When you think of immersive cinema, you think of the lush creations of Secret Cinema – the hedonistic world of Moulin Rouge, the sexually charged innocence of Kellerman’s summer camp, the excitement of hiding from stormtroopers on Tatooine. You don’t tend to think of a bunch of gays, goths and geeks in NYC’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s.
But long before we were lining up to dance with Johnny Castle or helping Luke and Ben Kenobi escape, audiences were answering back, cheering, singing, acting and dancing along to their favourite sweet transvestite every Saturday at midnight.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on the successful theatrical musical that rocked the Royal Court in London in 1975. The film was made with a tiny budget and the shoot was largely unhappy – being filmed in an old country house, Oakley Court in the freezing winter.
When it was panned by critics and failed at the box office, studio Twentieth Century Fox saw little reason to worry about it any further. They were about to shelve it, and there it could have remained, were it not for an entrepreneurial young executive who convinced the owner of the Waverly Theatre in New York to play it as a midnight screening in 1976. To say it took off is an understatement.
Audiences grew in size and boisterousness. The improvisations grew into a scripted call-and-response and a “shadow cast” started to act out the parts in front of the screen. Audiences started to dress as “Transylvanians” and bring props such as toast, toilet paper and party hats. One midnight showing in New York was soon replicated across America and then the world. It has never stopped being on limited release and is the longest-running cinema release in history.
By 1980, the phenomenon was such that it featured as part of the movie Fame. As they visit the Waverly, the usually repressed character of Doris takes off her top and dances on stage in her underwear. It was a rite of passage for the character and, watching Fame on video in the mid-1980s, it was seeing that scene that started a lifelong love affair for me.
I have now seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the cinema dozens of times. After seeing that scene I knew I had to see the movie. And while seeing it at home for the first time was exciting, it was never enough.
I soon became a semi-regular at the showings at the Prince Charles Cinema after it started it’s unbroken weekly run of the show in 1991, bringing my props and my friends along too. The call-and-response was easily learned from the 1983 album Say It: The Rocky Horror Picture Show Audience Participation Album. I knew it by heart, but also knew that improvisation on the part of the audience was also much valued. There’s nothing quite so dispiriting as someone just parroting the 1983 jokes back at the screen by rote rather than celebrating the freedom of the experience.
In 2015, Rocky Horror celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special showing at the Royal Albert Hall. The crowd are a little older now – though plenty of teens are still finding it (and themselves through it) – for the first time. But they are no less riotous, no less loud, no less fabulous than they ever were. Free for one night to dress up in the sexiest, schlockiest gear they own and Do The TimeWarp Again.
It may not be immersive cinema as it has become. But ultimately going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (and it’s theatre equivalent) has all the hallmarks of an immersive experience. An empowered audience, a joyous two-way experience and a sense of being part of things that is what draws the crowds to the immersive experience time and time again.
It is that wicked combination of freedom and frisson that Rocky Horror gives an audience that is at the heart of the immersive experience. The sense that if we “dream it” hard enough, we too can “be it”. Rocky Horror isn’t usually spoken of as ‘immersive cinema’ and the artform largely grew up separately from the cult phenomenon. But it is hard to miss the fact that all the elements are there and have been for more than forty years.