Egypt’s Remake of the Rocky Horror Picture Show
Formerly “The Rocky Horus Pictograph Show.”
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Two young ordinary healthy kids leave town in a storm, get a flat tire, visit a strange castle, and interrupt a bizarre party with a lot of singing and and one very debauched host.
All on a night out. In Egypt.
It’s a science fiction doppelgänger on this episode of Deja View.
Beginning life as a stage play, “The Rocky Horror Show,” about an engaged couple entangled in a household of “warped” aliens and their hunky experiment, discovered a life its creators never anticipated. The film version’s massive success at midnight showings led to a sequel, a TV remake, and four decades of interactive screenings with audience participation and accompanying fan performances. It was big. And it was exactly the kind of movie that Egypt would never make.
The world’s first Arabic-language film industry, Egyptian local cinema dates from the early 20th century. Over the last 100 years Egypt has produced films in a variety of genres from musicals to melodramas, gangster movies, and social dramas. These were overwhelmingly original movies, but filmmakers would occasionally remake the work of such American directors as Frank Capra, Brian de Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola. Yet by 1981, the number of horror films produced in Egypt—remake or original—was only about… zero. The staples of horror—monsters and ghouls—were borderline religiously transgressive. And while “Rocky Horror” is also a musical comedy, its roots are firmly planted in horror. It’s in the title! So writer/director Mohammed Shebl, a passionate horror fan, took a real risk by adapting it.
As “Fangs” begins it’s all but identical. The opening credits play over the iconic disembodied singing mouth—though made slightly less disembodied due to the obvious black face paint around it. A sardonic narrator still provides the story’s framing device. And Brad and Janet’s road trip (Ali and Mona in this version), their flat tire, the approach to the castle, the hunchback servant, and the party they interrupt are all painstakingly reproduced. But then everything takes a jump to the left.
Instead of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Ali and Mona’s dubious host is none other than Dracula! The vampire king makes eyes at Mona and has sinister designs on both his guests, but he has no lab, no artificial man, no string of jilted former lovers, no extracurricular hanky-panky, and no risqué revue. And despite a bevy of glam-rock vampires, there’s a distinct lack of transvestites.
And that’s partly because in its original form, “Rocky Horror” ticks at least half the boxes of contemporary Egyptian censors’ no-nos. The law forbid depiction of nudity or undue focus on erotic body parts, obscene language, disrespecting the sanctity of marriage, and homosexuality. That meant a complete rewrite of the second and third acts, and totally different central themes.
Whereas “Rocky Horror” satirizes middle class taboos about sexuality—untouchable in an Egyptian film—“Fangs” uses the material to explore middle class fears of financial instability kindled by Egypt’s recent foray into Capitalism. In one particularly meta sequence, Dracula argues with the narrator that vampires don’t exist. The narrator responds with an extended series of vignettes about greedy tradesmen—real-life vampires—who suck money out of the film’s working class heroes. And for emphasis, all of these swindlers are portrayed by Dracula.
Some of “Fangs’” other differences can be explained by its unique set of inspirations. Richard O’Brien wrote the original “Rocky Horror” out of his love for classic B-movies from “King Kong” and “Forbidden Planet” to 1950s rock and roll and biker movies. But Mohammed Shebl’s influences, like Hammer horror and Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu,” are from a later generation. And he even channels more self-aware material like “The Munsters,” the 1960s “Batman” TV series, and of course, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” itself. He also pulls in music from “James Bond,” “Jaws,” “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “The Pink Panther,” among others. Copyright infringement, at least, was clearly not a concern.
By all rights “Fangs” shouldn’t even exist. It’s a pop culture hodgepodge in an unproven genre that barely skirts cultural taboos. But the fruit of Shebl’s labor, passion, and his own money was not only completed but passed the scrutiny of two levels of Egyptian censorship. It’s a triumph that would impress even Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Censorship was never really his forte.
Unfortunately “Fangs” was not a commercial success. Too lowbrow for Egypt’s elite, they suggested it was better suited to the taste of the Gulf States—leaning on stereotypes of its citizens as vulgar and unsophisticated.
In other words, it was only suitable for “riffraff.”
Thanks so much for watching, and we’ll see you next time.