Don’t dream it, be it: the hidden history of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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When he debuted in the cinemas in August 1975, the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t go exactly as expected from the production: it was shot during the winter, after the triumphant season in the theaters where he had collected enthusiasms unanimously, but the movie didn’t receive the same feedbacks and eventually became popular only after being included in the schedules of the Midnight Cinemas (which were showing late evening shows).

Finding the right place to The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t really easy, given the topics touched: the explicit and bold exhibitionism of the protagonists and their sexual tendencies made the film far too transgressive and very little usable for the audience. The plot was set in a castle where the young Brad and Janet, after a flat tire during their trip, find refuge: in that castle they meet the ambiguous Frank N. Furter and his fellows Magenta, Columbia and Riff Raff, in their way to give life to Rocky. The creature, in the intentions of the scientist, had been realized in order to satisfy unorthodox attentions, but the Frank N. Furter plans will find more than one obstacle. The original musical had been written by Richard O’Brien, who back in the early 70s was just a novice actor looking for engagement: he wrote the Rocky Horror in a winter where there wasn’t much work, just to kill the time, unaware that it would become his passage to glory.

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The Rocky Horror Show, the original musical, was intended to pay tribute to the sci-fi stories and the horror B-movies horror that O’Brien loved (starting from Frankenstein, whose references are clear starting from the protagonist name), with a series of themes and scenes accompanied by rock’n’roll songs and a glam, decadent attitude. When O’Brien showed to Jim Sherman (who worked with him in Jesus Christ Superstar) part of the script, Sherman was so enthusiastic about the idea to immediately commit himself in the making of of the musical, becoming director and producer. The Rocky Horror Show premiered in 1973 at the Royal Court Theatre, then moved to other London theatres until the end of his race in 1980, after about 3000 performances.

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The cast of the theatrical spectacle

Given that success, Sherman and O’Brien moved to the movie transposition, writing together the movie and adding new scenes, not present in the original musical. When the rumours of an imminent landing at the cinema spread, many stars proposed themselves to get a role: among them there were Mick Jagger (who asked to play Frank N. Furter) and Steve Martin (oriented to play Brad). The production eventually decided to keep part of the original cast unchanged and gave the part of the protagonist to Tim Curry, who returned to the role that gave him much success. Even Patricia Quinn (Magenta), Neil Campbell (Columbia) and Richard O’Brien himself (Riff Raff) kept their roles. The other characters were assigned to Susan Sarandon (Janet), Barry Bostwick (Brad), Jonathan Adams (Dr. Everett), Peter Hinwood (Rocky), Meat Loaf (Eddie) and Charles Gray (the criminologist). The attempts to convince Vincent Price (who apparently was a big fan of the musical) to be the narrator of the story did not succeed, and his absence remained the biggest regret of production.

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For Frank N. Furter’s castle, the choice was for the Oakley Court, near London: the castle, which was built in 1859 and today is a luxury hotel, was chosen previously also as a set for 1960’s The Brides of Dracula and 1966’s The Plagues Of he Zombies. The building was humid and cold, but the production just ignored the complaints of the actors, even in front of the pneumonia that Susan Sarandon caught during the filming. Peter Hinwood, who was chosen for the part of Rocky, was not able to sing and was dubbed by Trevor White: some years later he quit as actor and became an antiquarian, commenting afterwards that “actor’s life was not his thing”. Meat Loaf (Eddie) had many difficulties during the bike scenes on a bike and was substituted by a stuntman: when the camera was closer to the character, he was on a wheelchair, pushed to simulate the movement of the vehicle.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show had even a sequel, shot in 1981: Shock Treatment had part of the original cast back, but failed to gain success and substantially resulted in a flop. Ten years later O’Brien tried a second attempt writing another sequel, The Revenge of the Old Queen, but after the results of Shock Treatment he was not taken into consideration by any producer and the script remained unused. In other words: there is, and there will be, one only Rocky Horror on the wide screen.

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Luca Divelti writes stories of music, cinema and TV on Rock’n’Blog and Auralcrave. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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