The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again
Laverne Cox heads the cast of this Fox reboot.
Nine months ago, Fox changed the musicals-on-TV game with its live broadcast of Grease. Content-wise, Grease Live didn't reinvent the wheel beyond padding the story a bit. What it did do was remarkable. While NBC broadcasts like Peter Pan Live and The Sound of Music Live did credible jobs of putting what amounted to live theater on television, Grease Live upped the ante of the fledgling genre's potential, figuring out how to retain a theatrical feel (and live audience) while opening the show up for the small-screen medium.
Of course, with every step forward, there's the potential for a journey in the opposite direction. Even so, it's bewildering how much of a step backward the network takes with The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again, a pre-taped movie airing October 20 that has had the benefits of editing and other traditional cinematic procedures. Featuring a surprisingly ordinary ensemble headed by Orange Is the New Black standout Laverne Cox, this unfortunate reboot fails to capture the spirit of the 1975 original, while taking pains to stay as close to it as possible.
For the uninitiated, Rocky Horror began life as a stage musical written by Richard O'Brien as a loving homage to the B movies of his youth. The strange plot follows the newly affianced Brad (here played by Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice), a pair of all-American virgins who stumble upon a haunted castle where trans-alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Cox) is celebrating the birth of her latest creation, a muscleman sex toy named Rocky (Staz Nair). Brad and Janet gradually lose their innocence as they become indoctrinated into the strange goings-on.
Besides the excellent Richard O'Brien score (and his less involving plot), a lot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's charm came from its griminess, created with a knowing wink that made it easy to love and even easier to poke fun at. To this day, it remains the quintessential cult midnight movie, inspiring dress-up screenings complete with audience interaction and callbacks.
Those elements are built into this new version, insipidly directed for the screen by Kenny Ortega. Rather than using the iconic red lips to open the feature, Ortega takes us into an old movie palace where an usherette (Ivy Levan) welcomes a crowd of punk youths to a movie screening. As Rocky Horror comes to life, there are occasional flashes into the cinema, where toilet paper gets tossed around, and viewers carefully fill in the blank with phrases like "Say it!" during Frank's drawn-out "anticipation."
Missing, though, are the bluer references, like shouting naughty nicknames at Janet and Brad when they introduce themselves. It's a small qualm but a telling one, indicative of this remake's larger problem, its sanitization. Rocky Horror was racy for its time, a textbook definition of 1970s counterculture. Ortega and company scrub the material clean of any sort of defining character and '70s grit. By no means is this Rocky Horror for children, but it's the product of a director whose previous credits include bubblegum films like High School Musical.
With the exception of casting Cox, a trans woman, as the "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania," Ortega doesn't make any contributions to the material itself, and mostly sticks to the 1975 screenplay verbatim. Even the imagery has you yearning for the original as Ortega and director of photography Luc Montpellier redo sequences like "Over at the Frankenstein Place," rather than crafting their own take.
The actors are doing similar imitations. McCartan captures Barry Bostwick's average nerdiness, while Justice has Susan Sarandon's breathiness down pat. As no-longer hunched servant Riff Raff, Broadway Spider-Man veteran Reeve Carney does a near-perfect impression of O'Brien himself, who took on that role 40 years ago. All of them are auto-tuned to distraction, which further adds to the loss of grit.
Cox doesn't quite have the vocal prowess to hit all the notes, but she is nonetheless delicious as Frank-N-Furter, reimagined in salacious skin-tight costumes by William Ivey Long that strangely make her look like a flame. Other standouts who do manage to make unique marks include Adam Lambert as the motorcycle-riding Eddie and Tony-winning veteran Broadway scene-stealer Annaleigh Ashford as Columbia. And it's truly lovely to see Tim Curry, the defining Frank himself who was felled by a stroke several years ago, make an appearance as the narrator.
In the end, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again is a major missed opportunity, one that keeps newness at arm's length in favor of safety. If you want the true Rocky Horror experience, watch the original risk-taking, boundary-breaking movie. It will have you shivering with antici…pation.