The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
Based on The Rocky Horror Picture Show by Jim Sharman & Richard O’Brien
Directed by Kenny Ortega
Starring Laverne Cox, Tim Curry, Victoria Justice, Ryan McCartan, Reeve Carney, Christina Milian, Annaleigh Ashford, Adam Lambert, Staz Nair, Ben Vereen, Ivy Levan
Air Date: Thursday, October 20, 2016, 8-10pm
Going into FOX’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, you know that it can never live up to the 1975 cult classic film, but it can do its originator justice. Unfortunately, this new 2-hour TV special doesn’t.
The original The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a horror-comedy musical, became a counter-culture sensation after midnight screenings generated the now-famous audience participations, cosplay, and in-theater act-alongs. The film itself was an homage to classic science fiction-monster movies, complete with camp, meshed with gender-bending and titillations that were still considered taboo at the time, all set to catchy rock and roll tunes. It was unique, it was exciting, and it resonated with people so strongly that the movie and soundtrack are still in play today, and theater productions continue to be staged around Halloween time each year.
This remakes keeps the basically original story intact. Brad and Janet, a newly engaged innocent couple, find themselves stranded in a storm after their car breaks down. They seek refuge at a nearby castle, the setting for an Annual Transylvanian Convention, which is where the popular choreographed “Time Warp” part comes in. The event is hosted by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania,” who also happens to be an alien mad-scientist who’s creating his own perfect man, Rocky, for his own sexual purposes. The young couple are shocked and frightened by their host and the convention goers, but the night only becomes more terrifying when Frank-N-Furter’s unveiling of his creation is spectacularly crashed by his ex-lover Eddie, a leather-clad motorcycle delivery boy who’s also involved with Frank’s groupie Columbia. When this altercation comes to a horrible end, Brad and Janet are then given separate sleeping accommodations. When Frank-N-Furter visits each of their rooms to introduce them to a new world of delights, it brings upon their sexual awakening and libration, which also leads to Janet’s evening of pleasure with the “newborn” Rocky, who was being menaced and abused by siblings Magenta and Riff Raff, the castle’s handyman and maid, respectively. Unexpectedly, Dr. Scott, Brad and Janet’s mentor, arrives at the castle, and the gang all have an awkward dinner reception, after which Frank-N-Furter forces them into participating into a song and dance show. But Magenta and Riff Raff have other, more nefarious plans for their master.
This FOX TV remake certainly had a lot to live up to, but it seems like in their endeavor to entice a new generation and stay faithful to the story for original Rocky Horror fans, they failed at both. Being on network television limits the production, and forces it to become sanitized. Add in High School Musical director Kenny Ortega at the helm and we’re taking things down to family-friendly level, which means a lot of the sex and gore are omitted and elements are made more safe. (Mind you, even though it’s not my style, I loved High School Music, so I have no problem in general with light fare.)
I might have been able to look passed all of these issues if the music had at least been on the level of the Rocky Horror episode of FOX’s Glee, which was already a watered-down version, but it’s not even that decent. (Although, at least they said “Transexual,” which Glee changed to “Sensational” and “Satanic Mechanic,” which was revised when Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack performed it in the “Rocky Horror’s 25th Anniversary with a Celebrity Karaoke” event.) This new version takes the sex, grit, and edge out of nearly every song, and switches it up with auto-tuned, over-produced, R&B-influenced pop, with overbearing horn sections, and absolutely no passion.
Thankfully, there are no new plot twists or alternate endings, but there were some omissions, most notably the cannibalism. An awkward dinner is served, after which the diners discover they’ve been chowing down on Eddie, but that specific reveal is left out now, though they keep in all the telling elements that should lead up to it. For a vegetarian like me, watching them haphazardly carve a bloody roast might be repelling, but the average American wouldn’t find this unappetizing. So without the grotesque and taboo payoff, all of the theatrics around the carving are for nothing.
In the new version, instead of opening with the iconic disembodied red lips singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” Ivy Levan performs the song as Trixie, the Usherette who shows movie theater-goers to their seats for an old school SciFi double feature. As with many of the other performances, Levan doesn’t own the role and overdoes the R&B pop-inspired oversinging. Not every line needs to be sung with soul and ended with an extended “whoa whoa.” There’s a story to be told, which means you shouldn’t sing it like a pop song, but as if you’re a storyteller. So this introduction does accurately set up the tone for the rest of the movie, but it’s not the tone I was hoping they’d set.
Throughout the new movie, the audience at the movie theater is flashed back to as they watch the events of the film, which is narrated by a criminologist, played here by Tim Curry, which is a nice addition, especially since the actor suffered a stroke in 2012 and has been wheelchair bound since. When we see the audience, they shout out classic lines from the midnight audience participations, but only the family friendly stuff is uttered. For example, they say “Do it!” but don’t expect to hear “slut” when Janet’s name is mentioned. Seeing as this element has become such a major part of the Rocky Horror legacy, I thought this was an appropriate and welcome incorporation.
