"The Rocky Horror Picture Show: If you're not offended, you're just not paying attention" —Slide projected before the film at the Rialto
A full moon hangs over the Rialto Theater at 11:30 Friday night, as the long line forms. A total of 207 people will attend tonight's show, some for the first time, some for the 300th. A "helpful" veteran yells for the first-timers to identify themselves; upon doing so, he draws a black "V" on their foreheads with dark makeup.
Later, these "virgins" will be "broken in" by a group pelvic thrust in a conga-style line before the audience. For some, it might be an awkward moment, but at this midnight movie, your inhibitions are best left at the door.
Since the film premiered in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become synonymous with "cult cinema" as the longest continuously running film in the world. For more than 20 years, it's played the Rialto every Friday at midnight (with only rare pre-emptions for the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), becoming the top Rocky Horror production in North Carolina, and one of the highest-grossing runs of the film in the United States.
A stage production hits Broadway Series South at Progress Energy Center this week, beginning Thursday, Oct. 28. And this Friday's screening is its biggest night of the year—it's an annual sellout, in fact.
To be sure, Rocky Horror's once-scandalous content has lost its shock value as it's become available on video and even shown on television (a number of the younger moviegoers know it from VH1). But its nonsensical plot about an underwear-clad couple corrupted by a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania, still attracts a regular crowd of about 150 teens, college students, die-hards and the morbidly curious to the Rialto each week to dress as the characters, talk back to the screen, throw rice and toilet paper at select scenes and regularly taunt protagonists Brad and Janet as "asshole" and "slut," respectively.
On Tuesday, Oct. 26, the TV series Glee ran a Rocky Horror tribute episode; series co-creator Ryan Murphy is already in talks to potentially remake the film. Whether the world needs this—from the director of Eat Pray Love, no less—is a different question.
Rialto Manager John Munson celebrates his 20th anniversary working at the Rialto on Oct. 30; Rocky Horror had already been playing for a year or so when he starterd, and it has played virtually every Friday the entire time he's been there. He still doesn't know why the film has stayed popular for so long. "If anyone knew," he says, "you'd probably see a lot more films like it."
There have been efforts, even the Rocky Horror quasi-sequel Shock Treatment (most Rocky Horror fans I ask about this are unaware of its existence). But something as calculated as Repo: the Genetic Opera or The Human Centipede can't boast the oddly widespread appeal of Rocky Horror.
The audience is consistently young (Munson says most of the Rialto's regular attendees are between the ages of 18 and 25), while the show still draws longtime fans. In line for tonight is Kelly Guess of Holly Springs, who can remember seeing the film a dozen or so times while growing up in New Jersey. Tonight, she's brought her teenage daughter and her friends for their first screening. "It's a bonding experience," she says.
Another, more hard-core, veteran is Chris Winstead of Raleigh, the man in line marking first-timers with the "V." Winstead, a graphic design student, has attended Rocky Horror at the Rialto continuously for the better part of a decade. How many times has he seen the film? He doesn't know, exactly.
"After 200 or so times," Winstead muses, "one week tends to blur into the next."
At a nearby bar before the show, I bond over nachos and beer with Mike McLean and Bryan Wendeln, two of the five cast members who act out Rocky Horror's 10 parts on stage with the film each week. Wendeln is the film's narrator, who also instructs the audience in the "Time Warp" dance; McLean plays Eddie, the ill-fated ex-delivery boy portrayed by Meat Loaf, a part that allows him plenty of downtime to chat with fellow moviegoers. "I'm grateful I'm not Frank N. Furter," he says of the film's signature character. "If you're Frank, you're always either on stage or about to be."
Both McLean and Wendeln enjoy relatively normal lives as computer programmers in Raleigh, but Rocky Horror owns their Friday nights. McLean has attended since 1989, when the film played at the now-defunct Tower Twin ("I'm almost old enough to drink," he quips), while Wendeln has come to the Rialto since 1991. Both met their wives at Rocky Horror; Wendeln proposed by popping the question in a slide projected on the screen before the movie.
Neither is happy about the prospect of a Rocky Horror remake. "I just don't have a lot of faith in what Hollywood could do with it today," says McLean, to which Wendeln adds, "You can't do that by design."
Pressed for anecdotes from their years of attendance, both grow worried. "I'm trying to think of something that wouldn't get someone in trouble or reflect badly on the theater," Wendeln says. He fails, along with McLean. To recycle an old line, what happens at Rocky Horror stays at Rocky Horror.
All right, but why do they keep coming? What is the secret of Rocky Horror's appeal? "It's the kindred spirit," says McLean. "People come to the show and find people like themselves, people they might not have expected to find congregated here. And there's that seed of anarchy that makes Rocky Horror fun—getting to see and do strange things in a movie theater."
Those strange things include shelling out $2 for a bag of rice, newspaper and toilet paper, to be thrown or occasionally used to shield oneself during the movie's rowdier scenes (having been here last Halloween, I know to sit in the back row tonight). And there's the underwear run, where volunteers strip down and do two laps around the theater.
In the interest of journalistic verisimilitude, I decide to go where I've never dared go before. I strip down and join the crowd, some of whom are wearing little more than panties and duct tape over the most sensitive areas (a prurient part of me now wishes I'd checked out this scene in high school).
The run is exhilarating and terrifying, in part because I've recently lost weight and repeatedly have to cover myself because of a wardrobe malfunction. The Indy photographer informs me that due to some runners being under 18, there is no photographic evidence of my potentially committing a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Near-indecent exposure aside, my adventure encompasses the strange appeal of Rocky Horror—what just happened is normal here. It's the only place where perfectly ordinary, average people from all walks of life can watch a movie in their underwear, talk back to the screen or throw stuff at it. In here, a transvestite Transylvanian is king, and the order of the outside world is shunned.
"It's a movie that in some ways encourages you to be whoever you feel like being," says Munson. "Just let your inhibitions go, let your freak flag fly and just go for it."
Or, more to the point, there's the experience of Raleigh's Jennifer Siler, who attended the film for the first time tonight and proclaims it "fantastically awesome." "Monday through Friday, you have to have a job and wear normal clothes," she says. "Why not go to a place where you can change out of that? I mean, you can't do that at a normal movie."
Corrections (Oct. 29, 2010): Chris Winstead's last name was incorrect in print. Also, Mike McLean's last name was spelled both correctly and incorrectly in print.