Film

'Rocky Horror' Remake Lacks the Magic and Edge of the Original

Meredith Blake
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

By casting Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Fox is clearly angling for contemporary relevance, but instead, the result feels uncomfortably dated.

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image