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Celebrating the Queer Midnight Movies of the 70s

Murder, sexual assault, incest, and homosexuality. Taboo subjects in the 1970s, these acts and identities were celebrated in camp films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Flamingos. These films proudly displayed queerness in an era where homosexuality was anything but accepted. While revolutionary and successful among fringe audiences over 40 years ago, these films continue to have a cult following in the LGBTQ+ community.

What Actually is Camp?

Rocky Horror and the films by John Waters are frequently described as camp, yet the flexible usage of the descriptor in 2023 might make the meaning unclear. When I describe these films as camp, I mean it in the true, Susan Sontag sense of the word (not in the way Karlie Kloss infamously imagined it). As described in Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” the word describes an ironic and theatrical expression of tackiness or distastefulness. It’s self aware, exaggerated, and intentionally misaligned with appropriate culture. The startling fashion and absurd politics of these midnight movies exemplify the concept of camp in a distinctly queer and rebellious way.

Midnight movies, which are cult classics made popular for being viewed in large groups at midnight, frequently feature queer characters and actors in drag. One of the most iconic examples of this is in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, featuring a “Sweet Transvestite” who alters the lives of a heterosexual couple (O’Brien).

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Girl meets boy, boy proposes to girl, boy and girl get trapped in a sexually devious mansion owned by aliens… it’s a tale as old as time. While unsuccessful upon its release in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became incredibly successful within queer communities and its popularity has grown exponentially since the 70s. Many cities internationally still host live productions and frequent midnight screenings. It is considered to be a queer masterpiece, with no character idolized as highly as Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry, not pictured). This “sweet transvestite” brings life to a beefier, blonder version of Frankenstein, Rocky, to be his new partner. With the accidental arrival of Brad and Janet (pictured in the center, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), things don’t go according to plan. Frank-N-Furter sleeps with both of them, kills the biker Eddie who interrupts the party, and is eventually murdered by alien siblings Riff Raff and Magenta (pictured on the left and right, Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn). Much of Frank-N-Furter’s behavior is unsympathetic, but Curry plays the role with a self-aware playfulness that guides the audience into a jovial and rebellious spirit.

The Early Works of John Waters

In the first act of John Waters’ Female Trouble, the character Aunt Ida (below on left, played by Edith Massey) cries, “The world of heterosexual is a sick and boring life!” Released in 1974, it is one of many films created by the filmmaker depicting the lives of the LGBTQ+ community as “filthy.” However, this presentation of filth is a source of pride for the odd characters within these worlds.

Before the charming PG-rated film Hairspray, filmmaker John Waters worked to bring disgusting campy filth to the movies. Working with a consistent cast of queer actors (spearheaded by drag queen Divine, pictured above in the center, who inspired the original Ursula design in The Little Mermaid), Waters made low-budget films that intersected queerness with socially unaccepted behavior. This is exemplified most clearly in Pink Flamingos from 1972 and Female Trouble. Divine stars in both, playing rebellious mothers who take pleasure in robbing, raping, murdering, and essentially any other immoral act imaginable. If it’s violent, sexual, and disgusting, her characters will take pleasure in doing them. Even the actor Divine ate real dog shit on the set of Pink Flamingos to prove that, “not only is she the filthiest person in the world, she’s also the filthiest actress in the world!” While the thought of watching a drag queen gag on dog poop doesn’t sound like traditional queer representation, LGBTQ+ audiences have created a huge cult following for these works.

(L to R, Divine, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, David Lochary, John Waters, and Danny Mills on the set of Pink Flamingos)

1970s Queer Midnight Movies in the Modern Culture

Recognizing the political time these films were released and how the filmmakers have reflected on their work over the course of several decades is very relevant. Despite using outdated terms like transsexual and transvestite, members of the LGBTQ+ community including Lavene Cox (a transgender actress who played the role of Frank-N-Furter in 2016) still reveres Rocky Horror Picture Show as the meaning of these terms had a different context at the time of the film’s release in 1975. John Waters referenced regret in his 2010 memoirs, citing that his real-life fixation on Tex from the Manson murders and its influence on Female Trouble was insensitive. Divine and Tim Curry are cis male actors in drag. However, the nuances of their gender performance in these roles pose unique ideas about masculinity. The success all of these films found have been through fringe and alternative audiences. Divine says in Pink Flamingos, “I'm the filthiest person alive, that's who I am,” with pride.

This pride in devious acts was a form of rebellion against the openly homophobic culture of the era. Putting cannibalism and “lesbianism” in the same sentence describing Divine’s atrocities in Pink Flamingos emphasizes the absurdity of homophobia. Rocky’s heterosexual attraction towards Janet is treated with outrage and disgust similarly to how queer relationships would have been acknowledged in the 70s. These bold and exciting films paved the way for many LGBTQ+ films of the future, even if many of the LGBTQ+ characters of the 21st century don’t commit violent murders.

Written by Mary Leer

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