Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: 1970s

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

YEAR: 1975
DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster from Rocky Horror showing Dr Frank N Furter sitting on a pair of red lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.

OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…

Image from Rocky Horror, showing the main characters dancing a chorus line in stockings and suspenders

Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!

Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!

An image from Rocky Horror showing Rocky wearing gold hotpants

For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.

The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’

An image from Rocky Horror showing a dancing troupe dancing to the Time Warp

I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Brad and Janet opening the castle door and shaking hands with RifRaf

But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.

Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?

Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.

And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.

Image from Rocky Horror showing a snarling Frank N Furter

In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Janet and Rocky wrapped in a blanket

When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’

So what is Rocky Horror now?

Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.

And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.

But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!

Next week: Colette

Thank you to ‘Rainbow Revolutions‘ by Jamie Lawson and Eve Lloyd Knight for providing a great history of the fight for queer rights. Definite recommendation!
Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Halloween

YEAR: 1978
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
KEY ACTORS: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Halloween is rewatchable – I’d not seen it before but I will watch it again
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test as Laurie and her named friends talk about babysitting and school, but most conversations do end up about men.
❌ But this film is not sex positive – it was the big hit movie that spawned the idea that sex means death, which isn’t really a message I’d want to promote!
❌ And it didn’t inspire fantasies – there’s too much murder to be appealing!
❌ The cast isn’t fuckable either. Jamie Lee Curtis looks incredible with amazing 1970s Farrah Fawcett hair, but I didn’t want to fuck her. Which, in a way, is lucky for her as it’s her virginity that saves her!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: a brief mention of possible trauma and insufficient mental health treatment]

The Halloween poster, showing a fist and a knife made to look like the face of a jack-o-lantern and the tagline ‘the night He came home’

I came to horror films late in life. As I mentioned in my Practical Magic review, that movie terrified me so much that I avoided all horror films for years and years afterwards, but I have been trying to catch up. As a wannabe movie buff, I do want to see all the important ones but somehow I’d not seen Halloween until this week. And that was a definite lapse as this film is hugely important. It wasn’t only the most successful independent movie ever when it was made but it is also the movie that launched an entire genre – the slasher movie.

Now slasher movies almost feel wrong for this blog – I’m supposed to be writing about movies that promoted sexual fantasies or changed the direction of my sex life, which slasher movies did not, but they are definitely about sex – and not in a good way – so I couldn’t ignore them.

Halloween was the first significant slasher movie. It contains so many movie tropes that the whole thing almost feels like a cliche, except that this was the first time they’d been seen. It was the first use of the creeping Steadicam footage to show the perspective of the attacker, disorientating the viewer and allowing paranoia to grow; the first masked murderer who cannot be killed; one of the earliest films to connect risk with having sex and, of course, one of the earliest Final Girls. At the time of its release, these ideas were so new that they were shocking and terrifying. Roger Ebert described it as a ‘visceral experience,’ warning viewers not to attend if they didn’t want to be scared. And it still works. It’s lost some of its power through repetition and poor imitation, but it’s still fucking creepy!

Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers, a boy who brutally murdered his sister when he was six years old (while dressed as a clown! Why is it always clowns?!) and ends up locked away in a secure psychiatric unit. Jump forward 15 years and Myers has escaped. He returns to his home town and, dressed in a boiler suit and creepy blank William Shatner mask, begins a killing spree, murdering several young women who were working as babysitters before finally being stopped by Laurie (Lee Curtis), the bookish, virginal final girl. Of course, Myers’s body vanishes, opening the door for a whole series of sequels…

Image from Halloween showing Laurie holding a knife

Considering Psycho is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen and enjoyed, I loved how much Halloween was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and it has so many links to that horror masterpiece that it almost feels like a fan tribute! The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Pleasance), as was Marion Crane’s boyfriend; the stabbing scene at the beginning reminded me so much of the infamous shower stabbing scene from Psycho with flashing knives, fleshy stabbing sounds, but no visible penetration; and Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter, and Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Psycho! Considering Psycho remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not a bad source of inspiration.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie sat by a door with Mike Myers sitting up in the background

Before I dive into the sexual politics, I can’t go on without mentioning that Dr Loomis is a terrible, terrible psychiatrist! He’s clearly absolutely terrified of his patient and uses incredibly damaging language to describe Myers, calling him ‘the Evil’ and insisting that he ‘isn’t a man.’ I find his language choices so difficult because there’s no suggestion at this stage that Myers is supernatural in any way. There’s no possession by the devil, no evil spirit or hint that Myers is anything other than a ‘psycho.’ The film just seems to suggest that he’s unwell and his illness is what is causing him to murder.

I’ve written before about my deep concerns with connecting mental ill health with ‘evil’ behaviour and the stigma that this perpetuates, but viewing Myers as unwell rather than evil also has the effect of significantly changing how the plot is viewed. My brief rotation in psychiatry as a medical student taught me that there are very few mental health disorders that affect children and this knowledge means I almost feel sorry for Myers. What kind of fucked up childhood leads a six year old to murder their sister? What has he seen and what might have been done to him to make him act that way? And after that, what kind of mental health treatment did he receive under Loomis’s care? Myers’s illness is clearly beyond Loomis’s expertise to treat and yet there’s no evidence that he sought help or a second opinion. He just locked him up: ‘I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.’

