Richard O'Brien Essay - Critical Essays

O'Brien, Richard


Richard O'Brien 19?–

British playwright, songwriter, screenwriter, novelist, and actor.

O'Brien uses humorous, outrageous concepts drawn from genre films, science fiction, and comic books to comment wryly on contemporary social and sexual roles. He is best known for the stage and film productions of The Rocky Horror Show, which he based on his little-known novel, They Came from Denton High. While the plot parodies Frankenstein and Dracula and the music is reminiscent of 1950s and 1960s jukebox records and glitter rock, its lyrics are considered its most original attribute. They contain many puns and double meanings, but their underlying sarcasm is clearly defined.

Although some critics felt O'Brien's play, written in collaboration with Richard Hartley, was pretentious and too obviously campy, in general it was considered fresh, sometimes cheerful. Most agree that whatever good points the play may have had were lost in its transition to film. However, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has inspired a new concept in audience participation. Having failed to draw much attention during regular showings, it began appearing weekends at midnight, to record crowds, and eventually attained cult status.

O'Brien has produced two other plays, T. Zee and Disaster, which are spoofs along the same line as The Rocky Horror Show. Neither, however, made the impression nor achieved the success of the earlier work. T. Zee parodies comic strips, particularly Tarzan, and Disaster mocks such Irwin Allen films as The Poseidon Adventure: most critics felt they were confused and insubstantial.

Even though O'Brien is not a prolific writer and much of his work is relatively unknown, his cleverness and the originality of his parodies, especially The Rocky Horror Picture Show, cannot be denied. This work's popularity with young people is proven weekly, and many of them have adopted O'Brien's message "Don't dream it—be it!" as part of their own philosophy.

W. Stephen Gilbert

[The Rocky Horror Show is] near-perfect late-night diversion: hilarious, nostalgic, flattering, spoofy, hectic, loud and daft. In fact, camp. (p. 54)

Let's Do The Time Warp Again [is] the best song in much the best collection I've heard in a rock musical. They should release the LP. And any impresario looking for someone to provide book, music and lyrics for a full-sized rock-based show should consider giving Richard O'Brien a whirl. The Rocky Horrow Show, a sort of theatrical/cinematic equivalent of Sha Na Na, is what Alex in A Clockwork Orange would call 'real horrorshow'. (p. 55)

W. Stephen Gilbert, "Reviews: 'Rocky Horror Show'" (© copyright W. Stephen Gilbert 1973; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 20, No. 11, August, 1973, pp. 54-5.

Clive Barnes

["The Rocky Horror Show"] has something in common with Ronald Tavel's "Gorilla Queen," or other American movie spoofs of that genre….

[The] idea is a bright one. It is a mixture of a rock show and horror movie. Two young innocents are entrapped by Frank-N-Furter, a mad, transvestite inventor from outer space, who has created a beefcake monster, Rocky Horror, who looks as though he has just stepped from the centerfold of Playgirl.

It is a cheerfully derivative show, with happy music and a few funny dirty jokes. With its wit and cant, I suspect that this is the kind of show that, modestly produced, might do rather well in New York.

Clive Barnes, "Stage: 'Rocky Horror Show' Is the 'In' Thing," in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1973 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1975, p. 55).

Jim Melanson

Based on a book by Richard O'Brien, who also provided music and lyrics, ["The Rocky Horror Show"] comes off as a potpourri of late-night TV horror themes, couched in transvestitism, garter-belted, leather and nylon clad actors aren't the only "drag" here, though, as the production quickly settles into an evening of uninspired music, pretentious humor and camp (even if intentional) acting….

[Dialog] and music often border on pablum. (p. 22)

While O'Brien's original idea has merit, there were just too many loose ends here to visualize this production lasting very long on the White Way. (p. 24)

Jim Melanson, "'Rocky Horror Show' Fails to Scare up Excitement," in Billboard (© copyright 1975 by Billboard Publications, Inc.), Vol. 87, No. 13, March 29, 1975, pp. 22, 24.

