The basic mission of every remake is justifying its own existence. For “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again,” a two-hour special that aired Thursday on Fox and starring Laverne Cox, that burden is even heavier — and not just because of that cumbersome subtitle.
The original “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is the very definition of a cult classic. A ragged musical parody of B-cinema and celebration of pansexual decadence that flopped in its initial box-office release in 1975, the film was anchored by Tim Curry’s seductively bonkers performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a cross-dressing, cannibalistic mad scientist from outer space.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has since endured in midnight screenings across the country, where fans dress in costume, throw toilet paper at the screen and shout callback lines with the devotion of parishioners reciting Psalms. It’s more than a movie; it’s a shared geek ritual.
In other words, it’s an almost impossible formula to reproduce, especially on a mainstream broadcast network.
By casting Cox, easily the best-known transgender actress in Hollywood, as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Fox is clearly angling for contemporary relevance, but instead, the result feels uncomfortably dated. Directed by Kenny Ortega, the filmmaker behind Disney’s squeaky clean “High School Musical” trilogy, this is an overly slick remake that scrubs away the messy, low-budget charm of the original while throwing its glaring flaws into relief.
As an easily DVR-able two-hour special, rather than a live staged event in the vein of the recent TV productions of “Grease” or “The Wiz,” it also pretty much misses the point of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”: a collective viewing experience not readily confined by the small screen. In the age of social media, Twitter may be the new water cooler, but it can’t replace convening with fellow fanatics at the local multiplex.
Cox’s casting sparked both celebration and criticism when it was announced last year, and undoubtedly, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” represents a complicated milestone for the transgender community.
Cox is a transgender woman playing someone who identifies as a “transvestite,” a pejorative term that typically applies to men who find pleasure dressing in women’s clothing. By conflating transgender people with “cross-dressers,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” may be doing as much harm as good.
Setting aside the thorny gender politics, Cox gives a go-for-broke performance and is clearly relishing the chance to show her range after four seasons as world-weary inmate Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black.”
She’s a capable singer and a great dancer, with long, expressive limbs, but she falls into the trap of doing a Curry impression, right down to the cocky snarl and English accent. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” — so why does she sound like she’s from London?
The music remains as catchy as ever, and it’s hard not to get caught up in signature numbers like “The Time Warp” or “Dammit Janet.” Ortega and fellow executive producers Gail Berman and Lou Adler have made an effort to cast musically talented performers, including Broadway veteran Ben Vereen as Dr. Everett Scott and the justifiably beloved Curry, who lends his seal of approval by playing the criminologist-narrator. Most of the supporting performances are better than they need to be. The always delightful Annaleigh Ashford (“Masters of Sex”), who reimagines Columbia as a Cyndi Lauper-esque wackadoo, and Ryan McCartan, whose Brad is reminiscent of Elder Price from “The Book of Mormon,” are both standouts.
This is a spiffed-up, shiny version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with finely tuned choreography, elaborate costumes and makeup that stays intact — all of which seems contrary to the sweaty, slapdash spirit of the original. The higher production values also call attention to the haphazard plot — which, in case you need a refresher, revolves around a prudish couple who stumble on Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s lair late one night and quickly lose their inhibitions and bear witness to the creature he has created in his lab.
The biggest change Fox has made is revamping the opening sequence.
The iconic disembodied red lips have been replaced by a singing usher (Ivy Levan) who guides viewers to their seats in a theater where “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is playing.
In a halfhearted attempt at audience participation, the film periodically cuts back to moviegoers in the theater as they shout some of the tamer callback lines.
A live production would have come much closer to capturing the madcap collective experience of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but perhaps the risk of wardrobe malfunctions was simply too high.
Radical and transgressive for its era, the show has been an inspiration to generations of fans, particularly young LGBT people.
Perhaps in a futile attempt to please fans of the original (who were probably never going to get on board with a remake anyway), Ortega and company have left “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” largely intact, with few changes made to accommodate contemporary mores.
The film (and the stage show on which it was based) was created long before the terminology around gender and sexuality had been refined. Much like the term “transvestite,” there are numerous moments in the film that seem (at best) problematic now, when sexual assault and the issue of consent dominate the news. It’s hard not to cringe when Dr. Frank-N-Furter poses as Brad and gropes Janet in bed (and then does the same with Brad), or when you realize she’s created Rocky (Staz Nair) with the sole purpose of making him her sex slave.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, there’s also something fundamentally sad about trying to re-create the magic of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a curiosity that once had to be discovered by trekking to the theater at midnight and sitting in the dark next to a bunch of strangers in costumes, by broadcasting it to millions of viewers sitting at home tweeting from their smartphones.
In more ways than one, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a relic better left in the vault.
// Notes from the Road
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