Fox's 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' remake squeezes out the very last drop of camp
Published 12:54 pm, Wednesday, October 19, 2016
There's a bone-dryness to Fox's earnest but thoroughly unnecessary remake of the 1975 cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which comes with the subtitle "Let's Do the Time Warp Again" and airs Thursday night.
It's as if every last available drop of campiness has finally been squeezed from "Rocky Horror," 41 years after the original film's release and who knows how many thousands of midnight art-house screenings later. The cast, headed by "Orange Is the New Black's" Laverne Cox as a legitimately transgender Dr. Frank-N-Furter, works really hard to both replicate and improve upon the original romp, but the big, exaggerated expressions on their faces seem to self-consciously ask, "Are we doing it right? Is this how it goes?"
Used up, that's how it feels.
That's not to say that director and choreographer Kenny Ortega hasn't devised some clever ways to help an audience of newbies understand "Rocky Horror" as an intentionally bad movie musical meant as a tacky homage to vintage schlock, encouraging devoted participation and giddy ridicule. The central lesson is also intact: "Don't dream it, be it," goes a refrain late in the show, and it still reads as an invitation to let out your inner freak.
Things start off in an act of meta-regard as singer Ivy Levan, with big red lips and a movie-theater usherette costume, sings the opening number's ode to B-movie science fiction while tearing tickets and buttering popcorn for a Saturday-night crowd of "Rocky Horror" weirdos, who, when seated, will act out a select few fan rituals during the course of the movie, involving water pistols, newspapers and toilet paper deployed at the right moments. ("Great Scott!")
It completes a circle - you watch them watch it. Or they watch you watch them watching it. However this device is intended to work, it at least acknowledges at the outset that "Rocky Horror" hardly stands on it own dubious merits; its success thoroughly depends on its rambunctious audience.
That's why it's disappointing that Fox ordered "Rocky" as a movie instead of as a live event, similar to its impressively manic staging of "Grease: Live" this year. The interactive possibilities, particularly in the age of Snapchat and Twitter, might have helped renew the movie's communal sense of fun.
As it is, Cox and her fellow cast mates indeed sing, dance, sashay and gesticulate lasciviously in the traditional "Rocky Horror" manner (things perk up especially when Adam Lambert, as Eddie, rolls in on his motorbike for a number), but the overall result is just a tad too inert.
There is, however, some pleasure to be had in comparing the new version with the old. Cox is a truly inspired Frank-N-Furter, building on Tim Curry's provocative transmissions of sexual abandon; her presence, as a trans woman, is an easy signifier of progress, making the world safe for the "Don't dream it, be it" aspect in people everywhere. (Curry is here too, mostly recovered from a 2012 stroke and taking the role of the Criminologist who narrates the movie.)
As the newly engaged nerdos Brad and Janet, Ryan McCartan and Victoria Justice out-sing their predecessors (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) but can't match their faux-virginal shock at the debaucherous goings-on at Frank-N-Furter's castle. It speaks to the cultural distance between 1975 and 2016: What's shocking anymore, even if you're pretending to be shocked?
The musical numbers are good enough, as a stranded Brad and Janet make their way through a thunderstorm to the castle ("Over at the Frankenstein Place") and are greeted at the door by Riff Raff (Reeve Carney, whose approach to the role is far too hyperactive), and escorted to an already-in-progress party, where they learn the "Time Warp," which remains the show's best number.
From there, things tend to fall apart - as they always did, but movie audiences by then were too involved (or schnockered) to notice. Frank-N-Furter unveils her ultimate creation, a Charles Atlas-inspired muscle man named Rocky (Staz Nair). Not too long after, she separately seduces Brad and Janet. In an orgiastic celebration of sexual awakening, Frank-N-Furter is revealed to be an alien and sentenced to death - but not before one last number, a ballad, in which she is dressed as Fay Wray sitting in a King Kong hand.
Lovely as that image is, this new "Rocky Horror" can't disguise the musical bloat in the film's second half. Even now I can recall suburban strip-mall multiplex "Rocky Horror" screenings in the 1980s when audience members peeled off long before the movie's finale, hoping to get home and avoid being grounded for blowing curfew.
True fans, of course, never saw any of this as a chore to be endured to the bitter end. "Rocky Horror's" lasting success has to do with its open-door policy for anyone who felt different in any way. It was a social outlet in a time when such phenomena were few - and you could find a screening of it within 50 miles of Nowheresville just as easily as you could attend screenings in New York or L.A. Remarkably enough, according to a "Rocky Horror" fan site, there are still roughly 90 groups of devotees who flock to local movie theaters for midnight screenings and costumed re-enactments (and movie theater employees who still have to clean up after the show), if not every Saturday night, then on a monthly basis.
It's hard to tell whether this new version will reaffirm their faith - or if it's even meant to. Ortega and company could have risked sacrilege and messed around more with "Rocky Horror," not only trimming its length and improving its plot, but perhaps also teasing some new relevance out of the material. As it is, they've made a fresh copy, but it plays very much like a copy and nothing more.
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again" (two hours) airs Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.