Tony Rayns

An entertainment as singular as The Rocky Horror Show clearly poses greater problems for adaptation to the cinema than most stage originals; its unprecedented blend of Gay Lib street theatre, end-of-the-pier theatrical tat and B-movie references demands something more original than a simple transposition to film. At least two feasible strategies present themselves: one would be to adopt the idiom of the Fifties' B-movies themselves (thus adding the film to the genre on which it comments), another to reverse the model of a cinematic play and produce a calculatedly theatrical movie. Jim Sharman (the original stage producer, here directing his first movie) flirts with both ideas, but it's symptomatic of his and actor-author Richard O'Brien's general failure that they have pinned more faith in pointless and completely expendable attempts to 'open out' the play. Most damagingly misconceived is the opening sequence, showing the wedding that inspires Brad and Janet to get engaged, where the crudely signalled hints of parody and American Gothic are both insulting in their obviousness and redundant in the context of what follows. What does follow is a self-consciously slick rendition of the original material, shorn of the song reprises, staged and performed with evident delight in having larger and more lavish sets to move around in…. But the greatest frisson that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has to offer is its closing title, revealing that it was shot at Bray Studios, site of the decline and fall of Hammer horrors. It's ironically fitting that this bizarre, ill-conceived hybrid should be dancing on the grave of the real British B-movie tradition. (p. 182)

Tony Rayns, "'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 499, August, 1975, pp. 181-82.

Eric Korn

In a newly written proem for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the American Gothic farm couple stand by the door of a country church to tell us that the movie is groovy, but literate. And when Brad and Janet … drive off to their rendezvous with worse-than-death, Nixon resigns, totally ignored, over the car radio….

The hero's camp ineptitude is amusing at first: 'We'll just play along and pull out our aces when the time comes,' he soothes, as he and Janet are brutally stripped by divers bizarre aliens, while [Frank-N-Furter] slithers and lisps 'What charming underclothes' as if praising hybrid tea roses. But it's all cumulatively unendearing, the pansexual lust-rock and choreography too like a...

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Alexander Stuart

Far from looking like the film of a show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show could well have been created specifically for the screen—an illusion no doubt strengthened by the fact that the picture is a parody of the cinema itself, in much the same vein as Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein….

[It's made clear that the parody is aimed at the scifi/horror/monster movies of the '50s and the original classics (such as Frankenstein and King Kong) which were their inspiration. The fact that Frank N Furter is a 'Sweet Transvestite from Transexual Transylvania' and that he's been 'making a man with blond hair and a tan' means that a few pokes can be...

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"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is adapted from a rock stage musical ["The Rocky Horror Show"] that kidded the pants off those old b & w monster films. Or at least it did so with more success than the filmization. Where the campy hijinks was acceptable and even moderately fresh on stage, it only seems labored in celluloid blowup….

[O'Brien] wrote the rock score, which is okay, and the lyrics, which are frequently clever.

Besides kidding a whole filmic genre, the picture specifically sends up a number of Hollywood cliches including Busby Berkeley and the old RKO Radio Pictures screen trademark. Overall, however, most of the jokes that might have seemed jolly fun on stage now...

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["T. Zee" is] a camp spoof much along the lines of [O'Brien and collaborator Richard Hartley's] previous "Rocky Horror Show" which may catch on despite some initial critical brickbats. The jump from camp to cult still being a short one, this item has the ingredients, warmed-over though they may be, to almost ensure such a repeat following.

It's all inoffensive, confused fun as [the play] pokes fun at numerous comic-strip genres without worrying in the least about a consistent plot line or the likes. No matter: it'll please the preconditioned without overly displeasing uninitiates. And though music and lyrics are uneven, many numbers are bright and witty enough to make the potpourri generally easy to...

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Allan Jones

[T. Zee] is a chaotic, intermittently amusing production that exploits the styles and myths of Hollywood culture as gratuitously as its predecessor, The Rocky Horror Show, but critically lacks that work's definition and occasionally astute satire.

