an air of charm, the feeling that the creators were honestly trying their best and just didn’t make it to traditional quality (whether from resources or the material itself being lacking); whereas deliberate and failed camp more often than not provokes eyerolling and the resentment of the audience.

Deliberate camp, particularly, needs to have something to say to really strike a chord. The exaggeration must exist to draw attention to something rather than existing for its own excessive sake (which is the domain of accidental camp). I’m convinced the reason The Rocky Horror Picture Show has much more reliable appeal than Repo! The Genetic Opera is because the former knew what it was paying homage/parody to (B sci fi movies and the sexual revolution), while the latter just kind of…is, in all its weird, cult-celebrity collecting glory (despite really wanting to be Rocky Horror).

In that light, I gathered up five great under the radar examples (in no particular order) of not just camp horror, but camp musical horror for your Halloween week. And for those of you concerned I might make it a whole post without mentioning anime, worry not. It’s in there.

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