For goody two shoes musical-theater dorks, watching 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the closest thing to juvenile delinquency. It’s got catchy tunes, yes, but it’s also overtly, enticingly sexual—not to mention deliciously bizarre.
Fox, however, has added a wholesome sheen to its remake, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, making it Rocky Horror by way of High School Musical, and aiming for a simulacrum of weirdness rather than the actual thing. The Rocky Horror purists will (and should) certainly turn their noses up at this sanitized Hot Topic version. Newbies won’t understand the enduring appeal, given that there’s almost nothing worse than a bad attempt at camp. And while Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox—who as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is the main attraction—comports herself well, she fails to yield anything particularly stirring or remotely iconic.
Director Kenny Ortega—who also helmed the aforementioned Disney Channel movie—decides to frame the entire production as a movie within a movie. It opens with apparent pop star Ivy Levan crooning “Science Fiction/Double Feature” in a slinky usher’s costume, welcoming a bunch of fake goths into a theater, where they settle in for the show and the 20th Century Fox fanfare begins to toot. Every so often, Ortega cuts back to these viewers as they go through the motions of the traditional midnight screening interactions. These interludes solely serve as distraction. The concept might have worked if the event was intended to be broadcast live, but despite Fox’s previous success in that arena—stealing NBC’s thunder by staging Grease Live in front of an actual audience—its Rocky Horror was pre-recorded.
If Ortega was so desperate to convey the madcap spirit of the film’s fandom, why not get fans involved, instead of lamely recreating them? To confuse matters further, he’s also given Frank-N-Furter’s castle a house band with Tina Turner-esque backup singers to accompany the numbers, resulting in the entire affair seeming deliberately stagey and sapping out any potential for creepiness. The chorus of Transylvanians occupying the abode don’t exactly convey otherworldly malice either: They’re dressed like they should be headed to an Evanescence concert in 2003 and preening like they want gigs on Dancing With The Stars.
Great performances could have redeemed the mess and justified the decision to pre-shoot it. Alas, they never materialize. Cox’s suffers most from the weight of what came before her: As the original Frank-N-Furter, in film and on stage, Tim Curry exuded both sex and danger. There was no question he could both arouse and consume you if he wanted—his giant jaw might unhinge and devour some part of your body, literally or figuratively. (Speaking of which, apparently Fox thought overt cannibalism was a bridge to far for network TV, Hannibal be damned. At least it makes the fate of poor Eddie—Adam Lambert—a little bit more palatable.) Cox, however, never makes Frank truly unsettling or malevolent. On Orange Is The New Black, she shines most when she’s tasked with naturalistic drama. Rocky Horror doesn’t allow for that, and it appears she hasn’t yet mastered how to go broad, resulting in a one-note interpretation that’s hampered by the mid-Atlantic accent she adorns. The costuming also doesn’t do her any favors. When she sings “don’t get strung out by the way I look” in “Sweet Transvestite,” the lyric makes little sense. Curry’s Frank was askew from the minute he strutted into frame. His corset was barely laced up; his fishnets were ripped. Cox, meanwhile, is completely glamorous. She’s working the Beyoncé fabulousness of her garments, but the flawless-queen aesthetic doesn’t make sense in this context.
And then there’s Victoria Justice as wide-eyed Janet Weiss, whose trip to the castle prompts a sexual awakening. The former Nickelodeon star is never convincingly innocent or frightened at the story’s outset, nor does she fully embrace her character’s lustful transformation. She cries out that she wants to be “dirty,” but nothing implies that she’s actually experiencing carnal pleasures. Perhaps Justice felt restrained by the generally chaste tone of the endeavor. It’s unclear why Fox—which airs Scream Queens and Empire, after all—was so afraid of putting sex and gore on screen. Those shows are far more sensual and, in the case of the former, explicitly macabre, than anything Ortega and company offer. Was it an attempt to keep the TV musical family-friendly? Because, if so, Fox picked the wrong project to redo.
Does anyone get it right? Ryan McCartan is endearing as Brad, and Annaleigh Ashford is a hoot as Columbia. Legendary theater veteran Ben Vereen is also a welcome addition when he wheels in as Dr. Scott. And then there’s Curry himself, in the role of the narrator-figure, The Criminologist. It’s heartening to see Curry in action, given that he suffered a stroke back in 2012—if only Fox could have better honored his legacy. The original Rocky Horror Picture Show is schlock in the best possible sense. This is just trash.