The Rocky Horror Picture Show hits 40: why is it still such a fan favourite?

Is it the jumps to the left or the steps to the right – or maybe it’s the pelvic thrusts? The cult classic’s co-writer and director Jim Sharman has his own theory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 6:00pm

Jim Sharman is going through a bit of a time warp.

Sharman, 70, is a celebrated theatre and opera director in his native Australia with dozens of productions to his credit. He has been an artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and was the creator of the Lighthouse theatre company, which focused on innovative staging of classic plays as well as works by new Australian playwrights.

But early in his career, Sharman was a lot more rock ’n’ roll, directing three seminal musicals – Hair in Australia, Tokyo and Boston; Jesus Christ Superstar in Australia and London; and most significantly, The Rocky Horror Show, a wacky, erotic sci-fi horror musical written and composed by actor Richard O’Brien, which opened in London in 1973 and played in Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne and New York.

In 1975, Sharman directed and co-wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which 40 years after its release is still the ultimate midnight movie. Executive-produced by Lou Adler, who had seen the stage production, Rocky Horror was shot on a low budget at Bray Studios in England, the old Hammer horror film studios.

“It wasn’t such a smart move,” says Sharman, laughing. “There was no heating, and it was the middle of winter.”

Though he did direct the 1981 follow-up Shock Treatment, Sharman says that was enough involvement in anything Rocky Horror.

He returned to the Australian stage and never looked back.

Sharman rarely discusses Rocky Horror and hadn’t seen the film in more than a decade. But he recently watched it on Blu-ray before he left Sydney for a visit to Los Angeles. It made him reconsider the movie’s appeal.

“There is sort of an ambiguity in it,” says Sharman of the film.

That’s putting it mildly.

Tim Curry, who walks in heels better than most women, stars as the alien transvestite scientist Frank N. Furter; Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon are the virginal engaged couple Brad and Janet, whose car breaks down near Frank’s spooky castle; and O’Brien, who co-wrote the film with Sharman, is Frank’s creepy servant Riff Raff.

Sharman has heard many theories about why audiences have been fanatically loyal to the movie after all of these decades – the strong sense of community created among audience members; the perfect date movie for outsiders; and its great marketing. He’s not buying any single explanation.

“I don’t think anybody can completely explain it,” he says. “I think that’s the interesting story. I think it must be something in the DNA of the movie.”

His unusual upbringing may have something to do with the success. “My own background was divided between a very conventional city upbringing in a very conservative Australia – I think I did a little bit to correct that starting with Hair – but the rest of the time my family ran travelling sideshows.”

Sharman didn’t care to follow in the family business. He was much more interested in the travelling vaudeville shows he would see. Attending drama school was his “serious side. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is kind of the fairground side.”

After directing Jesus Christ Superstar in London, he went to the Royal Court Theatre and directed Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand, which featured O’Brien, who showed Sharman a musical he had written.

“At that stage it was called They Came from Denton High,” says Sharman. “So we kind of built it up from there.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was influenced by the German silent Expressionist films he saw at midnight screenings in London.

Notes Sharman: “I think Tim’s performance is right up there with Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

Los Angeles Times