While far from the world’s first cult movie, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show became one of the films that helped define the term. Its eventual success and transformation into a phenomenon blindsided pop culture, with the film released during a time when neither movie musicals nor Gothic horror were particularly en vogue, and its satiric tone and envelope-pushing queerness baffled the mainstream media. In retrospect, it’s clearer how writers Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman, adapting O’Brien’s successful West End stage show from 1973, were making a transgressive pastiche of classic Hollywood, Gothic horror and sci-fi tropes. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is a combination Count Dracula and Doctor Frankenstein (with a dash of Alien Scientist, like the Metalunans from 1955’s This Island Earth), luring unsuspecting, innocent victims Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) to his spooky castle in order to destroy not their lives (well, probably not) but their outmoded, Hollywoodized sexuality. While Rocky Horror was undeniably remixing elements from the past, there seemed to be something trail-blazingly new about it upon its release.
Yet perhaps Rocky Horror wasn’t as innovative as it initially seems when one considers the existence of director Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness – released in 1971, several years before Rocky’s stage show debuted. Part of a wave of lesbian vampire movies in the early 1970’s, Daughters is not a musical but rather an erotic thriller-cum-horror film, one that has influenced numerous other vampire movies that followed. Yet its similarity to Rocky Horror in plot and theme is remarkable, and while it’s not clear whether O’Brien, Sharman, or anyone involved with Rocky saw the film, it seems that Daughters is at least partially responsible for the musical’s cult success as well as its own.
Daughters of Darkness plays with the same tropes as Rocky Horror, albeit in more concealed fashion. Where Brad and Janet are left helplessly alone and lost on a dark and stormy night after their car breaks down in a spooky woods, the honeymooning newlyweds in Daughters, Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan Chilton (John Karlen), find themselves waylaid in a hotel on the Ostend seafront in Belgium after their train is delayed. It turns out that the place is a favorite haunt of a Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig), who, along with her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau), becomes the only other guest to check in to the hotel. Báthory takes a keen interest in the newly married couple, inserting herself into their discussions and telling them sordid, ambiguously threatening and enticing tales of her connection to the historical Erzsébet Báthory and that countess’s numerous violent and deadly atrocities. Meanwhile, the murders of some young girls in nearby Bruges casts further suspicion on Elizabeth, and the hotel’s sole staff member (Paul Esser) and a retired policeman (Georges Jamin) seem to remember Elizabeth from decades ago looking the exact same age. Valerie and Stefan realize too late Elizabeth’s vampiric identity, succumbing in their own way to her wiles.
The horror film aspects of both Daughters of Darkness and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are presented in as classical a fashion as possible to allow each film’s commentary on sexuality to be smuggled in. Both are unabashedly queer, with Frank and Elizabeth open and voracious in their bisexuality. The two of them, fulfilling the roles of mad scientist and queen vampire, have goals that ostensibly involve domination and obliteration, yet they appear to be far more interested in experimentation and play than mere murder. Each are far more driven by exploring their various kinks and fetishes: Frank takes particular delight in seducing Brad and Janet separately by impersonating the other, and of course cannot wait to unwrap his Frankenstein’s monster of a sex toy, Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Elizabeth already has her own sex toy in Ilona, but her ultimate goal seems to be awakening the dormant darker libidos of Valerie and Stefan. In Rocky Horror’s climax, Frank attempts to start a five-way gender-bent orgy, while Daughters ends with Báthory apparently trying to initiate a threesome with Valerie and Stefan. The fact that neither Frank nor Elizabeth are totally successful serves a dual thematic purpose: for the more conservative and mainstream audience members, their defeat fulfills the trope in horror where the deviant and the radical is destroyed, and for the more progressive and open-minded, it’s a wry commentary on how true sexual freedom is routinely oppressed.
Where Daughters and Rocky are the most subversive is in their destruction of expectation and character stereotypes, using the then-new permissiveness in film to comment on cinema’s past. Frank and Elizabeth, the envelope-pushing sexual experimenters in the guise of Gothic horror villains, are also a comment on Old Hollywood and its iconography: each has their own pixie-like woman in fishnet stockings companion that look like they’re from the 1920s or ‘30s, Ilona appearing like Louise Brooks and Columbia (Nell Campbell) recalling Fred Astaire in top hat and tails. Frank himself fantasizes of being the star of “An RKO Radio Picture” while Elizabeth resembles the actress Marlene Dietrich from her perfectly coiffed blonde hair to her slinky, sparkly gowns. Brad and Janet are literally and figuratively stripped down and reconstructed as the more sexually fluid people their staunchly conservative facades were hiding, while Valerie and Stefan undergo a similar transformation-cum-revelation, with Valerie discovering her bisexuality and Stefan’s latent sadomasochism coming to the fore. Stefan’s biggest secret remains hidden from his wife Valerie, but not from the audience: his wealthy “Mother” that he’s so wary to introduce Valerie to is really a gay man (Fons Rademakers)—or perhaps a trans woman—who has apparently kept Stefan for an indeterminate amount of time.
Whether O’Brien and Sharman saw Kümel’s film before creating Rocky Horror or not may be a moot point considering the wave of permissive, progressive and transgressive cinema in the 1970s. Genre films have always been the best and most powerful way to smuggle in themes and concepts that would be rejected in more straightforward drama, and it’s entirely possible that the makers of both movies saw the opportunities inherent in the horror genre to make explicit what was implicit before, both in horror movies themselves and culture at large. It’s difficult to make a fully progressive read of either movie given their dedication to the horror genre—while Frank and Elizabeth could be seen as queer heroes, they’re still ostensibly the villains of their stories. However, both Daughters of Darkness and The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem to paint their villainy not due to their sexuality or tastes but their appetites, their freedom as creatures of the night giving them license to go too far and do more harm than good. The larger evil force in both films seems to be the repressed nature of society at large, a fear of sex and denial of self that results in a violent explosion of everyone’s id, perpetuating a cycle that is doomed to continue: Valerie takes on the mantle of Báthory and seduces a new young couple, while the Transylvanians will undoubtedly do the Time Warp again. At least we have these cult genre films to help open our minds and our eyes, lest we do the same.