Rocky Horror Picture Show remake is, well, rocky

In case you missed it, Fox remade the 1975 cult classic as The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again and aired it on Oct. 20. If you didn’t miss it you might wish you had, because despite some inspired casting, passionate performances, and ambitious work by costume designer William Ivey Long, the 2016 model is a bit of a let-down.

The whole thing feels confused, stumbling around like Rocky fresh out of the tank, apparently torn between reproducing the original in loving detail and trying something fresh, bringing the show into the 21st century, and creating something that stands on its own. On one hand, the echoes in places like set design, choreography, and line readings deserve respect for their authenticity and clear affection for the original. On the other, it’s a lot of effort to go to for what amounts to Rocky Horror karaoke. Many of the noticeable changes, like ditching the intro’s iconic red lips floating on a black screen for a cinema usherette (Ivy Levan) who seems confused about why she’s there and tiptoeing around the original’s defining radical sexuality in order to air before the watershed, detract from the show’s appeal.

The production also can’t decide between being a feature film, like the 1975 one, and an ‘experience’ like a stage performance or live screening. This is the fatal mistake, as the creators try to capture some of the participatory energy of a midnight movie by cutting between the RHPS itself and a pseudo-frame story of devoted fans watching the action in a cinema. The gimmick fails miserably because the audience isn’t live, their reactions feel canned, there’s no flow of energy between them and the “onscreen” cast, and instead of bringing the viewing audience into the experience they push us away. Rather than letting us live vicariously, their long absences and sudden arbitrary appearances jolt us out of the story and remind us we’re watching someone else watch a movie.

The show does have some redeeming features, even a few changes for the better. It’s exciting to see a more diverse cast showcasing performers of colour and queer and trans performers, most prominently Laverne Cox emanating charisma in the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter. Cox has a powerful singing voice, although her accent here is a little silly, and she looks fabulous. Her several striking costumes are the centrepieces of Long’s vision, a project that unites pop culture influences from across the 21st century and beyond and features custom latex fishnets from Toronto’s own Kink Engineering. If Long’s work has a flaw, it’s that the designs are too eye-catching; even compared to the memorable wardrobe of the older film, they look more like costumes than clothes even a kinky mad scientist from another galaxy would wear casually around the house.

It’s unfortunate that these lush designs and grandly dramatic performances are trapped in such a clumsy, muddled context, because they could have made a spectacular live performance instead of a lacklustre TV special.

Written by Claire Dalmyn and Ben Tang.

Photos: Fox 21 Television Studios.