Rocky Horror Picture Show: The Movies And References Behind Science Fiction Double Feature

"Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show references lots of movies. We unpack it all...

I have watched, well, not exactly watched, but experienced The Rocky Horror Picture Show over 100 times. I’ve only watched it about 30 times. I saw it in the movies and on HBO about five times before I couldn’t take it anymore and troweled makeup on, ripped up some fishnet stockings and took to a stage myself. Figured I was a natch, had the same hair as Tim Curry and did his voice in a passable mimic, not that I’d need it.

I performed in a Friday night cast 72 times from when I was 15 to when I was 17. I started as Dr. Frank N. Furter and when I was replaced by a woman in lingerie, as opposed to a guy in drag, I played Janet for a while. The original Janet wouldn’t kiss the woman playing Frank, whose name was Leslie. I had no problem. She looked better in the corset than I ever would. It wasn’t just the movie. It was the music. I bartered rare bootlegs to get Tim Curry’s single “Baby Love” and taught my band how to play “Birds of a Feather” and “Sloe Gin” after seeing him play the Bottom Line. Same night I saw Squeeze for the first time.

I still get a thrill from the opening song, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” not just because it’s probably the best song in the movie, one of the only non-rock-and-roll-retro tunes, but also because I have seen every movie mentioned in the song. Some of them I watched because of the song. Most I’d already seen. Too bad the song only referenced science fiction films because Charles Grey, the neckless fuck of a narrator in Rocky Horror, was in the classic Hammer adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.

“Science Fiction Double Feature” is bedded on a simple descending chord progression….

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“Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still, but he told us where we stand…”

Ring Starr in Goodnight Vienna (1974)

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Fuck Keanu Reeves. The Day the Earth Stood Still will always mean Klaatu for me. Klaatu means The Beatles. Ringo is seen exiting the space ship from the movie on his “Goodnight Vienna” album and there was a ’70s band called Klaatu that was rumored to be The Beatles in disguise. No such luck. Klaatu comes from the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” which means … whatever you want it to mean. 

Watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Amazon

The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951 at the beginnings of the world’s collective nuclear nightmares. It was based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. The screenplay was by Edmund H. North. Directed by Robert Wise, The Day the Earth Stood Still starred Michael Rennie as the alien who finds humanity in humanity, only to have humans shoot him in the ass on his way to back his planet to say how non-threatening we could become.

Oops.

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Michael Rennie

Michael Rennie was an English actor who started out as an extra on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent in 1936. He was Sandman on the Batman series in the ’60s. He came up through the York Repertory Theatre. He made The Day The Earth Stood Still under contract for 20th Century Fox and went on to play Jean Valjean in the 1952 version of Les Miserables.

“And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear…”

Flash Gordon (science fiction serial)

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon was a science fiction serial put out by Universal Pictures starting in 1936. Channel 13 used to run Flash Gordon on Friday or Saturday nights in the ’70s. Flash Gordon was played by Larry “Buster” Crabbe, former Olympic swimmer. Buster Crabbe was a Tarzan before he spaced out. Crabbe went into space again as Buck Rogers. Jean Rogers, no relation to Buck, played Dale Arden.

read more: The History of Flash Gordon’s Football Career

Flash and Dale are shanghaied for an unexpected trip to space by Dr. Zarkov, played by Frank Shannon. Charles B. Middleton played Emperor Ming the Merciless, who ruled the planet Mongo. His daughter, Aura, was played by otherwordly Priscilla Lawson. Richard Alexander played Prince Barin, who ruled Arboria, the planet of the trees. Every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Flash Gordon started out as a comic strip and was remade in 1980 with Sam J. Jones in the title part, Melody Anderson as Dale, Chaim Topol as Dr. Zarkov, Max von Sydow as Ming, Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, Brian Blessed as Vultan, and Ornella Muti as Aura.

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Richard O’Brien made a cameo appearance.

“Claude Rains was the invisible man…”

The Invisible Man

Yeah, we didn’t see that coming. The Invisible Man was a Universal Pictures flick from 1933 based on the 1897 book by H. G. Wells. The invisible man was Dr. Jack Griffin who developed a formula that rendered him invisible, but which was driving him slowly mad, running through fields singing “Here we go gathering nuts in May” and terrorizing Lady Frankenstein and Maid Marion’s cockney matron.

