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40 years later, Jim Sharman can’t fully explain ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s’ appeal

Jim Sharman on "Rocky Horror's" spark: "I don't think anybody can completely explain it. I think it must be something in the DNA of the movie."

Jim Sharman on “Rocky Horror’s” spark: “I don’t think anybody can completely explain it. I think it must be something in the DNA of the movie.”

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Sharman is going through a bit of a time warp.

Sharman, 70, is a celebrated theater and opera director in his native Australia with dozens of productions to his credit. He has been an artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and was the creator of the Lighthouse theater company, which focused on innovative staging of classic plays as well as works by new Australian playwrights.

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But early in his career, Sharman was a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, directing three seminal musicals — “Hair” in Australia, Tokyo and Boston; “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Australia and London; and most significantly, “The Rocky Horror Show,” a wacky, erotic sci-fi horror musical written and composed by actor Richard O’Brien, which opened in London in 1973 and played in Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne and New York City.

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In 1975, Sharman directed and co-wrote “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which 40 years after its release is still the ultimate midnight movie. Executive produced by Lou Adler, who had seen the stage production, “Rocky Horror” was shot on a low budget at Bray Studios in England, the old Hammer horror film studios.

“It wasn’t such a smart move,” said Sharman, laughing. “There was no heating, and it was the middle of winter.”

Though he did direct the 1981 follow-up “Shock Treatment,” Sharman said that was enough involvement in anything “Rocky Horror.”

He returned to the Australian stage and never looked back.

Sharman rarely discusses “Rocky Horror” and hadn’t seen the film in over a decade. But he recently watched it on Blu-ray before he left Sydney for a visit to Los Angeles. It made him reconsider the movie’s appeal.

“There is sort of an ambiguity in it,” said Sharman of the film.

That’s putting it mildly.

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Tim Curry, who walks in heels better than most women, stars as the alien transvestite scientist Frank N. Furter; Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon are the virginal engaged couple Brad and Janet whose car breaks down near Frank’s spooky castle; and O’Brien, who co-wrote the film with Sharman, is Frank’s creepy servant Riff Raff.

Sharman has heard many theories about why audiences have been fanatically loyal to the movie after all of these decades — the strong sense of community and bond among audience members; the perfect date movie for outsiders and great marketing. He’s not buying any single explanation.

“I don’t think anybody can completely explain it,” he said. “I think that’s the interesting story. I think it must be something in the DNA of the movie.”

His unusual upbringing may have something to do with the success. “My own background was divided between a very conventional city upbringing in a very conservative Australia — I think I did a little bit to correct that starting with ‘Hair’ — but the rest of the time my family ran traveling sideshows.”

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Sharman didn’t care to follow in the family business. He was much more interested in the traveling vaudeville shows he would see. Attending drama school was his “serious side. ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is kind of the fairground side.”

After directing “Jesus Christ Superstar” in London, he went to the Royal Court Theatre and directed Sam Shepard’s “The Unseen Hand,” which featured O’Brien, who showed Sharman a musical he had written.

“At that stage it was called ‘They Came From Denton High,’” said Sharman. “So we kind of built it up from there.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was influenced by the German silent Expressionist films he saw at midnight screenings in London.

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Noted Sharman: “I think Tim’s performance is right up there with Conrad Veidt in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’”

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