The cast of the new Rocky Horror tribute show. Photo courtesy Fox.
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show was an important work for queer filmgoers. As Jes Richards wrote about earlier this week, the film became a community hot spot for many LGBTQ folks, as they saw the movie as a major form of representation for their gender and sexual identities throughout the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Of course, as Richards so poignantly discusses, the original work suffers from its abrasive and aggressive representation of queer sexuality, particularly through Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the movie’s mad scientist and alien cross-dresser. Over the course of the film, he sexually assaults Brad and Janet, he creates human life solely for sexual pleasure, and his cross-dressing (not his predatory behavior!) is labeled “degenerate” by characters such as Dr. Scott. The movie doesn’t seem to draw a line between queerness and sexual aggression, leaving a dark legacy for the series. Hence the movie’s more controversial reception among younger queer viewers in today’s day and age.
But Fox decided to tackle the movie with a TV remake this week, and many queer viewers agreed to give it a chance. Titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, Thursday night’s special is intended to be a 21st-century love letter to the Rocky Horror community. On the surface, at least, that appears to be the case. The TV film is a prerecorded theatrical performance that features a midnight screening crowd and the great Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The entire production feels like director Kenny Ortega is giving a nudge and a wink to the show’s legacy. But let’s not mince words here. It wasn’t a very good tribute, and the entire remake ended up feeling stale.
Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Photo courtesy Fox.
Why so? Look no further than Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Unlike the original film, which casts Frank-N-Furter as a cross-dressing, self-described “sweet transvestite” (from Transsexual, Transylvania), Cox’s role essentially turns the not-so-good doctor into a woman. Of course, “Sweet Transvestite” is still sung in the performance, which complicates the story a bit: Is it really fair to suggest Frank-N-Furter is a “transvestite” in this version? Cox is a trans woman dressing up in fabulous style. She’s not a transvestite and, in this context, it doesn’t make sense that the character is, either. Sure, the number suggests that the 2016 remake is trying to do some sort of meta play by casting a trans woman as Frank-N-Furter and having her sing about her physical appearance. That could work, except there isn’t anything particularly unique brought into the picture through Cox’s performance beyond her sheer visibility as a prominent trans actor. Case in point: Frank-N-Furter and Janet’s scenes now have a lesbian context brought into play, but the TV adaptation isn’t necessarily interested in following through on this new character dynamic. Instead, it treats this change of events as a sheer coincidence. “Wow, yes, this bed trick scene now features sexual interactions between queer women,” the remake seems to say. “Anyway, on to the next bed trick scene.”
The end result? Fox’s Rocky Horror feels shallow. There isn’t any drive to create a story for queer audiences that challenges the dynamics at play in the original storyline. So viewers end up with the same issues of queer predatory stereotypes, the same uncomfortable scenes, and no meaningful queer or trans commentary to explore.
This isn’t to say that Cox plays her role poorly. No, Cox is a phenomenal actor. But, like the remake itself, there isn’t much being actively challenged or subverted about Frank-N-Furter’s role in the story here. It’s as if the production studio is unable to answer why Cox needed to play the role, but still rather simply inserted her into the production. So instead of giving Cox the opportunity to leave her mark on the character, her performance plays too close to the original, to the point where she simply feels copy-and-pasted into the story—without, of course, Tim Curry’s iconic mannerisms and charm. This saps a lot of the driving energy behind the original and leaves us with a remake that’s hardly engaging for a modern queer audience.
Of course, the sexual tension between Janet and Dr. Frank-N-Furter plays out well enough on the screen, and there are sparks of romantic and sexual desire between both characters. But those sparks never take off in quite the same way as they did in the original film. Instead, it simply feels like Cox and Victoria Justice are retracing the footsteps that Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon laid out 40 years ago, never really redefining how that dynamic plays out beyond Cox’s casting itself.
Which is a shame. The actual production value in Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is strong. The crew clearly understands the fan culture around the series and wants to pay homage to it. And the musical renditions are catchy and entertaining. But Rocky Horror has always been about its characters, its raw sexual tension, and the chemistry that flows between the main cast. A proper remake should have focused on those qualities. But the film constantly feels rushed, as if everyone must quickly play their parts and concede to the next song or scene, whereas the original film allowed character relationships to develop through body language, tone, inflection, and vocal performances. Fox’s Rocky Horror gets so caught up in getting the show on the road, it doesn’t make time to add a little bit of originality into the mix.
The character dynamic between Frank-N-Furter and Janet and could have revolutionized the story’s TV release and led to some interesting, thoughtful ideas about Cox’s role as Frank-N-Furter, but the production team put aside this storyline in exchange for a safe and easy attempt to recreate the original. Sadly, the TV film simply cannot compete with the 1975 release, leaving Fox’s viewers with an uninspired take on an important (albeit controversial) part of queer cinematic history.