Gif from Halloween showing a young Mike Myers wearing a clown costume and holding a knife, having his mask pulled off

Maybe they did intend Myers to be a supernatural being, and his immortality despite being killed repeatedly in the later films does provide evidence for this, but the way he is presented here in the original make him look more like a traumatised child who grew up to become a traumatised man who acts out in the only way he knows. He’s been let down by an incompetent doctor who is deeply afraid of him and who lets his fear prevent him from treating Myers objectively. And that’s really sad.

But, dangerous as this outdated view of psychiatry may be, this is a sex and relationships movie blog and there is a shit ton of sexual politics to talk about too!

Because Halloween created the rules of the slasher film, a place where ‘sex becomes death becomes sex, where a knife is never just a knife’ and women must suffer. I’m once again quoting from Sady Doyle’s ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ in her analysis of the sexual themes in slasher movies. She describes how, according to the patriarchal construct, girls are pure and perfect and innocent and must be protected, but women are damaged and tainted and dangerous and should be feared or destroyed. And, of course, as virgins we remain girls, ‘whole, sealed, and unbloodied…until a man comes along to break [us] open.’ Urgh…

It is all down to penetration – both the patriarchy in general and the entire sexual philosophy of slasher movies put forward by Doyle: ‘Men penetrate, women are penetrated; men are predators, women are prey; men desire and pursue sex, women flee or become victims of men’s desire.’ Which is why there’s so much stabbing! Sadly I can’t find the source now but I read something that claimed none of the villains in slasher films use projectile weapons – no guns or bombs, just knives and hands – because their killing needs to be intimate, needs to be penetrating. It’s sex; dangerous sex that destroys the one being penetrated because that’s what losing your virginity means: ‘penetration is seen as a means of conquering and humiliating the penetrated; to open your body is to bleed, suffer, and die.’ Again, urgh…

Logically, within this construct, those who have already lost their virginity are already damaged, already humiliated, and so deserve to be killed. And that’s exactly what happens – almost all of the murders in Halloween occur after the character has had sex or exposed themselves in some way. In fact, the only people who survive are virgins – Laurie and the children, plus Loomis himself who one review described as asexual. All those other girls who use their babysitting jobs as opportunities to have sex without adults present are ruthlessly slaughtered. In the slasher world, sex is dangerous!

Which leads on to the Final Girl, the chaste virgin who survives – another one of the horror movie Rules that Halloween popularised. First described by Carol Clover in ‘Men, Women and Chainsaws,’ the Final Girl is often boyish and manages to resist penetration, both sexual and homicidal, by rising ‘above all the sexual humiliation’ to outwit the killer. Laurie is the archetypal Final Girl. She’s a good girl, running errands for her father, actually looking after the child she’s babysitting rather than sneaking off to have sex, and is doing so well at school that she can’t get a date as ‘guys think [she’s] too smart.’

But I liked that she wasn’t evangelical in her virginity – she doesn’t act like she knows she’s morally superior and she doesn’t judge her friends for their behaviour. It almost feels like she’s only a virgin for want of opportunity rather than choice.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie

Despite being the original, Laurie doesn’t quite fit all the requirements of the Final Girl as she falls victim to another sexist stereotype – she needs to be rescued by a man. It is Loomis who stops Myers, Loomis who fires the gun. Laurie is perhaps more accurately the final survivor as all she really does is scream. And, wow, she can scream! I’m really not surprised that Jamie Lee Curtis inspired so many more Final Girls in the future.

Everything about Halloween was among the best in its class, so it’s not surprising that it launched such a flood of similar morality tales that by 1981 ‘over 60% of American releases were of the stalk’n’slash genre.’ And they were hugely popular, especially and most surprisingly with young women. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, the teenage target audience had swung back from the free love of the 1960s to form a ‘deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgressions.’ According to the New York Times, John Carpenter has consistently denied that he was ‘trying to punish the promiscuous,’ despite the significant evidence to the contrary, but this theme definitely becomes more explicit in later slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th franchise. And, of course, 1996’s Scream made sure that the rules Carpenter created couldn’t be misunderstood: ‘There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex…BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?’

So why are these puritanical movies so popular?

Sady Doyle in ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ has a theory about why women in particular enjoy slasher movies – they ‘are a release [from rape culture], in part because they give a name and face to the problem…giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for.’ When women already fear walking alone at night because of hidden and unknown threats, having a real villain to scream at and, importantly, to defeat is hugely validating. And so we keep going back for more – to scream in safety because the horror is on screen and not actually following us home.

Image from Halloween showing masked Michael Myers bursting into a wardrobe

And Halloween is scary. It’s the patriarchy distilled into it’s simplest form – men wielding sex like a literal weapon and punishing women who seek sex outside of marriage or for their own pleasure – and that is fucking terrifying…

Next week: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.