With the coming remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one wonders how today’s attitudes about sex and sexuality won’t completely kill all of the charm and fun that made the original great.
In 1970s’ cult films, attitudes seemed to be much more open: To be gay, straight, bi, transvestite, sadist, masochist…was all cool. Be yourself and have a good time without hurting others, unless they ask you to hurt them. Body hair, muffin tops…the way our bodies naturally look…was sexy and encouraged. In the modern era, sexuality seems to be more of a highly polished dare. It seems to be the key way to define oneself…a challenge to anyone who might not accept it. It seems a bit more militant and political, definitely less inviting and fun.
Whereas a gay ’70s movie character might ask a straight movie character something like, “I’m gay, wanna fool around?” The straight character might give it the old college try just to see what it’s like, or politely decline but lend a helping hand, if you catch my drift. Even if he just politely declined, it was all good.
Today it might play out: “I’m gay! Can you handle that?! What are you?” The straight character would reply, “I’m straight and don’t roll that way, but I totally support your rights.” Then they’ll sit around sad or angry at how unaccepting some people in the predominantly straight world are. If they do get naked, they’ll have perfect bodies, muscled, scarless and waxed.
Maybe I’m too old, but sculpted, waxed people who sulk and are angry about sex just aren’t fun.
The challenge for a modern Rocky Horror Picture Show, will be to remain a campy, fun romp that is sexually open without being sexually discriminating, as the politically correct sexuality of our era seems to be in spite of itself.
Lyrics such as, “I’m just a sweet transvestite…from trannnnnssexual…Transylvania,” can’t be a politically correct diatribe but a declaration of wild sexual abandon, the way Tim Curry played it in the original.
Attitude was key to the success of the original “Rocky Horror,” and it will be just as key to the reboot, if it is to survive.
Of course, sex-based cult movies don’t begin and end with Rocky Horror. Far from! Although they might have started with Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda in 1953, a sincere although ham-handed attempt to explain transvestism, sexually charged independent cinema started to grow in the 1960s, peaking in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of these campy, cult films became known as “exploitation” flicks. Normal—and not so normal—people could make movies that studios would never touch.
Cult films came in three varieties. One was typically humorous and sexual “sexploitation,” another was violent and gory and the other was more racial (often humorous and no less entertaining) called “Blaxploitation.”
The three styles blended pretty heavily, but we’ll try to stick to purer blends of sex and sex-and-violence for now. We will totally visit gore and Blaxploitation sometime in the near future.
Sexploitation pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on screen or in society, what was acceptable between two (and often many more) consenting adults and what was totally fun and funny about life without clothes on. As Cole Porter wrote, “Anything goes.”
The 1960s were the start of the sexual revolution. “The Pill” freed women from concerns about pregnancy, thus liberating them to explore their sexuality and have some fun. Guys were subsequently allowed greater authority to explore. A free-for-all seemed to hit the 1970s, and, as AIDS wasn’t even known about, there were very few consequences for those who took the basic precautions. There were, of course, still plenty of prudes and religious moralists who objected, but they were pretty well blown off by those who were most active on the scene.
The comedy comes from graphically showing the extremes and excesses of the era, making fun of the prudes, hedonists and society writ large. It also comes from the genuine sincerity of the actors, bad dialog and poor production values.
One of the first great classics of the genre is Faster, Pussycat. Kill! Kill! (1965). Although there is no nudity, the story is about 3 go-go dancers using sex and violence to get their pleasures in life and possibly strike it rich by finding an old man’s stash of cash in the desert. The film forever marked director Russ Meyer and actress Tura Satana as stars of the cinema underground.
Valley of the Dolls (1967) and its more comical sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls begins pushing the boundaries further in these tales of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Russ Meyer directed and wrote the sequel with the soon-to-become-famed movie critic Roger Ebert.
John Waters is, perhaps, the greatest master of pushing the envelope, as he challenged all of society with his cult sexploitations. Pink Flamingos (1972) is hilarious for those who can stomach it. The premise of the film is that a 300-pound transvestite (Divine) portrays a woman vying for the title of filthiest human alive. Her antics involve playing host to cabal of Baltimore’s most deviant sex fiends. From stealing raw meat from a butcher under her dress to sexual escapades with her “son” to eating fresh feces from a dog, Divine proves forever to be the most disgusting human alive.
Yet, she does have close competition from her children—her “son” needing a live chicken to get off with his girlfriend and her “daughter” who picks out the chicken and loves watching her “brother” having sex. (John Waters once explained that they did use an actual live chicken for the sex scene. Apparently they butchered and ate it shortly there after. Waters quipped something to the effect of, “Hey, at least it got laid first. Most chickens aren’t that lucky.”) And then there is a couple played by Mink Stole and David Lochary, who keep pregnant teenage runaways trapped in their basement to sell their babies to infertile couples while enjoying their own extreme pleasures behind closed doors. Everything about the movie is in bad taste, there are no production values and the scripted dialogue would make even Ed Wood cringe. Yet, the film is still inviting you to watch and to laugh, even though it also is trying to make you vomit.
Desperate Living (1977) is another classic Waters’ flick that continues pushing societal boundaries. This one is about a prudish Baltimore housewife who kills her husband and flees with her servant into the woods outside Baltimore to live with a camp full of outcasts who are led by a tyrannical fat midget played by Edith Massey. Any sexual taboo not confronted in Pink Flamingos likely gets confronted in Desperate Living. Yet, still, it is important to note that the film invites its viewers to bust down those taboos and explore what you might find pleasurable no matter how forbidden it might be.
Waters made about a half dozen of these movies, and Divine was the star of most until his death shortly after the release of the offbeat but more mainstream Hairspray (1988). Other outrageous scenes from these cult films involve Divine in and out of drag as he rapes himself using the film techniques of Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961). That was in 1974’s Female Trouble. In 1970’s Multiple Maniacs he is savagely ravished by a 15-foot lobster, which appears to be made of cardboard and string.
The line between sexploitation and porn got blurrier as the ’70s pushed into the ’80s. An entire series of films known by the main character’s name Emmanuelle followed a woman and her sexual exploits and discoveries around the world.
A late entry, Eating Raoul (1982), is a delightful social commentary on swinger culture. Here a prudish husband and wife—who hate sex so much they refuse to have sex with each other—live in a building full of swingers. Swingers are forever getting mixed up and coming to their place for sex. Then the couple comes up with the brilliant plan to lure swingers in and kill them, to remove the scourge of sexual hedonism from the earth while also stealing enough to open their own restaurant. The antics pile on as they get deeper into their criminal enterprise. In the end you’re cheering for the swingers, the couple and for the holy state of homicide and cannibalism.
This is only a cursory look at the genre. If you want to learn more, famed exploitation director Frank Henenlotter made a great, comprehensive documentary in 2013 called That’s Sexploitation!
Be sure to check it and any of these other movies out…if you dare.
Nathaniel Cerf once took third place in a Dr. Frankenfurter costume contest at a midnight showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and by night he’s one hell of a luh-uh-ver.