This is an old clip with the old cast, but you get the picture.
So, it's finally come to this.
After nearly 10 blissful months of midnight movies free from the horrible clutches of The Time Warp, cult cinema's most inexplicable annual tradition has once again descended upon Nashville. As expected, hundreds of assholes, sluts and virgins attended sold-out screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show this Halloween weekend at The Belcourt. Also as expected? I still kinda hate The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
That's putting it a bit too strongly. I may not precisely “hate” Rocky Horror but I'd hardly consider myself a member of the cult surrounding it — even if I have seen this thing somewhere around a dozen times, mostly at Belcourt screenings and due to acquiescences to ex-girlfriends. But, while I may not particularly enjoy this Batan Death March of midnight movies, I do find it completely fascinating. Not so much for the movie — which I think we can all agree is total garbage — but because of the intense weirdo nerd cult that has embraced it.
It's about this time where I remind/warn you that I once wrote a sociology paper wherein I postulated about the social hierarchy of midnight movie audiences. So, get ready for more of that.
If you're not interested in plowing through 30 pages of highfalutin armchair academia, my central thesis was this: The average Rocky Horror screening audience can be divided into four distinct groups based on level of participation and experience: newbies, casual fans, hardcore fans and the cast. Or, in Rocky parlance, you could call them virgins, sluts (combining the middle groups) and cast members. But, because I am embarrassed by the repeated use of the word “slut,” I'm not gonna. DWI.
The purpose of the cast is two-fold. One, they're entertainment. They're literally performing this dumb thing on stage to poke fun at it. That much is obvious. But, more importantly, they're also imposing the structure of the movie experience. They lead the audience through the various rites and rituals while enforcing the rules of the screening. Some of those rules are common sense, like asking the audience to please not have sex in the theater. Others are a bit harder to grasp, like encouraging the people who are funny and discouraging the people who are, let's say, problematic.
As anarchistic as Rocky Horror appears from the outside, it's shockingly regimented. I think it was Scene chief Jim Ridley who once described this movie to me as being like boot camp, and I couldn't agree with that sentiment more. Rocky Horror is a ridiculously complicated film (especially with all the stuff you're supposed to yell and throw). Unlike its spiritual successor, The Room, 95% of the audience responses are one-and-done. There's not a lot of recurring stuff, which makes it hard for new people to pick up on stuff outside of dancing the Time Warp and calling Brad an asshole. As a result, a confident, experienced cast is necessary to wrangle the 350+ drunk attendees and make sure everything goes smoothly.
That's about where things started to break down on Friday night.
I arrived at the Belcourt shortly after leaving the cold embrace of slightly alienating electronic music down by the river — watching dudes dressed like Batman villains getting down to Skrillex, and Skrillex just Skrillexing all over the place. Encouraged by the promise of heat and costumed weirdos (my people!), I wound up at the theater a solid 45 minutes before the movie. After staking out my seat, I was quickly dismissed as a slut by the cast assistant, who beckoned to newbies with a call of “GIVE ME YOUR FACE” so that she could draw a red V on them — branding them as virgins and mandating their participation in the virgin sacrifice.
The virgin sacrifice usually works something like this: All of the people who have never seen Rocky Horror live (watching it at home on VH-1 doesn't count) are branded and given red balloons. They gather at the front of the theater, blow up their balloons and place them between their legs. They're then instructed to march around the theater, reconvene at the front and “pop their cherries” (get it?). Anyone who blows their balloon early is publicly shamed. It's a simple, symbolic ritual that works really well at conveying a “one of us, one of us, one of us” mentality. It also gives you a pretty good idea of what you've gotten yourself into.
This is where a good, authoritative MC is critical. Previously, that role was filled by local actor/comedian Ryan Williams, who was pretty much the best at that job. He and the rest of the now-retired cast leaned hard on a motto of “you're not that important,” which informed his ruthlessly funny, almost contemptuous on-stage persona. The kid in his place mostly just made super-pedestrian gay jokes and didn't bother to lay down the law. Which would explain why, in the middle of the “sacrifice,” a rogue element on the left aisle attacked every balloon in sight, leaving precious few survivors, and the cast petulantly calling everyone else “pussies” for “hiding their balloons.” Or, in other words, turning an inclusionary rite of passage into a big ol' “fuck you” to a very earnest audience. That bummed me out something fierce.
You know what else is a big ol' “fuck you” to the audience? Not starting the movie until 12:30 in the morning.
Look, I get it. This is Little Morals: The New Class. There's no way that they'll already be at the level of the old cast members, many of whom performed during the heyday of The Franklin Theatre's regular Rocky Horror screenings. Most of them probably haven't done shows this big outside of schools like MTSU and TN Tech. And they'll certainly get better over time. But right now? Whoah boy, that was rough. Not helping matters was a former cast member, who mostly just screamed lines from rote memory without a hint of cleverness or humor. The whole endeavor just felt kinda soulless and, again, like being stuck in sexual promiscuity boot camp.
But that's not to say it was all bad! There were a few funny people who came up with witty, clever things to shout. Those folks should be encouraged to make their jabs at the movie. It's just a shame that they were drowned out in the din of unfunny. While I don't particularly like Rocky Horror as a movie, I think that it can be a great experience. That just requires a decent audience and a good cast that isn't afraid to encourage the shy folks and shut down the mooks.
Maybe next year, the cast will have a stronger grasp on the audience control needed to make these screenings stay on the rails (and believe me, there are rails). Just repeat after me: You're not that important, you're not that important, you're not that important.
Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?
- I think The Belcourt effectively treat these screening as a rental. That means most of the charming midnight movie fare we've come to know and love was missing — including the preroll and the drink special. What do you think would make a good Rocky Horror cocktail? Whatever it is, I bet it'd be served in a glass shaped like a dick.
- While I was walking into the theater, a Belcourt staffer mentioned to me that a cleaning service had been hired to pick up the loads of toilet paper, playing cards, newspapers and other assorted garbage thrown around in a typical Rocky Horror screening. I can only assume hearing that news was the happiest moment in their lives.
- On the list of things banned inside The Belcourt for Rocky Horror screenings? Glitter, rice, confetti, squirt guns, things that start fires, silly string, throwing crap at the screen and outside food (this includes toast). Interestingly enough, the cast chose not to sell prop bags this time around, which probably lessened the damage.
- The theater announced the remaining slate of midnight movies through the rest of the year, and I can see a light at the end of the Late Shift tunnel. Coming up: Miami Connection (Nov. 9-10), Red Dawn (Nov. 23-24), the return of The Room (Dec. 7-8) and Silent Night Deadly Night (Dec. 21-22).
- Meat Loaf is unequivocally the best part of Rocky Horror.
- Last I heard, The Belcourt still had some tickets left for the Halloween night screening of Rocky Horror. Scoop them up fast if you want to witness this thing for itself.
In Two Weeks: A band of synth-rock ninjas goes to war with a kung-fu motorcycle gang in Miami Connection, a previously unseen gem from the ’80s that may unseat Stunt Rock as the king of all “rock band vs. evil” movies.