Wells’ science fiction novel was adapted by R. C. Sherriff, Philip Wylie, and Preston Sturges, whose work was considered unsatisfactory and who was taken off the project. The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale, famed director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein) and stars Claude Rains, in his first American screen appearance, and Gloria Stuart. It is considered one of the great Universal Horror films of the 1930s, and spawned a number of sequels, plus many spinoffs using the idea of an “invisible man” that were largely unrelated to Wells’ original story. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Invisible Man is played by Vincent Price, who is Vincent Christ in my house.

Claude Rains in Casablanca

Claude Rains

Claude Rains made his American movie debut in The Invisible Man, though horror fans also know him as the father who had to kill the whiney The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr., with his silver wolf-topped cane. Claude Rains was also the poor corrupt cop who’s heart was his least vulnerable spot, Inspector Renault in Casablanca.

Claude Rains’ father was the English actor Frederick Rains. Claude started acting when he was 11. Rains taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. One of his students was Laurence Olivier. After The Invisible Man, Rains played in … everything. The Clairvoyant with Fay Wray; Now, Voyager from 1942; Mr. Skeffington in 1944; Lawrence of Arabia from 1962; The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Passionate Friends.

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Rains was nominated for an Oscar in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He was a Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and, like Michael Renny, played on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Rains was Julius Caesar in the 1945 version of Caesar and Cleopatra. He was Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the Phantom in the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera. He was the devil in Angel on My Shoulder, which also returned Paul Muni, famed for Scarface and I was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, to gangster form.

“Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong, they got caught in a celluloid jam…”

King Kong

King Kong is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. It made Hitler cry. Hell, it made me cry and not because I wanted to be dressed like Ann Darrow, but because King Kong died for our sins. Made by RKO Pictures in 1933, King Kong was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsac and starred Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, a filmmaker who rips the great and sexy beast from what I always thought of as the Garden of Eden and ships him in chains to civilization, where he gets his big break in New York City.

read more: The Weirdest King Kong Knockoffs in History

I still look for Kong whenever I see the Empire State Building in all its art deco glory. It wasn’t capitalism that killed the beast. It was…

Fay Wray in King Kong

Fay Wray

Fay Wray made her first movie when she was 16, Gasoline Love. She was also in Doctor X, but we’ll get into that later. She was first noticed in the 1928 film The Wedding March, directed by Erich von Stroheim. She played in The Most Dangerous Game in 1932 with Joel McCrea, The Bowery with George Raft, and Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1933 before making King Kong. Fay Wray turned down a cameo appearance in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong.

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read more: Why King Kong Can Never Escape His Roots

When she died, in 2004, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for fifteen minutes.

“Then at a deadly pace it came from outer space…”

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

It Came from Outer Space was the most memorable and most startling experience of people’s lives when it was released. From the blackness of a hundred million nights, from uncounted millions of light years away but mostly from thousands of dollars spent by Universal International Pictures, came a motion picture that brought the first space invaders in 3D. They landed in Arizona and everyone thought they were a meteor. But no, people are disappearing and coming back like robots, which is only slightly out of place in Arizona. They have these machines that turn them into … really nice people, once you get to know them. Really. You can take these aliens to dinner.

It was kind of the flip side to the paranoid conspiracy fantasia Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It Came from Outer Space was directed by Jack Arnold. It starred Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, and Charles Drake. Harry Essex penned the script with Jack Arnold based on a Ray Bradbury screen treatment.  

“And this is how the message ran.

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     Science Fiction double feature.

          Dr. X will build a creature…”

Doctor X (1932)

This was the first Warner Brothers movie made in Technicolor. It was made before the code, so it was a little bit racier than a lot of movies we see on TCM these days. Doctor X was directed by Michael Curtiz who made Captain Blood with Errol Flynn, Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney, and Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, among countless classic films.

