– By Sam Hendrian –
After a lengthy battle with what I feared might be unhealthy curiosity, I finally decided to sit down and watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As someone who deeply loves his fellow human beings and desires to understand why they like the things that they do, I have been quite determined for months now to figure out why so many people are entranced by this extremely bizarre musical-horror film. After watching the film, I can understand its appeal, particularly in the catchy songs, but I am afraid that the deeper message of the film will be lost on most people who watch the film simply to “give themselves over to absolute pleasure” as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) depravedly encourages.
At its core, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a goofy, often disturbing fable about the seductive appeal of hedonism and the evil implications it carries. When the film opens, the prim-and-proper Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) are deeply in love and believe that the sex act is a sacred manifestation of this love meant for after they are married. When a flat tire on an isolated road sends them up to a spooky castle looking for a telephone, they are taken captive by a bunch of hedonistic aliens who seduce them with the idea that sex’s only purpose is to transmit pleasure. Formerly pure-minded Janet decides all too quickly to surrender her virginity to the forcefully seductive Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and the formerly chivalrous Brad listens to this same seducer as he says, “There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure.” Soon Janet and Brad are completely initiated in the aliens’ hedonistic ways, and as the handyman Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) sings earlier in the film, “Nothing will ever be the same.”
Towards the end of the film, Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his new followers quite literally sing the praises of hedonism in a big musical show. Frank croons, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure/Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh/Erotic nightmares beyond any measure/And sensual daydreams to treasure forever.” The muscleman Rocky, who Frank created in a lab for the sole purpose of sexual pleasure, sings, “Now the only thing I’ve come to trust/Is an orgasmic rush of lust.” This is all rather sad really, but it conveys a powerful message: when Love, real Love is absent from our lives, we animalistically become slaves to Pleasure, a master who may make us feel good but who can never give us true happiness.
After Riff-Raff rebels against and kills Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Brad and Janet are blasted from the pleasure castle while the rest of the aliens beam back to their home planet. As they crawl around on the dirt, the Criminologist (played with comic perfection by character actor Charles Gray), who has been narrating the film, concludes poetically, “And crawling on the planet’s face/Some insects called the human race/Lost in time/And lost in space/And meaning.” Brad and Janet used to believe in the noble persona of Self-Sacrifice, a.k.a. Love, and this Love gave their lives a true sense of beauty and purpose. Now they have been seduced by the fun but merciless master of Self-Indulgence, a.k.a. Pleasure, and the beauty and purpose they formerly knew in their lives is but a distant memory. Will they ever re-discover the healing powers of Love and amend their tarnished outlook on life? Sadly, we never find out.
Richard O’Brien, who created the story/music of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and portrays Riff-Raff, stated in an interview that this bizarre movie is basically a re-telling of the Adam and Eve story. An initially pure and innocent man and woman are convinced by a cunning serpent (or alien in this case) that the selfish, unbridled satisfaction of all their desires is what will really make them happy, not those “silly” virtues called love and self-control. This man and woman eventually learn that this cunning creature is a filthy liar, but the damage has been done, and they will never be the same. In this respect, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a poignant cautionary tale that warns us against being seduced by the serpent(s) in our own lives. The reality is, though, that most people who view The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight screenings or in the comfort of their homes are not looking to be brought closer to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
With that being said, I cannot really recommend or endorse this cult classic. The ultimate message is not entirely bad, but its delivery is jumbled and confusing, and many folks may walk away from the film believing that the pursuit of absolute pleasure is all that really matters in our “meaningless” existence. Let us now then take the time to remember that despite what the Criminologist concludes, our existence as human beings does not have to be insect-like or meaningless. As long as Love remains alive in our souls, as long as we truly strive to put others before ourselves, then nihilism will not have the final say; our lives have a noble and divine purpose.
This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.