Years ago when I was a child I remember watching Siskel & Ebert. They were reviewing some movie whose goal in life was to be “so bad it was good” but utterly failed at it. They kept referring to something called “Rocky Horror” as what the movie was going for but that “Rocky Horror” had done it better. I of course figured that they were referring to the movie Rocky and were screwing up the name.
A few years after that I remember hearing some hubub about a movie finally being released to VHS. It was called The Rocky Horror Picture Show and I put it together that that was the movie S&E were talking about. I still had no idea what it was but I guessed it was a horror movie and a pretty good one – it would have to be to carry a $79.99 price tag.
At some point RHPS started appearing on television – at first on premium cable channels like HBO and then later on on channels like MTV. I still didn’t know what it was exactly other than it was a bad horror flick. This is about the point I started hearing about the “culture” of RHPS – the late night screenings, the dressing up in women’s underwear, the fact that it was a musical. I knew it was the most successful cult movie (a movie that’s a mainstream failure but is an underground hit) of all time but I still didn’t get why. The topper was that it was a movie where people yelled back at the screen, ala MST3K, but they yelled the same things every time. My brain refused to process this last bit.
Flash forward to 1997. I’ve been dating this gorgeous woman named Wendy for a few months now and we decide to take a man named Stephen Lair (who is in my Corps outfit at the time) on his offer to do a double date with him and his girlfriend to go see a showing of RHPS at The Grove (small outdoor amitheatre on the A&M campus), as put on by the local Sci Fi organization. We go and suffice it to say we had a interesting time. Interesting in a fucked up sort of way. Ironically before we went I had never actually seen RHPS and afterwards I still hadn’t seen RHPS.
Trying to describe RHPS is hard – it defies description. Picture every bad Sci-Fi Ed Wood type of B-rated film you’ve ever seen in your life. Put them together – the horror flicks, the sci-fi flicks, the innocent high school sweethearts. Now mix in some sex and depravity. And just to make sure your point isn’t missed, make it a musical. Got that?
I’ve for some time now been fascinated by RHPS in the same way I’m fascinated by Shakespeare – I’m not so much interested in the content as I am the culture of it all. That the freaks of the world unite to participate in this bizarre ritual. Even more so, the fact that the careers of Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry survived. And of course, being the techie junkie nerd I am, I’m fasinated by the path it took to get onto home formats.
The video with the $80 price tag I spotted was the 1990 VHS release. The movie was filmed and released in 1975, so it was the 15th anniversary of the movie. RHPS was the movie version of a play called The Rocky Horror Show (notice the pun in the movie title) and in with sub-$1 million pricetag, in its efforts to send up cheaply made bad movies it would up being a cheaply made bad movie itself. The movie sported rental pricing – most of the VHS tapes on the shelves of video stores do. While Blockbuster buys lots and lots of movies, they wind up paying through the nose for them. The argument is that the studios lose money on titles people want to rent but not buy so they sell the tapes to rental places at huge prices to “cover the difference” – with any luck this goes away with DVD. RHPS was so popular, some stores figured, it could fetch the $80 on shelves. I guess it did.
A few years later it was released again on VHS and Laserdisc. However, this raised some eyebrows. When RHPS was released in 1975 stereo sound wasn’t prevalent in theaters, so it was shot in monaural (mono) sound. The soundtrack album was released in stereo. However, Fox was concerned that the owners of Laserdisc players wouldn’t be happy with mono sound, so they remixed the movie to be in stereo with surround sound. However this posed a problem because the movie was a musical – the original master tapes would have to be unearthed (apparently they can do a lot with the sound track of a film as is). This was possible but expensive, so they went the next best route – just use the soundtrack album for the music.
The problem with this approach was, as it turns out, the soundtrack album was constructed from entirely different takes of the songs, so the words didn’t match up. Also, the stereo effects on the album didn’t match the spatialness of the movie – Janet sings on the right side of the screen when her sound comes out of the left channel, etc. The bottom line, though, was that it upset the purists – they wanted the movie the same way it was in theaters, not “butchered” like it was. I can only imagine what it would be like if they had tried to apply a Star Wars like CGI treatment to this film.
1995 saw the 20th anniversary of the film, so it got released on Laserdisc, this time in widescreen with tons of extras. It also had the two deleted scenes, one of which was never in the film, the other which was cut from the original showings, since it was deemed “too dreary” for audiences (though it got left in the UK versions). However, the movie was still using the bothed stereo mix, as did subsequent VHS and Laserdisc releases. It did have a mono mix, but it was just the incorrect stereo mix composed in both channels.
Last year Fox started soliciting suggestions for what people wanted on the DVD version. Immediately petitions to fix the sounds started. Although the rumblings were that it was still too expensive to do a real stereo track and that the original mono soundtrack was lost. However, this proved to be false, not only did the DVD have the original mono soundtrack, it also had a brand new stereo mix using the music from the album but the vocals from the original movie. RHPS fans were happy, to say the least. This DVD also had a commentary track from the producer of the movie and an actress, as well as a track featuring the audience yelling back at the screen.
So it’s been a year now with a proper RHPS release on a home format – a feat which only took 25 years. And why do I mention this? Simple – it’s Halloween, it seemed appropriate. Happy Halloween. 🙂