GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Fox Video, 1975
Starring: Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, Meatloaf
Rated R, 83 minutes
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood, Dolores Fuller
.Before the offbeat plays of Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party) and Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You) there was the grand-daddy of them all: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This film still remains the epitome of high camp. To this day, audiences bitten with the performing bug continue to attend midnight shows dressed in fishnet stockings as their favorite characters so that they can interact with their heroes onscreen. It's even being revived on Broadway with lesbian actress/comedienne Lea Delaria cross-dressing in the twin roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott. With its 25th Anniversary re-release on video and DVD, (a virtual cornucopia of extras on the DVD will be discussed later), Rocky still fascinates. A close examination or what lies beneath the veneer of camp however reveals a clever satire on society and outmoded concepts of morality.
Rocky's bizarre plot is well known. Two all-American innocents named Brad and Janet seek refuge in a spooky old mansion when their car breaks down. Instead of finding Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in monster make-up, they meet transvestites from Transylvania who dance the Time Warp. The old screen monster becomes a sexual predator, albeit a sensual one, who sings torch songs and whose creed is "give yourself over to absolute pleasure." The Mad Scientist's creation is a hunky blonde muscleman in gold lame boxer shorts. This truly subversive musical spoofs dozens of sci-fi and horror films (especially James Whale's 1932 camp classic, The Old Dark House, and of course his 1931 Frankenstein) and melds them with the 1950s rock and roll movie genre.
In the 50s, parents thought rock and roll was evil and would corrupt their children. Rocky Horror takes that notion to the limit as Brad and Janet lose their innocence at the hands of crossdressing aliens. The lurid mansion is ripe with "perverse" sexuality... incest and lesbianism is hinted at among the servants... and the evil Dr. Frank-N-Furter deflowers both Janet and Brad. As Janet says, when they enter the house, "There's something unhealthy here!" In the end the Translvanians turn out to be just as prudish about sex as their earthbound counterpoints when Riff Raff and Magenta return, dressed in silver underwear, and inform Frank-N-Furter that his "lifestyle's too extreme." A puritanical scientist concurs with their judgment and insists that "society must be protected."
But Rocky is anything but a stuffy satire and some might say I am reading too much into this goofy movie. But these underlying themes are there for all to see, disguised as outrageous entertainment. During the 70s, artists like David Bowie were redefining gender roles, and Rocky takes these experiments to their logical conclusion. The film flopped on its first release but a few years later it gained notoriety on the midnight show circuit as audiences turned it into a complex piece of performance art. Many who were confused about their sexuality would find solace with an audience who was being told "Don't Dream it. Be it."
25 years later, Rocky still endures because of its clever premise, its catchy songs and its dynamic casting. Tim Curry, who originated the role on the London stage, is divinely decadent as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon are terrific as the young innocents, while Meatloaf almost steals the show as Eddie during his one scene as a rock and roll hooligan who once shared Frank's bed.
DVD collectors will be happy to know that Rocky has just made its DVD debut with a two-disc set that is loaded with extras. Disc 1 features pristine widescreen stereo transfers of both the American and British versions. (This reviewer prefers the British rendering because the deletion of the song "Super Heroes" from the American cut destroys the pace of the ending). Extras include a running commentary with writer Richard OŐBrien (Riff Raff) and Patricia Quinn (Magenta) as they reminisce about both the stage and screen versions.
Also included are "easter eggs" which will take a viewer to clips of audience participation in a movie theater, as well as prompting when to throw rice and toilet paper at your television screen. A third audio track attempts to re-create the theatrical experience (with limited success) by having an actual audience yell their own lines of dialogue to augment the film. The second disc includes a VH-1 documentary as well as videos, trailers, and interviews with most of the castmembers. Tim Curry is strangely absent from most of these proceedings and that is my only quibble with the discs. This will make a great stocking stuffer for any Rocky fans on your Christmas list.
Rocky Horror was deliberate camp. There is also, of course, camp that is unintentional. A good example of this is Glen or Glenda, (1953), one of my favorite bad movies of all time. This celluloid catastrophe, the creation of the sublimely untalented Ed Wood, is in a class by itself. Writer/director Ed Wood is both the "auteur" of the notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space and the subject of a quirky, but brilliant, biopic by Tim Burton. He has been revered for years as the worst director of all time.
Glen or Glenda, aka I Changed My Sex, was Wood's first feature film. It was produced by a low budget studio which specialized in exploitation movies, and its aim was to cash in on the recent Christine Jorgenson sex change scandal. Completely ignoring the producers' intentions, Wood wrote a script that attempted to deal sympathetically with the problems faced every day by crossdressers. Wood, himself, liked to wear women's clothes and was especially fond of white angora sweaters. His attempt to make an avant-garde autobiographical film is a hoot which has to be seen to be believed.
Wood stars (under a pseudonym) as Glen, a sad and pathetic man who likes to wear dresses as his alter ego, Glenda. While engaged to be married, he is afraid to confess the truth to his fiancee. Meanwhile, he strolls the streets in drag, with visible five-o'clock shadow and hairy forearms, and gazes longingly at women's lingerie in store windows. He finally beaks the news to his fiancee and, as the violins swell, she removes her angora sweater and hands it to the rapturous Glen.
What propels Glen or Glenda to soaring heights of lunacy is the film's narrator... who is none other than Bela Lugosi as an omnipotent puppetmaster who oversees Glen's sad story. Sitting in an armchair surrounded by skeletons and shrunken heads, Lugosi spouts such ludicrous soliloquies as "Bevare. Bevare of the big green dragon who sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, big fat snails. Bevare. Bevare." Adding to this overall air of incoherence are subliminal shots of atomic bombs and buffalo stampedes at key moments.
Glen or Glenda also features a police psychologist that is played by a man who must have graduated from the Dragnet school of acting. His clinical observations about transvestites are about as accurate as a typical Dr. Laura Schlessinger show. A sex change operation is suggested by some surgical stock footage, providing the only remaining link to the producer's original plans before Wood put his stamp on the film.
One of the many highlights is a dream sequence featuring a horde of transvestites who chase Glen after he and his fiancee are married while a ludicrous devil looks on, grinning. Meanwhile Lugosi watches impassively while a chorus of children chant "Puppy dog tails! Big fat snails!" repeatedly on the soundtrack. The sequence ends with Glen rapturously dressed again as Glenda.
Make no mistake here. Glen or Glenda is one of the worst movies in the history of cinema. Its humor might be unintentional but it's actually much funnier than most of Hollywood's real comedies. It is redeemed somewhat by Wood's good intentions but, as Burton's film Ed Wood faithfully records, the director was no Orson Welles. All we can say is... he tried. And it's a pity because had Wood possessed any actual talent, this might have been a groundbreaking queer film.
[Reviewer's note, 2007: I might be getting sentimental in my old age, but I want to cut Ed Wood some slack. Yes, his films are still terrible, but calling him the worst director of all time is unfair. A close examination of Glen or Glenda, (when you stop laughing), reveals a cornucopia of ideas... it's just that Wood didnŐt have the artistic ability to realize them. Glenda is never (intentionally) played for laughs and this was quite radical for the 1950s. Some of the stock footage that he pads out the length of the film with seems to have been chosen with a purpose - for example, long phallic streams of molten steel in a factory are seen being cut by machinery during a narrative voice-over about sex roles. Because the film deals with deconstructed gender, I suppose that the green dragon eating the puppy dog tails soliloquy does make sense in an odd sort of way. But can anyone explain that buffalo stampede?]
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