Back when I first became a Frankie Fan – I saw Rocky at the Varsity Theatre (now Vintage Vinyl) 85 times from 1978 to 1982 – I mastered the Rocky Horror Trivia Quiz. But we didn't yet have the internet (yes, I'm that old) so I never did figure out all the references in that first song.
When New Line produced The Rocky Horror Show in 2002, and as I wrote a chapter about the show for my book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, I decoded all the references, bought used copies of all the films mentioned, and watched every one of them. Even the worst of them was still pretty good, some of them were amazing, and I fell in love with Night of the Demon.
The Rocky Horror Show is about how Americans responded (irrationally) to the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s. Brad represents the half of America that was horrified and wanted to return to the comfortably repressed 1950s. Janet represents the half that jumped in whole-heartedly but in many cases, so devalued sex that they were left emotionally empty (like the characters in I Love My Wife). Frank himself is the embodiment of the Sexual Revolution, seduction, desire, adventure, danger. Columbia and Eddie bemoan the loss of romance during this time of sexual adventuring, while outsiders Magenta and Riff Raff may well stand in for England and the show's creator Richard O'Brien (and the rest of the world), observing our idiocy from afar...
And though O'Brien couldn't have known it in the early 70s, his show accurately predicted the cultural fallout and the collapse of the Sexual Revolution. Because Brad's America was still trying to reconstruct 1950s American culture, O'Brien told his story in the retro form of 1930s and 50s science fiction.
Most of the movies cited in “Science Fiction Double Feature” are shorter films, generally running only about eighty minutes. True to the song’s title, most of these films were intended to run as part of a double feature and the theater owners wanted to get two of them in, along with a cartoon and a newsreel, in under three hours.
The movies referenced in “Science Fiction Double Feature” include The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Flash Gordon serials, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came From Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Curse of the Demon, When Worlds Collide, and The Bride of Frankenstein. The song also mentions George Pal, special effects pioneer and director who helmed War of the Worlds, a film with some parallels to Rocky Horror.
Here's an audio clip of the song from the original London stage production – very different from what you're used to, if you only know the film.
And here's a key to all the references...
Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still
But he told us where we stand
Michael Rennie played the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He was "ill" because he got shot and his robot Gort had to heal him. And at the end of the film, Klaatu warns us that if we don't change our violent ways, his people will change them for us. He does indeed tell us where we stand. On probation.
And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear
Flash Gordon was the sci-fi hero of the 1930s movie serials, and yes, he sometimes wore silver tights.
Claude Raines was the invisible man
Claude Rains played the tragic title character in The Invisible Man (1933), about a scientist who has developed a formula that makes him invisible, but either the formula itself or the fact of his invisibility drives him insane and turns him into a homicidal maniac.
Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Fay Wary played Ann Darrow, the leading lady opposite the giant ape in the original 1933 classic King Kong. Of course, at the climax of the story, Kong and Darrow are caught in quite a jam on top of the Empire State Building, being attacked by planes. And of course, Frank invokes Fay Wray in the Floor Show, as his tragic role model.
Then at a deadly pace it came from outer space
It Came from Outer Space (1953) is about an invasion of aliens who take over humans' bodies.
And this is how the message ran:
Science Fiction Double Feature
Dr. X will build a creature
Doctor X (1932) is a great, forgotten horror movie. Rocky shares several parallels with Doctor X – a strange, murderous scientist doing experiments in his lab, a doctor in a wheelchair, a maid and butler (in tails, no less), and a prominent shot of a grandfather clock striking midnight. And of course Doctor X owes a lot to Frankenstein (which was released one year earlier), the clearest model for Rocky Horror, though surprisingly not mentioned in “Science Fiction Double Feature.”
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
At the late night, double feature picture show.
Anne Francis plays Altaira in Forbidden Planet (1956), the first big-budget, studio sci-fi movie, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The movie features the most famous robot in sci-fi, Robby the Robot. And decades later, this movie inspired the stage musical Return to the Forbidden Planet.
I know Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel
When Tarantula took to the hills
Leo G. Carroll played Professor Deemer, another prototype for Dr. Scott, in Tarantula (1955). The theme of science run amok, a central theme in Rocky Horror and a common theme in 1950s sci-fi, is central in Tarantula, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein.
And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott
Fight a triffid that spits poison and kills
Janette Scott played Karen Goodwin in The Day of the Triffids (1962), a horror/sci-fi movie about a meteor shower that blinds most of the population and an invasion of flesh-eating alien plants. It's better than it sounds.
Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes
And passing them used lots of skills
This is probably the most obscure reference in the song. It's talking about the unfairly forgotten, classic horror flick Curse of the Demon (1957). In the film, psychologist Dana Andrews is investigating the mysterious death of a colleague. Over the course of his investigation a curse is placed on him by a dangerous cult leader, and it turns out the method of placing the curse is to pass into the victim’s possession a piece of parchment covered with ancient runes – but it must be done without the victim’s knowledge, which explains why passing those runes used lots of skills. The last part of the film is filled with the surprisingly effective suspense of whether Dana Andrews will be able to pass the runes – and the curse – back to the villain. Unfortunately, the big reveal of the monster at the end is anti-climactic and a tad disppointing, but everything leading up to that is really cool...
But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride,
I'm gonna give you some terrible thrills...
When Worlds Collide (1951) is a sci-fi movie about a star that's on a collision course with Earth, so a bunch of people build a spaceship to escape before our planet is annihilated. And there's yet another guy in a wheelchair here, this time the rich asshole Mr. Stanton, who's paying for the rocket. When Worlds Collide was produced by the great George Pal, who also produced The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. I'm assuming the "bride" reference is about The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but Pal didn't work on that, so I'm not positive about that... I suppose it could refer to Ed Wood's characteristically clueless "mad scientist" movie, Bride of the Monster (1955)... Or 1951's Bride of the Gorilla...
Maybe it's just a joke about all the cheap-ass sci-fi movies whose unimaginative titles began with "Bride of"...
Here's the original Rocky Horror Picture Show opening credits, with clips from all the films referenced in the lyric. There are various stories about why the filmmakers replaced it with the "Lips" opening we all know. But I love this...
Which is kind of weirdly appropriate...
If you have the time and inclination, I heartily recommend watching all these films. When we worked on Rocky, it gave me such insight into the material to have seen all these movies, these wonderful cultural artifacts that we know were swimming around in Ritz O'Brien's head when he was creating Frank, Rocky, and the gang. After all, Rocky Horror really isn't just about sexual freedom – it's a very smart, very insightful social commentary on our often subtextual relationship with sex in mid-20th century America. Horror movies and muscle magazines and Frederick's of Hollywood were all part of that.
There's so much more in Rocky Horror than most people realize, and that's why I wrote about the show in my last book. Shows like Rocky Horror and Grease don't get the respect they deserve. And I'm here to change that. But first I'm gonna go watch Curse of the Demon.
Long Live the Musical!