Released in 1975 and diluted in 2016, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a peculiar creation: a musical torn between horror and comedy with all the jarring disharmony of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Forty one years after it first hit the silver screen, Fox has done its best to produce a line-by-line replica for TV, but with all the weirdness sucked out. It’s odd but not strange. Rocky Horror without strange is like non-alcoholic beer: you’re disappointed when nothing interesting happens but you should have seen it coming.
The story begins when bumbling couple Brad and Janet get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere on a dark, stormy night. Their first course of action? Walk to that nearby castle to borrow a phone, of course. So far, so parody. But the original Rocky Horror is more than a skit on the horror genre, it’s a unique beast. This is largely thanks to the crooked butler Riff Raff and the electrifying master of the castle, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Tim Curry (the narrator in the remake.) Frank-N-Furter introduces himself as a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” through terrifying and irresistible song. That’s some catchy transphobia, right there.
How has director Kenny Ortega managed to be so faithful to the story and yet so treacherous? By toning it down. The unsettling sexual perversity that courses through the original Rocky Horror has been drained and disposed of. Though Laverne Cox is by far the strongest performer as the new Frank-N-Furter, there’s a lack of menace. There’s little sign of the sexual insatiability that drives Frank-N-Furter to create brainless hunk Rocky for nothing but his hedonistic ends.
This detracts not only from the atmosphere, but also from the viewer’s understanding of the character. Frank-N-Furter should want to kiss you, kill you, or possibly both. In this iteration it’s all very restrained, and there’s no place for restraint in Rocky Horror unless we’re talking whips and chains.
The remake is literally not dark enough. Bright lights flood the scenes where shadows should be cast. There are no creepy spider webs or foreboding torches. It looks like it’s been filmed in a high-end school gymnasium. (Ortega directed the High School Musical trilogy; let them go, Kenny, they’re not coming back.) Despite this amateur feel, all the songs are pre-recorded. It’s got all the limitations of live musical performance without any of the benefits.
Even if it was sung on set it still wouldn’t have worked. Live entails the specific relationship forged between performer and audience in a shared time and place. That’s why the television-musical, a Frankenstein’s monster of a genre, is bound to fail.
Rocky Horror was a bad choice for a remake. That the original exists seems quasi-miraculous, and any rehash is asking for backlash. But, really, the biggest problem is the form. The musical-for-television fad began in 2013 with The Sound of Music on NBC, but it won’t last much longer. No art form can exist solely on remakes, on nostalgic fondness of times gone by. And the new Rocky Horror may well be the death knell of this televisual experiment.
Neither scary nor sexy, with no raising of hairs or anything else, Rocky Horror is hollow, and let’s face it, there wasn’t much substance there to begin with. All that’s left are the songs, including classics like Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, as well as some middling rock numbers that would be mediocre in any version. A word for the lip syncing: terrible. Or as the cast might say: -ible.
Can the cast sing? Definitely. Victoria Justice and Ryan McCartan, who play Brad and Janet, have particularly fine voices. But it’s talent show smooth from the entire ensemble, Cox aside. Give me the sinister Riff Raff of Richard O’Brien (who also co-wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show) over the cartoon Riff Raff of Reeve Carney any day.
But even if the cast did a better job at conjuring up the eeriness of the film, it’s not a job that needed doing in the first place. Who is this for? For Rocky Horror‘s cultish fans, this rendition is surely a sacrilegious sanitization. For the unfamiliar, it’s simply not entertaining.
Ortega frames the action around one of the traditionally wild Rocky Horror midnight showings. Those occasions when Rocky Horror devotees dress up in spooky garb, watch the film, shout out lines and fling rice at the screen in communal psychosis. Watching a mock up of the midnight showing is like lingering outside a fantastic party: either go inside or move along. Not many films have a life-force forty one years after their release, and you don’t need to resurrect something when it’s already alive.