The Rocky Horror Picture Show has long been a go-to example of how to pervert traditions and expectations with a knowing grin (and splashy musical numbers, besides). From its debut on a tiny London stage in 1973 to its subsequent 1975 film adaptation starring Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry, the movie’s ensuing cult classic status, and the thousands of midnight screenings that are still held worldwide each year, the horror comedy has always been a legendary celebration of camp and deviant pleasure.
Fast-forward to 2016, where Fox has been teasing its own version of Rocky Horror (subtitle: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again) for more than a year now, capitalizing on the trend of TV networks staging their own musicals. It trumpeted the casting of Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the role Curry played so memorably in the film. It added official youth correspondents like Nickelodeon vet Victoria Justice as Janet, the role originally played by Sarandon. It opted not to do a live staging of the original musical, the better to embrace the grand and incredibly weird possibilities Rocky Horror holds.
Those grand and incredibly weird possibilities mean that to make the musical feel boring would require some real sanitizing effort. But stripping Rocky Horror of its specialness is just about the only thing Fox’s adaptation commits to without reservation.
The story, as you may recall, is pretty simple: Brad and Janet are a clean-cut pair of young lovers who stumble into a castle after their car breaks down on a dark and stormy night. There, they meet a fun-loving bunch of out-and-proud “Transylvanian” freaks who spend the rest of the evening chipping away at the couple’s prim and proper worldview by introducing them to a feisty world full of sex appeal, gender-bending characters, and lustful smirks dripping with acidic charisma.
Unfortunately, Fox’s version of Rocky Horror is a hesitant mashup of the stage and film versions that somehow manages to extinguish the spark of both.
On the one hand, I could’ve expected as much, given that Let’s Do the Time Warp Again was made for a major broadcast network, despite its historically risqué subject matter. While it’s true that gender has never been viewed as more fluid than it is today, primetime television programming is still at the mercy of advertiser concerns and wary parents. And this project in particular was directed by Kenny Ortega, the man behind the fairy-tale witch romp Hocus Pocus and Disney’s squeaky clean High School Musical trilogy; “gender kink” isn’t exactly his jam.
But on the other hand, I had tentatively higher hopes. Songwriter Richard O’Brien’s original Rocky Horror Show was a transgressive revelation when it debuted, thanks to the way it ripped the curtains off a gleefully unrestrained subculture. Even if recreating it on broadcast TV in 2016 couldn’t capture that initial thrill, the potential was there to adapt it in a way that would more directly challenge the present-day status quo.
Instead, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is a sterile facsimile of Rocky Horror’s original camp, filtered through the lens of Party City’s least inspired Halloween aisle. Here are its three biggest letdowns, ranked from least to most egregious.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again tries to honor Rocky Horror’s legacy with a truly dumb framing device
Rocky Horror famously lives on far beyond the confines of the stage and screen, in the form of frequent screenings of the original film adaptation. These events often double as costume dance parties where screaming along to the music and even throwing things at the screen isn’t just accepted but encouraged.
This kind of active participation in the musical’s legacy kept Rocky Horror relevant for years beyond its seemingly short shelf life as an artifact of the burgeoning sexual revolution, enticing generations into Frank’s creepy-cool lair of horrors. So it makes sense that Fox’s version would want to wink at this tradition somehow — but it lacks the imagination to do it in an interesting way.
As Let’s Do the Time Warp Again begins, a perky “usherette” (Ivy Levan) croons the musical’s opening song of “Science Fiction — Double Feature” as she preps a crowd of Rocky Horror superfans to sit down and watch the movie unfold.
The crowd then pops up sporadically throughout the rest of the show, sometimes throwing things at the screen and egging on the doe-eyed Janet with ecstatic sneers. But the juxtaposition never really makes sense, coming off as a halfhearted attempt to bring some meta-commentary into the mix.
Even worse, viewers who try to watch without any knowledge of the source material will likely be lost within minutes.
This needlessly complicated framing also brings another aspect of the production into stark relief. Everything from the flat sets to the stilted acting to the lamé costumes makes Ortega’s Rocky Horror feels like it takes place at a middle school dance.