Bogart would be sentenced to play his only monster role, the vampire Dr. Xavier in The Return of Doctor X. It had nothing in common with this movie and Bogart only snarled if you brought it up. Curtiz was an artist and brought that to this movie. The all-black-background scene with the electrodes and the mirrors is pure suspense. Doctor X was put out by First National Pictures and starred Lee Tracy and Lionel Atwill, a horror master as Dr. Xavier. It also starred Fay Wray, who screams beautifully as Doctor X’s daughter Joan, and John Wray. No, not related, but John Wray was one of the actors up for the part of Dracula that ultimately went to Bela Lugosi

Doctor X is part horror and part crime film. The crime is a murder and the murderer nibbled on the corpse. Heady stuff for 1931, but delicious fare for Rocky Horror. Dr. X didn’t build any creatures though.

“Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet…”

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Anne Francis - Forbidden Planet Cast

Anne Francis

Palomino Blonde Anne Francis is probably best known as TV’s Honey West. She started as a model when she was four years old. Most of Francis’ stuff from Funny Girl was left on the cutting room floor so she wouldn’t steal the movie from Barbra Streisand.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Fans of Lost in Space owe a great debt to Forbidden Planet, if for nothing other than Robby the Robot. Before C3PO and R2D2 there was Robby the Robot. He didn’t go around yelling “Danger Danger” yet, and this is before he had work done. Forbidden Planet came out of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by Fred M. Wilcox and starred Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Neilsen and, of course, Anne Francis. It was basically The Tempest, Willie Shakespeare’s box office smash, in space.

read more: Forbidden Planet is Still Essential and Subversive Sci-Fi

Forbidden Planet won’t take place for another 200 years and it happens on the planet Altair IV in the Altair star system. Get out your telescopes, it’s the one in the corner. The star ship C-57D travels 16 light years to pick up on a lost crew from 16 years ago, they get there at the same time. Or they might as well have, the first crew got vaporized and Robby the Robot says if they don’t their asses out soon, so will the crew of the C-57D.

 “I knew Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills…”

 

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Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula

Leo G. Carroll

After fighting in World War I, Leo G. Carroll started performing when he was 16. He came to Broadway in 1924 and played The Late George Apley. He had an uncredited part in Captains Courageous which won Spencer Tracy an Oscar. Carroll played Joseph in Wuthering Heights against Laurence Olivier. Alfred Hitchcock loved Carroll and put him in six films including Spellbound and North by Northwest. On TV he played the ghost on Topper and Alexander Waverly on The Man From UNCLE.

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula is about a really big spider. Surprised? No, the surprise is that spidey’s taken out by SPOILER ALERT “Dirty Harry.” Clint Eastwood packs his magnum on top of a fighter jet.

read more: The Enduring Legacy of the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Tarantula is really about food. Professor Gerald Deemer wants to grow big food. Of course the first thing on the menu is what? Tarantula stew? What’s he thinking here? Start with a fucking carrot or something. Some celery. He’s growing huge rats and spiders. Where the fuck is this guy going to open his restaurant?

“And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills…”

Janette Scott - Paranoiac Poster

Janette Scott

Jannette Scott started in movies when she was four in the 1942 film Went the Day Well, a mouthful if you ask me. She played Cassandra in Helen of Troy, and Judith in The Devil’s Disciple. Scott moved to horror in Crack in the World and the William Castle 1963 remake of The Old Dark House. She also played in Bikini Paradise.

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The Day of the Triffids (1962)

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Humanitarians, like Doctor X, eat humans. Triffids are vegetables that eat humans, vegetarian or not.

Everyone on earth has gone blind because, while they knew enough not to look at the sun during an eclipse, no one bothered to tell them to look away from meteors. The whole world was watching a spectacular shower and they all went blind. And the plants? They walk. The Day of the Triffids was directed by Steve Sekely, and also starred Howard Keel.

“Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skills…”

Actor Dana Andrews

Dana Andrews

Dana Andrews could have played Brad Major early in his career. Dana Andrews was an accountant with Gulf Oil and for some reason, I see accountants as wearing Brad Majors eyeglasses. Especially in today’s hipster world. If you take the goofy glasses off Brad Majors, you see Barry Bostwick’s almost-leading-man looks. I mean, this guy got started on Broadway in Grease with a bigger part than John Travolta’s.