The narrator introduces us to Brad and Janet, a young couple attending their friends’ wedding who become engaged. I’m not familiar with Victoria Justice, but I thought her Janet was one of the better performances, as if she studied Susan Sarandon’s moves and inflections, giving perfect Betty Bop squeals. Her counterpart, Ryan McCartan, was a bit less impassioned as Brad, who is wooden and nerdy to begin with; but he just didn’t sell me on it. I think part of the problem was that the songs sounded sped-up, and altered to appeal to today’s reality talent show fans.
In the remake, Laverne Cox, a transgendered woman, is playing Frank-N-Furter, originally a cross-dressing cisgendered male. While Cox does well at emulating Tim Curry’s enunciations and flare from the original film, she looks neither frightening nor charismatic. Also, her accent goes from British like Curry’s to a southern/mid-American hybrid, where every time she says “Brad” it sounds like she’s saying “bread.” While Curry’s male character strutted around in heels — clumsily at times — and an ill-fitted corset with a confident swagger that exuded sexuality and an element of danger, Cox is well-covered, well-poised, and frankly, fabulous. When Frank-N-Furter first meets Brad and Janet, she sings that they shouldn’t get “strung out” by the way she looks, and then Janet faints when seeing her, yet Cox’s appearance is nothing to be frightened of or is it even shocking in this day and age. She’s gorgeous, impeccably dressed, and carries herself like she’s Beyonce.
Then there’s the Transylvanians, who look like they got their attire at Hot Topic and their accessories at Party City — again, nothing to be fearful of here. There’s nothing particularly weird or strange about them, and it looks to me like a really cool party I wouldn’t mind being invited to (there’s even a house band with back up singers!). Now, even people who have never seen the original Rocky Horror likely know the song “Time Warp” and have seen the video of this sequence of the film, where the Transylvanians do a choreographed pelvic-thrusting dance of insanity. This is a standout moment from the film that’s left a legacy. Yet even though this remake is subtitled Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, I wasn’t even sure I saw them DO the Time Warp in it. I had to rewatch it to check, and while there’s some steps, the camera cuts are too quick and unfocused to be cohesive; new viewers to the franchise might not even realize there’s a specific Macarena-type dance to be done.
Reeve Carney is a perfect Riff-Raff, with his chiseled cheeks and piercing eyes. He definitely rocked the role, but the filmmakers’ choice to calm down his introduction for “Time Warp” was a mistake. I wasn’t even sure at first that they were starting the song, since there was no energy or build up to it, but that’s not the actor’s fault, and he honestly was wonderful in every way. (I had the same problem with the mellow intro to “Sweet Transvestite,” which sounded like they were starting The Eagles’ “Witchy Women.”) Christina Milian as his sister Magenta was more forgettable and didn’t seem committed enough to the character, and her singing clashed with the other actors. Annaleigh Ashford as Columbia, though a smaller role, might have been the best overall performance, and the least altered, but her tap dance during “Time Warp” was unimpressive. When Adam Lambert shows up as Eddie, he does his best Meatloaf impression, but then there it was at the end, a Mariah Carey diva moment. Damnit, Adam!
If The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again was my kid’s high school production, I would absolutely be so proud. I would take it for what it was. But a major network production should not come across like a high school play meets American Idol auditions. There’s nothing risquÃ©, nothing outlandish. The sex scenes aren’t even sex scenes, they’re more like playful pillow fights. Janet, Brad, and Rocky are supposed to experience a sexual awakening, with the first two also undergoing a sexual liberation, yet the transformation does not come through on screen. There’s also the issue of anticipa…tion — there isn’t any. In the original, there was a lot of “anticipation” and sexual tension, but again thanks to quick cuts and sped-up music, there’s not enough pause to create that kind of atmosphere.
I know I’ve just spent nearly 2,000 words expressing my disappointment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, but I’m coming at this as a long-time fan of Rocky Horror, having seen it at many a midnight showing as a teenager, so my perspective is not going to be the same as a new viewer. I’m also a big rock fan, who loves the music as it was performed in the original film, and I really dislike pop music and this trend of diva over-singing that’s overproduced. But these songs are so amazing and hold up great over time, so even remade in today’s style, it was still nice to hear (I had it in my head for hours afterward). It’s not that I wanted to turn the movie off, but I just wish that on a whole it had been a better, more involved production. I did like the set design, though, as I felt it created an appropriate atmosphere for the story. It’s possible if they re-air this movie next Halloween, I’ll appreciate it more now that I know what to expect, and I’ll likely enjoy it as part of the Fall season. But at first viewing, it just didn’t live up to even my lowest expectations of it.
[Â©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Steve Wilkie/FOX. Used with permission.]