Dear weirdos of the world — if you love the original “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” if it changed your life forever, if its musical numbers are embedded in the grooves of your brain, you probably shouldn’t watch the new Fox remake (subtitled “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again”), airing tonight.
Not that it’s stupefyingly bad, but because if you watch looking for the reasons you love the Jim Sharman-directed 1975 film, you’ll find yourself sorely disappointed.
And if you’re less familiar with the original film, watching this remake will technically introduce you to the premise, but won’t explain the film’s legacy. Here’s a simple explanation for the newest interpretation: The newly engaged Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice), driving down a rural road, get a flat tire, and go looking for help. What they find is a castle filled with partying Transylvanians hosted by Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox), who’s all too happy to drag Brad and Janet into her debauchery.
Alas, it all falls apart, as all morality plays do, with an assist from the unfaithful Rocky (Staz Nair), the perfect man who Frank-N-Furter made from scratch, as well as Frank’s duplicitous assistants Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) and Magenta (Christina Milian).
To recreate the cult film, Fox brought in a new ensemble (with one exception: Tim Curry, 1975’s iconic Frank, is back, this time as the Criminologist) and it’s an incredibly game cast. History-making Laverne Cox puts her own stamp on the role with such force that you really don’t think that much about Curry’s original performance, and Annaleigh Ashford as Columbia proves to be a real standout as well. Bonus points to Adam Lambert for both echoing Meat Loaf in all the right ways while also finding his own way through his limited appearance.
While many numbers stick close to the original film, musically there are a few striking reimaginings, and the producers made the smart choice to focus their reinvention on the most iconic numbers. They didn’t make Laverne Cox imitate Curry’s singular take on “Sweet Transvestite,” but gave her a new angle on it, one that’s a little more down tempo. It’s always awkward to hear this sort of bold reinterpretation; there’s always the temptation to shout “BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THE SONG GOES!” But it’s worth admiring the attempts to be different.
Director Kenny Ortega’s interpretation does have some cojones. Framing the action of the original movie as a film-within-a-film, allowing an onscreen audience to provide some of the more classic audience participation moments familiar to midnight screening attendees, is perhaps the boldest move made by this adaptation.
Unfortunately, it’s not all that successful; balancing these elements is pretty much an impossible feat. The reason audience participation works for a movie like “Rocky Horror” is that a vast majority of the audience has seen it many times before. Since this is the first time we’re watching this version, pre-arming it with commentary feels redundant.
The one thing that could have saved this? Spending the money and time necessary to have the actors sing live during filming. The lip-syncing is a massive issue — not many of the cast have a real knack for it — but beyond that it would go a long way toward differentiating the Fox version from the original, which features its own occasionally awkward sync issues (though to a far less degree).
Really, anything that would have brought a more organic feel to the production would have been exciting, as the musical numbers feel a bit overproduced. There’s a rough edge to the classic film, the sense that anything could happen, which is fundamentally missing here — scenes in the original that are performed in silhouette are now out in the open, but less titillating as a result. A wild motorcycle ride around the lab feels carefully staged. The makeup and wardrobe remain firmly secure, no chance of dripping or slipping. And perhaps that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding about why “Rocky” remains such a mainstay today.
The first time you really see the original “Rocky Horror” isn’t the first time you pop in the DVD or catch an airing on cable. The first time that really counts is when you find yourself at a midnight screening at some independent theater, one with two screens max and the omnipresent scent of stale popcorn. Ideally, you’re under the age of 18, and your parents only have a vague idea of where you are that night — and there’s a thrill running through you, at the sublime subversion that comes with being out late and about to plunge into an experience that’s impossible to describe.
It’s not just the sex and violence and chaos that keep the core of this objectively not-so-great film compelling to audiences, generation after generation. It’s the sense of danger. “Rocky,” it’s important to remember, isn’t a happy lark. It’s a tragedy that leaves every character behind in various states of disrepair (or dismemberment). It’s a film about being a freak and a weirdo, and embracing that truth, and then finding yourself punished for it. It’s the perfect experience for the adolescent who feels like an outcast (so, you know, all adolescents ever).
“Rocky” isn’t really a horror film, but when you really see it for the first time, it’s scary. It teases the idea that there are worlds beyond your knowledge, passions within you dying to awaken. It lures you out, whispering in your ear, “Don’t dream it — be it.”
Whether or not you went through with it, that sort of temptation is more delicious a thrill than any sort of haunted house. Capturing that was always going to be an impossible challenge for a broadcast network airing a PG-13 (if that) production from 8-10 p.m. But the potential still echoes, annoyingly.