The fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again exists is a disaster to Rocky Horror fans.
The reason the original film has played in theaters for 41 years has nothing to do with its quality. It’s a deeply flawed film with bad writing, bad singing, and bad acting. But it’s been a way for people sympathizing with the counter-culture to come together with like-minded individuals and feel as though their ideas have won out. As you probably guessed by the opening sentence of this paragraph, I’m not a big fan of the original Rocky Horror film. It’s nowhere near as revolutionary or insightful as its legions of fans claim it is.
The whole point of the film is to point out that the junk culture from the Eisenhower administration directly lead to the hippie revolution and the “Summer of Love” that saw people exploring the limits of their sexuality in a way that still seem dangerous. That’s certainly a good theme, but filmmakers like Brian de Palma, Ken Russell, John Waters, and Derek Jarman have explored the same territory and done it better. (Not to mention performers like Alice Cooper, Freddie Mercury, Frank Zappa, Prince, and David Bowie, who all built careers around the same idea that have lasted decades.) Grease was about the same thing and demonstrated that such an idea is so against mainstream culture that it became, for a while, the most popular film ever released.
Still, for many years, Rocky Horror was a phenomenon that belonged to people going against the constraints of society. I have been to a live screening and it’s fantastic. Even if I don’t understand the cult, I can’t deny it exists or try to fault people for being in it.
But that cult still depends on rebellion from the mainstream. Even if this new Rocky Horror is a perfect remake that captures everything about the original, it’s being played on prime time TV. No longer is Frank N Furter a midnight staple for the hippest of the hip New York audiences. He’s being beamed across America for everyone to consume. And not only is he a man in drag – she (Furter’s gender is changed in this adaptation) is being played by an openly transsexual actress. What would have been unthinkable even ten years ago is now ready to be consumed by the masses.
So the new Rocky Horror had no chance of making the same impact the original did. But does it still capture the campy fun that makes the original watchable? No, and it doesn’t even bother to try.
The film does have a good opening. It’s one of the few times that director Kenny Ortega (Hocus Pocus…no, seriously. Someone watched Hocus Pocus and decided that this guy was the perfect man to capture the Rocky Horror cult for a new generation) tries something new. Instead of the iconic lips singing “Science Fiction Double Feature,” we open with an Usherette (Ivy Levan) singing it as people walk into a movie theater to settle in for a screening. She wanders through the crowd, chastising people for putting their feet up, and slinks through the song with a new sort of cheesy pop sound. It works because it acknowledges the Rocky Horror cult, shows a willingness to experiment with the songs, and introduces new camp elements that would resonate with people who are decades younger than the original film.
It’s also the biggest con in film history. The rest of the film is exactly like the original, demonstrating the pointlessness of the remake. There are also several times when we cut back to this theater audience at random, showing people making jokes at the film. This might have worked had the show been live and there been a shadowcast, but as it stands it’s a joke that makes no sense. You have to know the punchline in advance, and those people who’ve gone to the show hundreds of times are just likely to be upset by the joke.
Then we get to the usual stuff – Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) go to a wedding, get engaged, have their car break down, end up at the castle, etc. And when I say it’s the same, I mean it’s exactly the same. There is no attempt to try anything different.
But this new version never captures the original spirit of the film. This version is so glossy and clean. Every costume looks professional, all the actors look fantastic, and the set design is really good for a TV movie. This is a terrible idea for Rocky Horror. It takes away the elements of danger and the oddness from the original film. The filmmakers turned away people like Steve Martin and Mick Jagger for people who were unknown at the time. The film’s low budget aesthetic worked to its advantage. All of that is gone in the new version. For example, here’s what Victoria Justice, the film’s Janet, looks like:
She is a gorgeous woman. How on earth does anyone who looks like this capture the feeling of “innocent 1950s virgin?” When she sings “Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” it is not going to convey an exciting moment in her life as she tries something new. It’s going to come across as “business as usual.” The whole point of Brad and Janet is that they’re hopelessly square people who can barely understand what the Transylvanians are doing when they talk dirty about pelvic thrusts. And that initial lack of knowledge is what creates the thrill for them that leaves them forever changed. Hiring a supermodel is not going to convey that, but is going to convey a bright poppy sheen for a mass audience.
Even Laverne Cox isn’t served well by this approach, and she’s the only person that really tries to capture the spirit of the original. Cox is not only a talented actress, but is someone who still captures the dangerous sexuality that makes Frank N Furter work. Her public statements about her transition still rattle the mainstream. She also does try to capture the campiness of the original. But here’s how the film handles her performance:
The filmmakers have forgotten that Frank N Furter is not meant to even wear convincing drag. His corset doesn’t fit, his makeup looks like a Joan Crawford nightmare, and his fish nets are torn. Cox looks like she could open for Rhianna. It doesn’t have the same impact Tim Curry made when he first threw off the cape.
Speaking of Curry, he shows up in the film as the criminologist. And it’s sad. Curry suffered a stroke some years ago that left him wheelchair bound. He does the best he can, but it’s terrible seeing him barely able to say his lines. I don’t blame him at all. I blame the filmmakers who thought it would be a good idea to show such a legendary actor in such a weakened state just for a cheap nostalgia thrill.
An image that captures my feeling on the film’s treatment of Tim Curry.
The whole film is a mess, but it feels like a more desperate, unfortunate mess than the original film. I had a feeling that the original cast and original creators at least believed in the point they were trying to make and felt they had to make it any way they can. They managed to find camp in a way that audiences could relate to – an audience that felt unable to relate to anything else coming out of the mainstream. This remake simply feels that being “weird” is enough. It’s practically adding a #totallyrandom hashtag to the credits and thumbing its nose at the people who have kept the original in theaters for 41 years. How can anyone approve of that?