It was bound to happen eventually. With reboots and remakes popping up on television and in film more often than ever before, fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show had plenty of warning that the 1975 cult classic would eventually be revisited. In fact, a remake of the film – itself based on the popular perennial stage production – has been in development in some form or another for more than a decade. And so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again finally heads to Fox this week, much to the chagrin of show creator Richard O’Brien.
The production is just the latest classic musical to be repackaged as a television event, following Fox’s great success with Grease: Live back in January. Ryan McCartan and Victoria Justice star as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, the engaged couple who stumble onto the castle of the hedonistic Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox). Though its subtitle was likely included to imply that this is a tribute – not a remake intended to usurp the original – this Rocky Horror very much sticks to the script written by O’Brien and director Jim Sharman all those years ago.
In fact, the only major addition (there are minor tweaks throughout) is an extended opening wherein singer Ivy Levan’s new “Usherette” character belts out “Science Fiction Double Feature” as a group of moviegoers take their seats in Frank-N-Furter’s castle itself to watch Brad and Janet’s story play out. It’s a clever, albeit unnecessary, framing device intended to acknowledge the audience interaction that has become such a huge part of the original film’s legacy. However, director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) doesn’t even commit to this throughout the film.
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The one truly memorable moment in the movie-within-a-movie segments is the brief applause allowed when original Frank-N-Furter actor Tim Curry – in his first live-action role since suffering a stroke in 2013 – first appears as The Criminologist. When such a standout moment of your re-imagining of a beloved musical is the re-appearance of an original star, your new version could be in a bit of trouble.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the case with this new Rocky Horror. Despite a reported budget more than 16 times higher than the 1975 version, the art direction somehow seems less convincing and more superficial than its predecessor. Sure, Frank-N-Furter’s castle may now feature a more extensive cast of dancers, a trio of back-up singers and a house band, but that larger scope ultimately undermines the very specific mood that once made the story such eerie fun.
It’s the equivalent of what happens when your favorite band decides to abandon the sound that made them so great in the hopes of appealing to the masses. Meanwhile, this Rocky Horror‘s over-produced soundtrack does no favors to the cast either, often threatening to drown out the vocals with bombastic pop instrumentation.
As far as the cast of actors assembled for this new version, Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) probably delivers the strongest performance of the bunch. Though she falls far short of Curry’s iconic turn, Cox does have a powerful presence, even if her line delivery can be difficult to hear at times. Some fans have had issues with her casting, but it mostly serves the character’s over-the-top persona. What Cox misses, though, is the humanity in Frank-N-Furter that Curry revealed by the end. Moreover, her take does appear to identify as female, and some purists may balk at how that change might affect the story.
In addition, McCartan and Justice are effective as Brad and Janet, with the latter’s rendition of “Touch-A Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me” the most satisfying straight-up cover of Rocky Horror‘s original music. Sadly, Reeve Carney is a poor fit for O’Brien’s original role as Riff Raff. Rather than delivering a fresh interpretation of the character, he opts for a stiff impression of his predecessor. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to forgettable – singer Adam Lambert does what he can with the brief role of motorcycle-riding Eddie, delivering his single song with gusto before Rocky Horror devolves back into feeling like the pale imitation it truly is.
Subpar on every level, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again fails to justify its own existence. Of course, the bare bones of it are as unforgettable as ever, but it’s not just the bizarre story and unforgettable music that has made Rocky Horror such an enduring film. It’s the distinct aesthetic it creates in its celebration of early sci-fi and horror cinema that has always set The Rocky Horror Picture Show apart. Moreover, the original film still exudes an anarchic spirit and deliberate rawness that makes viewers feel like they’re somehow breaking the rules for taking in this gleefully twisted little midnight movie.
The costly Fox production robs the tale of its underdog status, replacing the artistry and vision of the original film with a flat attempt that never stood a chance to recapture lightning twice. Perhaps if some radical reinvention or precise execution had been implemented, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again would have had audiences taking that pivotal step to the left just like old times. Yet, without the collective experience of seeing it performed live (a tactic Fox really should have opted for), fans looking for a Rocky Horror tribute special would be better off tracking down the episode of Glee devoted to the production.
This new take on the beloved cult classic halfheartedly stages a "reimagining" of The Rocky Horror Picture Show but forgets both the humanity in its characters and the distinct tone that made it a sensation in the first place.