Like the greased up, gold trunked flesh golem of its title, Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show is an alarming abomination that goes against science, God, and good taste. It should not have existed! Thank GOODNESS it does.
Listen and disagree freely, but I have something to say about nostalgia! Nostalgia is as poisonous as booze and it makes us feel just as good. So let’s talk about the original Rocky Horror for a minute. It is an untouchable classic that will always exist and thrive. But that doesn’t make it perfect. As the second most popular movie inspired by Flash Gordon serials, it’s long been a rallying cry for outsiders, queers, geeks, subversives, or anyone with an appreciation for incredible music. The original Rocky Horror wasn’t so much a movie as it was a happening, and its eventual fate as a live theater experience only underlines how imperfect the movie must have been in order for that experience to seem necessary.
Which is why remaking it in 2016 was a perfectly fine idea. Hear me out! Yes, the version Fox aired last night was a candy-colored cartoon that took expensive, extensive liberties with the grubby, ramshackle original. But come at it from this angle: In 2016 a major network aired a two-hour musical about unapologetic queerness and cast a trans woman as its lead. No matter how this thing turned out, it was an important moment.
It should come as no shock that the same network behind the truly inspired Grease: Live! also did right by this show. At the risk of enraging die-hard fans of the original, Fox’s take on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (subtitle: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again) was an entirely different thing, but it absolutely maintained its eccentricities and most importantly, its decadent queerness. While a nationwide culture war reaches fever pitch in the run-up to our election, the most notoriously conservative network aired a movie with more gay kisses than the entire run of Modern Family. These kinds of things never happen!
Fox’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show was as much a celebration of the original movie as it was a celebration of us weirdos. I really enjoyed it. Let’s talk about it!
Right off the bat we were in weird territory. Completely foregoing the iconic red lips, this new version gave us instead Ivy Levan as “Usherette” moving through a movie theater belting out “Science Fiction/Double Feature” in an almost inappropriately soulful and sad manner. Beautiful, but what exactly was happening here?
Here’s what: We were watching a movie within a movie, which was Rocky Horror‘s (admittedly very clever) way of incorporating some of the midnight movie shout-outs into the proceedings. But it also tipped us off right away that this thing was going to be aggressively artificial… Was it supposed to feel like a stage show, or a pre-taped soundstage experiment? Both? The fact that Rocky Horror didn’t seem interested in being ANYTHING coherent was a major selling point for me. Remakes often play it safe as they traffic in the expected, but for the next two hours I kept encountering things I could not have expected. Phew!
Brad and Janet’s most interesting day trip began, as ever, at the church where some friends got married. And while some disguised Transylvanians skulked about in the background, these two psychopaths ran and twirled through a WAKE overjoyed about their own engagement. Even though this particular Brad was far too hot and Victoria Justice is no Susan Sarandon, they were both great! (This Brad can SING, dammit.)
In a lovely and poignant bit of casting, a familiar face popped up to play the Criminologist/Narrator. I can’t remember his name. The guy from The Worst Witch. Anyway, health problems have rendered him less mobile than he used to be, so fortunately he had a sprightly elderly comic relief assistant to behave strangely around him. I liked her!
So yeah, throughout the movie we’d cut back to the audience doing some of those patented midnight movie things. I was afraid this might get really annoying after a while, but it didn’t happen too often. And there was a moment toward the end involving the movie audience that was so lovely it made me tear up a ‘lil. Again, call it cheesy fan service or whatever, but I thought this was a really clever concept.
Riff Raff was played by Penny Dreadful‘s Reeve Carney doing his best Criss Angel impersonation. No complaints here!
Christina Milian took on the role of Magenta and acquitted herself well. But her big moment came during “The Time Warp” which is ALL big moments. And yeah, of course it’s the most iconic and possibly most overplayed song from this soundtrack but man is it still good. Has any song ever blended wacky and sexy so well? This Transylvanian house party will always look like an awkward nightmare, but it’s hard not to imagine it also being pretty fun.
Columbia was pretty great too! Annaleigh Ashford from Masters of Sex played her as a sort of bipolar Cyndi Lauper, and I loved that her main thing was Blue Razz-Berry Blow Pops. Honestly VERY relatable.
So, we need to talk about Frank-N-Furter. I was nervous when Laverne Cox’s casting was announced, mostly because I didn’t know how to square the original incarnation being a male transvestite with this version being a trans woman. But what I did NOT expect was that Cox would be going full-on GRACE JONES in this role. It worked unbelievably well for me, despite the character being completely different than the original. That ended up being a good thing, and made this version of the musical even more distinct. Cox didn’t have the sleazy menace Curry did, but this Frank-N-Furter was twice as fabulous. (Also, Laverne Cox’s comedy timing is off the charts. Can John Waters unretire and create a star vehicle for her please?)
