'Rocky Horror' continues its reign at the State Theater

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Daily Film Editor
Published October 21, 2009

Seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the privacy of your own home is a bizarre experience, and it leaves you baffled. Taken on its own merits, the film is a sexually charged Frankenstein’s Monster stitched together from various pop-culture elements: B-movie horror, jukebox musical and circus sideshow. The plot is some nonsense about a mad scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) who corrupts the sexuality of a young engaged couple while building his own Speedo-clad sex slave. The film is still fun for those unfamiliar, but almost incomprehensibly so.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Tomorrow and Saturday at midnight
At the State Theater

As “Rocky” fans might say, though, it’s the midnight screenings that really drive you insa-a-a-ayne.

“I actually saw the movie for the first time before a midnight showing, and I was like, ‘This is a weird movie,’ ” recalls Charlotte Raines, a School of Music, Theater & Dance junior. “And my friend was like, ‘No, Charlotte, you have to go to a midnight showing. It will change your life.’ ”

Raines attended her first midnight showing in her senior year of high school. Since then, she has attended many more in New York, Jackson and Ann Arbor, and she also played a Phantom (a member of the ensemble) in MUSKET’s 2007 production of the original Broadway stage play. Such is the transformative power of seeing “Rocky Horror” with the right audience.

Simply put, a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is unlike anything else in popular culture. It lies somewhere in the intersection between film, live musical theater, burlesque show and food fight. The film, which flopped during its initial release in 1975, has gained eternal life in the decades since thanks to a freakishly devoted global fan base. The elaborate spectacles staged around the midnight screenings have transformed “Rocky Horror” into arguably the biggest cult film of all time.

The State Theater knows how to cultivate Ann Arbor’s population of “Rocky” fanatics, and tomorrow and Saturday it will continue the long-standing tradition of the midnight screenings, scheduled as usual just before Halloween. This year the theater will be upping the ante by hiring Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company for the event.

“We were trying to think of ways to make midnight movies a bigger production,” said Christine Tremblay, assistant manager of the State Theater. For the past couple of years the theater has brought in Dynamic Tension, Inc., a performance troupe that specializes in “Rocky Horror,” but this year it decided to mix things up a bit.

If you’re a “Rocky Horror” virgin — someone who has never attended a midnight screening before — you’re probably asking why it’s necessary to even hire a performance group in the first place. After all, it’s just a movie, right?

Wrong. There are actually three components to the midnight showings that don’t involve the movie actually playing on the screen. The first of these components is a “shadow cast,” a group that acts out musical numbers and other scenes from the film in front of the screen while it plays behind them.

“It’s like a live show and a movie at the same time,” explained Raines, who will be helping out with production aspects of this year’s shadow cast.

The cast doesn’t do anything halfway: It fully commits itself to the roles, using props and dressing up in the appropriate costumes, which more often than not involve drag, heavy makeup and fishnet stockings. The shadow cast also usually performs a pre-show, which could incorporate anything from the “Thriller” dance to the “deflowering” of the virgins in the audience (seeing who can make the best orgasm noises, etc.).

Secondly, there are the “callbacks” — words and phrases that the audience is primed to yell at the screen during certain moments. Although the exact callbacks vary between locations, some are universal. Yelling “Asshole!” at Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and “Slut!” at Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), for example, are standard procedures. The callbacks help to unite the community in the theater and transform the proceedings into a much more participatory experience. Everyone knows what to say and at what times.

Jeffrey Zebrowski, a fifth-year Residential College senior and “Rocky Horror” devotee, remembers how he had read an audience participation script for the film online before attending his first midnight screening so he wouldn’t be left in the dark. He didn’t want to stand out as a virgin, because it’s easy for the audience to hone in on those not participating. Zebrowski admits that he’ll target virgins at the screenings, as well.

The third component at the midnight showings is the use of props. At many of the performances, audience members will bring objects to the theater that are then thrown at key moments in the film: rice during the opening wedding scene, toast when one of the characters proposes a toast, toilet paper when Brad exclaims, “Great Scott!” and much more. In recent years, including this year, the State Theater has banned the use of props to help with the cleanup process, much to the annoyance of “Rocky” fans.

Still, Zebrowski can understand why it was necessary to stop the props.

“When people get water thrown on them, when they get rice thrown on them, (the theater managers) aren’t too thrilled,” he said with a laugh.

But props or no props, the legacy of “Rocky Horror” will live on for a long time, and this Friday and Saturday all of the cult’s members will once again do the “The Time Warp” in the aisles of the State Theater. Buy your $8 ticket in advance, because they’ll sell out. Fishnet stockings optional — but encouraged.