Dana Andrews started at California’s Pasadena Playhouse in 1935. He moved up through the ranks of Sam Goldwyn and 20th Century Fox studios filling supporting parts left by actors serving in World War II. Dana Andrews got the lead in the classic western hangin’ pic with Henry Fonda, William A Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 and Otto Preminger’s Laura with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price (how did Vincent Price not get named in this song?)

Andrews spoke out against encroaching obligatory sex in Hollywood when he was SAG President. In 1957, Andrews starred in the satanic classic …

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

I’m sucker for satanic cinema and Curse of the Demon is one of my favorites. Britain does the devil up right. From the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Dancing With Mr. D” to The Devil Rides Out (book or movie, both classics, Dennis Wheatley wrote the book, Hammer made the movie and it starred Charles Grey as the heroic hedonist to Christopher Lee’s nefarious nag), English artists had sovereign rule through their satanic majesty’s request. 

Curse of the Demon was based on M. R. James’ 1911 murder thriller Casting the Runes. The demon itself may look cheesy now, well, it looked cheesy then, the director, the renowned Jacques Tourneur, was against it. He wanted to leave it to the imagination, the producer wanted a monster, so they tagged one on in post-production. I kinda like it. It’s become iconic as far as horror images go.

“But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride, I’m gonna give you some terrible thrills…”

When Worlds Collide (1951)

When Worlds Collide should be re-examined today as a forerunner of apocalypse movies. It may not happen in our lifetime, maybe not even in a million years, but the earth is on a collision course and humanity goes apeshit. They don’t party like it’s Y2K. How could they with all those Lego buildings being washed away? My kids made the same volcano for their sixth grade science project that they use in this movie.

I kid the director Rudolph Maté. When Worlds Collide won a special effects Oscar and the guy in the wheelchair is wearing the same blanket as Dr. Scott. Producer George Pal wanted to make a sequel called After Worlds Collide, but lost the Conquest of Space.

George Pal and Puppetoons

George Pal

George Pal started out as an unemployed architect. Hey, don’t we all? Joel McCrea was an unemployed architect in Dead End and George Costanza said he was an unemployed architect on Seinfeld. And then of course, there’s Gary Cooper in Fountainhead.

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George Pal designed subtitles for silent movies and then got into stop-motion animation, leaving his native Hungary to produce puppet shorts in the Netherlands. He went to America after making the short film Going to America. It was an anti-fascist film in a pro-fascist society and they chased him out with torches. Pal got Jimmy Durante to dance with a cartoon squirrel in The Great Rupert and announced he was headed for Destination Moon. He produced the science fiction classic War of the Worlds before making When Worlds Collide. George Pal also made Houdini with Tony Curtis as the legendary magician; Tom Thumb, The Time Machine, and Atlantis the Lost Continent.

George Pal’s bride was Elisabeth “Zsoka” Grandjean, who he married in 1931, when he was 23.

“Science Fiction – Double Feature

     Dr. X will build a creature

          See androids fighting Brad and Janet…”

Rocky Horror Picture Show - Brad and Janet

Brad and Janet

Brad is an asshole and Janet is a slut who walks like a chicken.

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“Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet…”

Rocky Horror Picture Show / Phantom of the Paradise Double Feature Poster

“At the late night, double feature, picture show.

     I wanna go to the late night, double feature, picture show by RKO…”

RKO Double Features

I first learned about Rocky Horror Picture Show because I was a huge fan of Phantom of the Paradise (that link goes to Jim Knipfel’s brilliant piece. Bastard got it in first). I was ten or eleven. I saw it a bunch of times in the movies. I bought the album. I learned some “The Hell of It” on guitar. I stole the lobby cards and the movie poster. It made me see every Brian De Palma picture, including the early ones with Robert De Niro. I was primed for Rocky Horror. It was at one point the B picture to Phantom of the Paradise.

“In the back row at the late night double feature picture show.”

Back Row

The best place to sit no matter what you’re hiding. Everyone is looking the other way.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.