Kenny Ortega’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, a made-for-TV movie on the Fox network, has the biggest strike against it, namely the fact that it’s a remake, specifically of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which flopped upon its original 1975 theatrical release but very quickly grew into a cult phenomenon on the midnight movie circuit and remains playing to this day.
Setting aside the fact that very word “remake” is itself enough to make people’s blood boil – an overreaction, in my opinion – you’re likely to deal with boycotts, protests, hostile tweets, and demonstrations when dealing with a film that has become so beloved, so sacrosanct. Look what happened with Ghostbusters. Heaven help us if someone has the guts to remake Citizen Kane or Casablanca.
In the interest of full disclosure, 1975’s Rocky Horror is a film I grew up with and continue to hold in very high regard – a film I believe to be interesting and watchable outside of a midnight movie house and away from shadow casts and audience participation, contrary to what most fans and critics will tell you. It’s not only exuberant, goofy fun but also a successful product of its time, when rock dominated the stage-musical landscape, when androgyny and gender bending were just beginning to enter pop culture, when audiences liked sex. It’s also a respectful cinematic homage to the English Hammer horror films of the 1960s and ‘70s, to say nothing of its admittedly demented nod to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
It can be successfully argued that 2016’s Rocky Horror isn’t a product of its time; once daring views and depictions of sexuality aren’t so daring anymore, at least not cinematically, and songs that were once original are now known by heart. It can also be successfully argued that, while the original paid homage to the B sci-fi and horror films of yesteryear, the remake is paying homage only to the original and the stage play that inspired it; it’s no longer about the universe it spoofed, but about spoofing its own universe. But for all any of us know, that was the intention all along; when you can’t make fun of anything else, make fun of yourself. Show the rest of the world that you’re in on the joke.
Of course, that doesn’t always work. I submit as evidence the stage play adaptation of Xanadu, which was based on the infamous 1980 Olivia Newton-John film. With every scene of the play that passed, my dissatisfaction grew, for it was obvious to me that the intention wasn’t to adapt the film straightforwardly, but to repeatedly and insistently wink at the audience with in-your-face self-referential humor, as if to say, “Look at us! Were making fun of the film that inspired the Razzie Awards! Aren’t we clever?” You can see some of that at work in Ortega’s Rocky Horror. The actors give performances that are so obviously over the top that it indicates intention, and if there’s anything that flies in the fact of genuine camp, it’s intention.
Admittedly, I liked some of the performances regardless. Ryan McCarten and Victoria Justice give their respective roles of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss a delightfully phony 1950s wholesomeness, while Adam Lambert as Eddie kills it with his rendition of “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul.” Annaleigh Ashford’s take on Columbia is an amusing cross between a disaffected teen and Cyndi Lauper. It was nice that Ortega allowed Tim Curry, who played Dr. Frank N. Furter in the original film, to take the reins from the late Charles Gray as the Criminologist, despite the fact that his recent stroke has robbed him of most of his mobility. Interestingly, that negative led to a strange and funny positive: The addition of an unnamed and unexplained elderly woman, who stands behind Curry, turns dossier pages, and, when necessary, screams in terror.
As for Laverne Cox, her performance as the iconic Dr. Frank N. Furter is very likely to polarize audiences. Some will say that, by going for broke and intentionally overacting, she’s staying true to the spirit of what Rocky Horror is. Others will say that she’s simply mimicking Tim Curry’s original performance, and not in a way that’s flattering or respectful. If you had to twist my arm, I’d say my opinion rests somewhere in the middle. While I certainly wished she had made Frank more of her own character, there’s no denying the fact that she’s a presence and has a great singing voice. I also found it funny that, as a genuine transsexual, her character sings a song about being from the planet of the same name. For this version, all of Frank’s pronouns have been switched to the feminine, which is fine – except I’m now not sure how, by actually being a woman and not merely dressing as one, she can remain a “Sweet Transvestite.”
Where am I going with all of this? There are aspects of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again that disappointed me, most notably the lack of awareness of anything apart from itself. But there are other aspects I liked a great deal. One is so successful, it allows me to drop my defenses and recommend you watch it the next time it airs. As an homage to the audience participation that has kept the story alive for over forty years, the film plays as a movie within a movie, with an audience watching the story unfold in a grand movie palace within a gothic castle (the same one, in a strange metafictional twist, that Brad and Janet meet Frank in); every now and then, the camera cuts to the audience, which shouts now famous lines back to the screen. There’s even an homage to the film’s stage roots, with much of the action performed on very limited stage space with rigging, background singers, and microphones clearly visible.