Just another autumn Friday night in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. The usual mixture of hoboes and bohoes, kids out for a good time and jolly parasites out to feast on them. Around midnight, 400 or so young people have lined up on either side of the Eighth Street Playhouse box office. Their behavior is genial and gentle, with no rock-concert jostling; there might be an invisible Sister Mary Ignatius patrolling the sidewalk. One couple chats in Portuguese; a trio converses in Czech. It's a U.N. in miniature--so much so that when a derelict wanders by, desperate to strike up a monologue, he asks a gaggle of teens, "Excuse me, do you speak American?" This guy is a rap artist without synthesizer, improvising an autobiography as he addresses the girls, and they pretend not to notice him. "Hey, Elaine baby, did you know I played high school basketball with Akeem Olajuwon? An' I was quarterback for the Jets. An' my seven sisters were kidnaped and raised by the Chinese. An' . . ." But now Elaine and Denise and the others have reached the door, and the scat-chatting street poet is being hustled away by the theater manager. There'll be enough eccentrics inside, thanks awfully.
Just another night of Rocky Horror. Each Friday and Saturday night, at a couple of hundred houses across North America, the faithful gather in a strange and bracing ritual. A high-camp priest of an emcee announces weekly events and milestones: a birthday, say, or a new record for consecutive attendance. The "virgins" in the congregation--those making their first visit--are baptized with incantatory catcalls. Then, in the velvet darkness of the blackest night, rises the communal cry: "Let there be lips!" And lo, there are lips, big ruby-red ones on the theater screen, intoning an invitation to "the late-night double-feature picture show." The voice of Rocky Horror is heard in the land.
Like Rocky, the hunky mutant concocted by Mad Scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a creature spawned in countercultural obscurity and now deemed truly beautiful to behold. The film bombed so ignominiously in its 1975 American premiere that the distributor, 20th Century-Fox, was ready to give it up for dead. Ten years after, this polysexual rock-'n'-roll travesty has earned over $60 million at midnight box offices. But R.H.P.S. is more than a sleeper hit for insomniacs. It is a cross-generational phenomenon, an evocation of '50s monster movies wrapped in the anything-goes spirit of the '60s that found a niche in the '70s and has blossomed in the '80s into a rite of passage for millions of American teenagers. As Richard O'Brien, the 43-year-old New Zealand-born Londoner who wrote Rocky's script, music and lyrics, noted on its tenth anniversary, "The movie is really an excuse for dressing up and having a party." A 3-D, three-level party, at that. While the film is projected onscreen, Rocky regulars mime each character's words and gestures in meticulous drag onstage, and the audience talks back to the movie and, on cue, scatters comic props throughout the theater. This is movie mania at its participatory best: a nationwide epidemic of I'amour fou.