Choosing to not stage a live production — as Fox did pretty successfully with Grease earlier this year — means that Rocky Horror didn’t have to consider the practicality of revolving sets and the ups and downs of performers acting in real time. So why isn’t this pretaped movie more ambitious in its staging, choreography, or direction?
Then again, if Fox wanted to put on a live Rocky Horror, it would’ve had to look elsewhere for its cast.
Rocky Horror needs a rock-solid cast to sell its lunacy. This version doesn’t have it.
O’Brien’s energetic and eccentric vision requires a cast that can commit to every ounce of weirdness. It needs actors who can titillate and seduce, giggle and smirk, and launch themselves headlong into the Transylvanians’ bizarro world.
Fox’s Rocky Horror probably could’ve looked a bit harder for people to fit this description.
There are some bright spots, like Adam Lambert’s brief flash as Ed and Broadway veteran Ben Vereen stepping in as Dr. Scott. But this Rocky Horror still stumbles in casting its most iconic roles — which is a shame, especially in the case of Cox, whose casting signaled a refreshing willingness on the production’s part to welcome transgender talent where many similar productions still would not.
Though Frank is meant to be the seductive anchor of the show (and more on Frank in a minute), one of the biggest letdowns is Justice’s Janet. She should be the musical’s lightning rod, the wide-eyed ingénue whose blossoming sexuality as viewed through the Transylvanians’ eyes defines the trajectory of half the show.
Where Sarandon — a titanic predecessor, to be sure — managed to play Janet’s innocence and her simmering desire simultaneously, Justice only shows off a single peppy gear. In Justice’s hands, Janet’s shifting affections for Brad (a decent Ryan McCartan), Frank, and Rocky (Staz Nair) just come out of nowhere.
And then there’s Cox as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
To be clear: Cox gives this role everything she’s got, and is frequently great. She snarls at both Brad and Janet’s squareness and Frank’s own Transylvanian creations with a vicious glee, stalking around the castle with a supermodel strut.
But that supermodel strut is also the problem with Cox’s portrayal of Frank and the way Ortega’s production treats the character. Ultimately, it’s the straw that breaks Rocky’s back.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again sucks all the transgressive, hypersexual fun out of Rocky Horror
Instead of trying to reframe Rocky Horror in a way that could resonate with 2016 audiences, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again lacks any sense of time or place, somehow managing to both slavishly copy the original and fail to generate any of its spark. Brad and Janet are still bland goody two-shoes in church gloves, but the Transylvanians now look and act like leering theater kids in Hot Topic castoffs.
And crucially, this version of Rocky Horror doesn’t seem to feel comfortable doing the one thing Rocky Horror should do best: queering the fuck out of everyone and everything in its path by subverting every gender and sexuality expectation you might have.
Sure, there’s Cox’s Frank, but as Variety’s Sonia Saraiya points out, the actress plays Frank as a decidedly feminine character, even though one of Frank’s defining qualities is that he’s a relentlessly gender-fucked weirdo. Cox’s Frank is just too glamorous, too meticulously stunning, to be truly weird.
Without Frank straddling gender lines, the character’s creation of an Adonis Rocky and seduction of Brad isn’t nearly the queer revelation it could be. The production’s queerest moment necessarily becomes Frank’s flirtation with Janet, but it’s more of a sidebar than a defining feature.
When Brad and Janet throw themselves into the Transylvanians’ embrace, it’s supposed to be a triumphant moment that shows off their willingness to step outside their comfort zone. In this stilted version, though, it feels more like Fox is ticking off a “Yep, this moment happened in the original” box.
Any good Rocky Horror production knows that its electric thrill lies in turning shock value into an art form. It knows the original version wasn’t just revolutionary because it was overtly ridiculous and sexual, but because it was defiant rejection of the postwar era’s properness (represented by Brad and Janet slowly shedding their pastel clothes). It knows that Frank N. Furter’s seductive power lies in peeling back your own outward propriety to find whatever layers of depravity might be lurking underneath.
It’s a shame that Fox’s Disneyfied adaptation doesn’t seem aware of any of these things.
Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again airs Thursday, October 20, at 8 pm on Fox.