The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a love letter to the golden age of offbeat cinema, written in bright red lipstick. As any regular Frankie fan can tell you, it’s based on an offbeat stage show that sprang from the mind of Richard O’Brien. (He plays Riff Raff in the film version.) A B-movie devotee, O’Brien wove numerous cult film references into his theatrical lovechild and, by extension, its cinematic reincarnation. But The Rocky Horror Picture Show doesn’t limit itself to honoring a single genre. Seasoned movie buffs may also recognize quick nods to a French crime drama, a thriller about a murderous priest, and the weirdest project that Roger Ebert ever worked on. So before Fox’s live Rocky Horror reboot gets us all doing the time warp again, let’s go over some of the little homages that spiced up the original.
1. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
Lightning struck twice when Universal Studios unveiled a new take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1931. Earlier that same year, the company had released its hugely successful cinematic version of Dracula. With Boris Karloff delivering an outstanding performance as the monster, Frankenstein turned into an even bigger hit and became the fourth highest-grossing film of its decade. The Rocky Horror Picture Show salutes the instant classic when Riff Raff scares off Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s monster with a candelabra. This echoes a similar henchman/creature scuffle from Universal’s Frankenstein. In the 1931 film, the doctor’s assistant is a hunchback named Fritz. (The more famous Igor character hadn’t yet been conceived.) Upon being left alone with the monster, he taunts it by shoving a flaming torch into the poor brute’s face. Spooked by the flames, it instinctively recoils, just like our friend Rocky does.
2. DOCTOR X (1932)
Let there be lips! The Rocky Horror Picture Show begins on an appropriately odd note: As the opening credits roll, a pair of disembodied crimson lips sail into view and set the mood by regaling us with a song called “Science Fiction/Double Feature.” The lyrics are gut-loaded with references to iconic B-movies, including 1932’s Doctor X. A suspenseful tale about a mad scientist and his homemade creature, it’s gone down in history as the first horror film to be shot in color, although a black-and-white version was shown at most theaters.
3. THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
Here’s another classic that gets a title drop in Rocky Horror’s surreal intro. Based on an H.G. Wells novel of the same name, The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale, the visionary behind Universal’s Frankenstein and its 1935 follow-up, The Bride of Frankenstein. An effective cautionary tale, the movie follows Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist who gets drunk with power after discovering the secret of invisibility. Whale’s special effects team used every trick in the book here. For example, to execute scenes where Griffin disrobes, leading man Claude Rains wore black velvet tights under his costume and went through his blocking on an entirely black set. The resulting footage, which showed nothing but Griffin’s floating clothes, was then superimposed over a different length of film that captured the other actors and the primary sets. Other sequences called for good, old-fashioned wires, which helped various objects travel through the air, seemingly all by themselves.
4. KING KONG (1933)
In 1932, producer Merian C. Cooper promised Fay Wray “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” Naturally, she figured he was talking about Cary Grant. Wray instead ended up working with the eighth wonder of the world himself. Released by RKO Pictures during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, King Kong might be the single most influential film ever made. It was the first movie to have a completely original score, the first to ever be re-released, and among the first to pit live actors against stop-motion monsters. The Rocky Horror Picture Show really has something of a fixation with this flick; not only do those disembodied red lips sing about it, but Dr. Frank-N-Furter also pines for Fay Wray’s iconic Kong dress near the finale. Furthermore, we get to see Rocky himself climbing up a model radio tower, RKO’s logo, before falling to his death. To quote the final line of King Kong, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
5. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Magenta rocks a zany new hairstyle for Rocky Horror’s thrilling climax. Her arresting coiffure was more or less directly lifted from The Bride of Frankenstein. In this spectacular sequel, the title character dons a streaky, upright hairdo that was modeled after a famous bust of Nefertiti, an ancient Egyptian queen. Although the monster’s mate appears to be wearing a wig in Bride, the mop we see on-screen is nothing of the sort. “[It was] my own hair,” actress Elsa Lanchester said. “I had it lifted up from my face, all the way around; then they placed a wire cage on my head and combed my own hair over that cage. Then they put the gray-streak hairpieces in afterwards.”
6. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
“Science Fiction/Double Feature” acknowledges one of the most topical films of 1951. Once the Cold War arrived, sci-fi movies began to grow more overtly political. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a benevolent alien named Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie) warns the human race that its increasing usage of nuclear weapons has made other planets nervous enough to consider wiping out all life on Earth in a preemptive strike. Given the controversial subject matter, Hollywood’s reigning censorship board, the Production Code Administration (PCA), went through the script with a fine-tooth comb and left its fingerprints on the finished product. At the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu delivers an anti-war sermon before ascending back into the heavens from whence he came. To avoid offending certain moviegoers, the PCA insisted the speech be rewritten so as to temper or omit “words that seem to be directed towards the United States.”
7. WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951)
“But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride, I’m gonna give you some terrible thrills,” sang the Rocky Horror lips. Pal was an animator and producer who specialized in sci-fi thrillers. It was he who brought The War of the Worlds (another H.G. Wells novel) to the silver screen for the very first time in 1953. Like that better-known movie, When Worlds Collide is a doomsday story—although this time mankind’s survival is threatened not by extraterrestrial warships, but by a rogue planet that’s about to smack right into the earth. When another, potentially habitable planet is discovered, the world’s leaders scramble to save humanity by dispatching a “space ark” filled with a select group of people to colonize this new terrain. Will the desperate plan work? Or is our species destined for extinction? See the movie and find out for yourself.
8. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953)
Early on in “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” the lips give this game-changer a little love. In 1950, Universal Studios hired Ray Bradbury to pen an original story outline about an alien spaceship. But instead of writing the brief plot synopsis that he’d been paid for, Bradbury overzealously handed in a full-length script. The premise he came up with put a fresh spin on the alien invasion genre, as it posits that extraterrestrial visitors might not necessarily be evil. Bradbury’s plot focuses on an interstellar vessel that crash-lands in Arizona. To get home, the otherworldly crew must fix their ride without getting themselves killed by suspicious human beings. Universal liked the idea, but decided to let someone else put the finishing touches on the script. Bradbury didn’t take this well.
“With the treatment in hand,” Bradbury recalled, “they fired me and hired Harry Essex to do the final screenplay (which, he told me later, was simply putting icing on the cake).” Titled It Came From Outer Space, their finished movie had a major impact on a whole generation of budding directors.
In 1977, Bradbury attended the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Afterwards, the author told Spielberg that he’d thoroughly enjoyed the picture. In response, the director said “Close Encounters wouldn’t have been made if I hadn’t seen It Came From Outer Space six times as a kid. Thanks.”
9. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
The sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter comes with an unforgettable villain. Reverend Harry Powell, masterfully portrayed by Robert Mitchum, is a serial-killing preacher who weds and murders a series of rich widows. Tattooed onto his knuckles are the words “love” and “hate,” which—as he reveals in the above clip—represent that eternal struggle between good and evil. Eddie from Rocky Horror sports an identical set of tats though, unlike Powell, he never explains their significance. (It probably has something to do with rock ‘n roll and/or hot patooties.)
10. TARANTULA (1955)
Big bug flicks were all the rage in the 1950s. The fad began with Them!, a 1954 Warner Bros. classic about giant, radioactive ants that terrorize New Mexico before going national. When this creepy, crawly picture became one of the year’s highest-grossing films, Hollywood took notice. Over the next few years, a swarm of monster arthropod movies attempted to ride the coattails of Them!, including The Deadly Mantis and The Black Scorpion (both released in 1957). But perhaps the most well-reviewed copycat is Tarantula, a film that sees Clint Eastwood take to the skies in a fighter jet to do battle with a 50-foot arachnid. Whereas Them! relied on puppetry, Tarantula mainly used footage of actual spiders for its effects sequences. As those Rocky Horror lips point out, the film’s resident scientist is played by Leo G. Carroll, whose credits include North by Northwest and five other Alfred Hitchcock pictures.
11. FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
By Gene Roddenberry’s own admission, Star Trek owes a lot to Forbidden Planet. An epic space opera that carries the whiff of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet had an abnormally high budget for a 1950s science fiction film, costing around $2 million to create. The result is a gorgeous film loaded with state-of-the-art miniatures and matte paintings.
Particular care was given to realizing the film’s primary non-human character, a lovable robot named Robby. He was brought to “life” by an actor in a suit made out of “thermo-formed” plastics. Far from being an inert costume, the outfit was given a vast array of buttons and gears that energetically spin around throughout his screen time. As if this weren’t enough, neon light tubes come on whenever he speaks. Altogether, the Robby suit cost at least $100,000 to build and contained 2600 feet of wiring. Such technical wizardry landed Forbidden Planet an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects. And, of course, it receives a well-deserved shout-out in the chorus of “Science Fiction/Double Feature.”
12. CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957)
Some references are subtler than others. That magnificent mouth never name-checks this film, but alludes to it by quipping “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes and passing them used lots of skill.” Curse of the Demon, starring Andrews, was based on “Casting the Runes,” a 1911 short story by M.R. James. A subtle breed of monster film, it features a hellish beast that hunts down accursed human beings. In order to build suspense and uncertainty, director Jacques Tourneur planned on keeping the monster almost completely out of sight. By doing this, he hoped to make the audience question the creature’s existence. But when his producer rejected the idea, Tourneur was forced to shoot long sequences that explicitly show the monster reaching out and killing its prey. Nearly 60 years later, fans still argue about whether this was the right call or a misstep.
13. THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962)
“And I really got hot when I say Janette Scott fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills,” go the opening song’s lyrics. What are Triffids, you ask? Fictional, man-sized plants capable of walking around on their roots. They also have toxic stingers and an appetite for human flesh. The botanical brutes first appeared in novelist John Wydnam’s 1951 thriller, The Day of the Triffids. By far his most famous book, it tells the story of a meteor shower that blinds everyone who gazes at it. With a huge proportion of humanity rendered sightless, the killer plants (of indeterminate origin) make their move. Two separate BBC miniseries have been based upon The Day of the Triffids; the story was also converted into a 1962 film starring Janette Scott and inspired Alex Garland to write the screenplay for 28 Days Later.
14. BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)
“Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?” Brad Majors asks Frank-N-Furter’s eccentric guests. This wasn’t just a throwaway line; it was an homage. The preceding Rocky Horror dance number is “The Time Warp,” a bit that was inspired by a memorable dance sequence in the 1964 French crime drama Band of Outsiders. An offering from French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, it’s about three wannabe thieves who plot to execute a heist. At one point, the trio dances the Madison in a Parisian cafe.
15. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)
Roger Ebert—yes, that Roger Ebert—co-wrote the script for this one-of-a-kind cult classic. Nicknamed BVD by its fans, it was originally supposed to be a sequel to the critically-panned drama Valley of the Dolls (1967). Director Russ Meyer had other ideas. As Ebert put it, the auteur “wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he theorized, should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose … of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.’”
Ultimately, BVD evolved into a bit of a parody about an all-female rock group that tries to make it in Hollywood. Soon, the musicians do just that, but find themselves woefully unprepared for stardom’s numerous drawbacks. A downward spiral ensues, complete with drug abuse, one-night stands, and a brutal decapitation.
Ebert’s chaotic movie struck a chord with Richard O’Brien. While The Rocky Horror Picture Show stage musical was still being rehearsed in London, O’Brien brought the cast to a midnight screening of BVD because it had the campy tone that he felt their production should emulate. This style was then carried over into Rocky Horror’s subsequent film adaptation. For services rendered, the movie subtly tips its hat to a certain “moralistic expose”: When Dr. Scott is dragged through the castle, you can see a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls poster in the background.