But really, the movie doesn’t truly start until Rocky himself shows up. I don’t know what exactly a “Staz Nair” is, except for maybe Snoop Dogg’s pronunciation of “stair” but I liked this Rocky a lot. Maybe even more than the original Rocky? I KNOW. First of all, he can sing. Second of all, look at him. (The original Rocky always kinda grossed me out sorry.) And while I felt very disappointed that we got gold basketball shorts instead of a gold speedo, I acknowledge that A LOT of people fetishize basketball shorts just as much if not more. Sorry to sound like I’m objectifying a character whose only purpose is objectification, but this Rocky was great! Also, look at him.
Then Adam Lambert rode his motorcycle into the party and started screaming at everybody about rock ‘n roll. This probably wasn’t the first time he’d ruined a party this way. Thankfully Frank murdered him and we were able to move on.
Probably the most transgressive thing about the movie was how it made virginity and straight sex seem so boring and undesirable. So then we got the infamous sequence where both Janet AND Brad were seduced by Frank-N-Furter.
Rocky Horror is basically immune to think-pieces, so maybe we shouldn’t be too troubled by how much sexual assault is implied in this film. (Frank hitting and dragging a nearly nude Janet through the mansion was an admittedly uncomfortable sequence.) But still! We had now just witnessed an implied sex scene between a young straight man and a trans woman and it was played as celebratory. People do sex, deal with it!
For a “horror” show these people were having a blast. Again, purists will lament losing the gritty seediness of the original, but imagine if that movie had never existed and THIS was the world’s first taste of Rocky Horror. This thing would be seen as borderline avant garde… Instantly notorious and forever talked-about.
I just liked this moment a lot, can’t recall why. Oh, probably because it was set to “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” which, after all these years, remains incredible. That song is part orgasm and all hook.
Anyway, after everyone did sex to each other a ton, it was time for dinner. Again we got the blasphemous Last Supper tableau populated by underwear-clad freaks and misfits, but now we also had some truly funny slapstick. Like, that sequence of Frank cutting the roast with an electric knife was like something out of a French farce (or maybe Tim and Eric). Again, this show could have been a glossy, edge-free exercise in nostalgia, but the producers instead kept it weird and esoteric whenever possible. Credit where credit’s due.
So, storywise (as though story ever mattered in Rocky Horror), Adam Lambert’s uncle Dr. Scott came looking for him, and when Adam Lambert’s corpse was discovered under the dinner table, everyone began to freak out. So Frank-N-Furter had no choice but to freeze everyone in their tracks, wardrobe them in gold lamé corsets and force them to perform in her “floor show”. A reasonable plan. As you can imagine, it was wonderful.
First of all, Rocky finally got his short-shorts. But also just in general I liked the all-gold motif for everyone. Whereas the original’s floor show was dark and sleazy this one was almost sickeningly beautiful.
Oh, Ben Vereen as Dr. Scott was truly something to see. The reveal of his fishnets was a special one. Those gams!
Here was a trans woman tongue-kissing a straight hunk in drag on primetime television in 2016.
See what I’m saying? America is ALREADY great. Anyway, it should be noted that this Busby Berkeley interlude in the swimming pool was heart-crushingly gorgeous. All those saturated colors and ecstatic expressions. I can’t even imagine how much money was spent on this thing, but I was appreciating every penny.
I was concerned about the lack of ankle support in Riff Raff’s space boots, but that concern evaporated when he began MURDERING everyone!
First poor Columbia, then Frank-N-Furter, then Rocky himself!
Between these deaths and all the closing ballads — “I’m Going Home” ruined me… And the cut to the movie theater giving Frank her much-deserved standing ovation after all these years pushed me over the edge — we were reminded once again that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has such a bummer ending! Almost all classic operas have sad endings, so it’s a trope worth honoring. Still, the original’s sobering reminder that every party must end was carried through really effectively here. Don’t get me wrong, the last half hour of Rocky Horror is always a messy car crash, but the emotions remain real.
I always loved the corny castle-lifting-off moment in the original, but here we got some laughable CGI of the movie theater crumbling before a blue light IMPLIED that the castle rocketed away. However, before that happened Brad and Janet, newly sexually realized, ambled dazed and blinking into their brave new world and sang “Superheroes,” a track only previously featured in the U.K. cut of Rocky Horror. It was a lovely, weird way to end a lovely, weird production.
But, this being a cinematic treatise for burgeoning weirdos and outsiders, Rocky Horror had one last piece of advice to impart…
Roll call credits (I LOVE roll call credits) and a reprise of “Science Fiction/Double Feature” ended this 2-hour extravaganza and left us with the sense that yes, we’d seen this thing before. But not quite like this. You and I may continue to revert to the original film to sate our cravings for macabre gaeity, but what about the trapped, different-feeling youngsters who saw this one for the first time? I can’t help but think it’ll be considered a huge turning point for some of them. Will these kids “give themselves to absolute pleasure” in life or will “this decadence sap their wills”? Only time (warps) will tell.
What did YOU think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again?