Briefly, T. Zee is a simple morality tale that dramatises the inevitable and eternal conflict between good and evil. O'Brien tarts up this novel theme by setting the action in a neon underworld into which Los Angeles has crashed after an apocalyptic earthquake….

O'Brien's scenario is so confused and lacking in substantial humour that one is plunged after the opening scenes into complete and utter tedium….


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W. Stephen Gilbert

T. Zee looks so thin and mean that one goes back to one's enjoyment of Rocky Horror, fearful of the temptation to rewrite history and say it wasn't so…. Richard O'Brien has done exactly the same silly trick that old-fashioned pop stars used to do; he's tried to pull off the mix as before. So Frank-n-furter, Brad and Janet, Rocky, Eddie and the AC/DC strain from the first show have become Bone Idol, Eugene and Alison, T. Zee, Dr Death and a touch of S'n'M in the second. Except, of course, that the second lot both lack the element of surprise and are pale shadows of their precursors….

It may be that Rocky Horror itself had no substance but it seemed to crystallise a moment…....

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Irving Wardle

On present evidence, Richard O'Brien, of Rocky Horror Show fame, seems a gifted mid-Atlantic parodist who has run out of material. T Zee, his last show, sent up Tarzan to no apparent purpose, but at least it did have a subject. By contrast, I would be hard put to say what Disaster is about.

As usual, it takes place on an exotically isolated location; this time a pair of Caribbean islands menaced by the impending collision of two giant icebergs, and the action consists of a race against time to blow them up with a consignment of radioactive waste which the Americans have thoughtfully dumped within easy reach.

The least you would expect from that is a climax in...

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"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" [is] a rather bizarre film about transvestites that impels people to dress in drag and act as if they were stark-raving mad…. Rocky Horror is a rock-musical parody of the old Saturday-matinee, science-fiction and monster movies, and it's becoming one of the hottest cult films in memory. Viewers not only dress like the characters, but they tote their own props, coach the actors, shout stage directions and dance "The Time Warp" in the aisles right along with the principals.

The movie itself is outrageous—a mildly X-rated pastiche that is tasteless, plotless and pointless save for the infantile exhortation to "Give yourself over to total pleasure."…


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D. Keith Mano

Rocky Horror is infantile paralysis grown up: transvestitism, Oldenburg weird sets, satire on Warhol's Frankenstein, some soft rock clamoring. Sort of film that's accessory to the secret medicine chest. Seen best with a happy-honk swab up your nose….

The Rocky Horror Cult is instructive. More than instructive: a synecdoche for aesthetic trends that have been in the brooder house since God knew when….

Audience response is cathartic: a Pancho Villa insurrection against the passive media—TV and film. There isn't one of us who hasn't wanted to rank our Eric Severeid or Howard Cosell. And the obscenity is innocent, healthful. TV in particular leeches on...

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Nora Sayre

[The most participatory movie of all is Rocky Horror Picture Show.] As anyone between twelve and twenty-five must know by now, the film is a transvestite tease that blithely parodies old monster movies, and its rock score flirts with the styles of the late fifties and midsixties…. The movie includes many tributes to cinematic history; one beguiling sight-gag is a shot of [Frank N. Furter] from below as he floats face down in a swimming pool—in homage to William Holden's corpse in Sunset Boulevard. (p. 66)

[The] bulk of the audience appears to be as deeply involved in the film as the individual performers. Throwing rice during a wedding scene, spraying one another with water in a...

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Bill Henkin

Although the word "cult" reportedly never came up in the preparation or early marketing of Rocky Horror, the phenomenal following the movie has achieved can hardly be understood in any other terms. Partly, cult overtones developed because at least to some degree the film does speak to people who see themselves as outsiders to begin with…. (p. 36)

Of course, we're all Brads and Janets when we see Rocky Horror for the first time. But not when we walk out after the movie; perhaps that's why some of the best audience lines are directed at Brad and Janet. A lot of Rocky Horror fans do not see themselves as outsiders. They've been straight-laced, upstanding folk and feel it's...

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