Friday, October 21, 2016

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again (Fox 21 Television Studios, Jackal, Ode, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again, a 2016 TV-movie remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 film of the gender-bending musical by Richard O’Brien that premiered in London in 1973. When it was new, it was treated as another manifestation of a growing cultural awareness and acceptance of Queer people that also showed up in David Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the androgynous persona he adopted for that album and the tour he did to promote it. As most people probably know by now, The Rocky Horror Show — the word “Picture” was added to the title when O’Brien and director Jim Sharman filmed it in 1975 — is a spoof of Frankenstein in which normal couple Brad Majors (Ryan McCartan) and his fiancée Janet Weiss (Victoria Justice) drive off from their friends’ wedding, run into a rainstorm and have a blowout in the middle of nowhere. Hoping to find a telephone so they can call for help (which Charles noted was a very anachronistic plot device for 2016 — these days they’d be carrying cell phones and the only way to show someone lost without a phone connection of some sort would be with an establishing shot about how they left their phones behind, they were out of tower range or the batteries had died — though given that the framing scene features the cars and clothes of the 1950’s one can argue that the film is a period piece taking place before cell phones existed), they walk towards a sinister castle that turns out to be the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter (Laverne Cox), a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.”

Dr. Frank is busy in his lab creating the ultimate stud muffin, Rocky Horror (Staz Nair), and to celebrate this occasion he’s throwing a party (billed in this version as the “41st Annual Transylvanian Convention,” reflecting the 41 years between the original film and this remake) with a varied assortment of servants and hangers-on, including his butler Riff Raff (Reeve Carney, playing the part Richard O’Brien wrote for himself in the original stage production and the 1975 movie), maid Magenta (Christina Millan), “groupie” Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) and others. The party is crashed by Eddie (Adam Lambert, playing the part Meat Loaf had in the 1975 film), who sings a song called “Hot Patootie” in 1950’s-rock style and then gets himself dispatched by Dr. Frank — in the 1975 film his sudden appearance was totally inexplicable but in this version it’s specified that he’s Dr. Frank’s ex-boyfriend who’s jealous of the newly created Rocky (and in the remake his song is also moved up so it happens considerably earlier than it did in 1975). There’s a lot of sexual coupling and recoupling going on, and Brad and Janet both get sucked (figuratively and literally) into Dr. Frank’s polymorphously perverse world — they’re both the recipients of Dr. Frank’s amorous intentions and Janet also flips for Rocky, pissing off Dr. Frank since he intended Rocky as his boyfriend — until at the end Riff Raff turns out to be, not a servant, but a morals enforcer from Transsexual, a planet in another galaxy called Transylvania from which Dr. Frank came to Earth. He announces that Dr. Frank will be executed on the spot — Riff Raff’s guitar turns into a laser rifle for this purpose — and he also takes out the rest of the hangers-on, whereupon the castle turns into a spaceship to take him and Magenta (the only one he’s spared) back to Transsexual, leaving Brad, Janet and their high-school science teacher, Dr. Everett Scott (Ben Vereen, looking ridiculous in a white straight-haired wig) behind to wonder what’s happened to them and what they’re going to do now that Dr. Frank and company have exposed them to a far greater range of sexual stimuli than they were ever expecting. (O’Brien wrote the song “Super-Heroes,” the show’s one genuine moment of pathos, for the ending, but some prints of the 1975 film omit it and substitute a repeat of the show’s big hit, “Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again.”)

 The Rocky Horror Picture Show got filmed in 1975 in England — where, coincidentally, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were making Young Frankenstein for the same studio, 20th Century-Fox, and as spoofs of the Frankenstein mythos go Young Frankenstein is by far the better movie — and O’Brien and director Jim Sharman chose to open the film with a pair of bright red lips, their owner’s face carefully shadowed so as to be invisible, singing the show’s opening song, “Science Fiction,” an ode to such 1930’s and 1950’s horror and sci-fi films as The Invisible Man, King Kong, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Tarantula. When Rocky Horror was first released in the U.S. under normal theatrical conditions the ads for it referenced the success of the film Jaws — they contained the “lips” logo from the opening and captioned it, “A different set of jaws” — and the movie was a box-office flop. But that wasn’t the end of it; certain theatres with highly counter-cultural clienteles started booking the movie for special showings at midnight, and eventually an entire cult developed around it; people began coming to the screenings in costume, enacting the on-screen action in the theatre, and developing a whole ritual of talking back to the screen, making gestures (like waving their hands in windshield-wiper motions as Brad and Janet drive through the rain to the Frank-N-Furter castle) and throwing things, including hurling rice at the screen when Brad’s and Janet’s friends get married and shooting water pistols into the air when the film showed rain. As a result, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, and at least in isolated pockets of the world the tradition of midnight showings with audience participation is still going on. I remember first seeing Rocky Horror at the Ken Cinema sometime in the 1980’s, having decided I wanted to watch the movie at least once sans audience participation so I’d know what it was about if I ever went to a midnight screening, and going to at least one of the midnight shows before 20th Century-Fox first put it on TV in 1993. Unclear as to what to do with a movie in which the audience was so integral a part of the live experience, Fox decided on a dual presentation; they’d run the movie but simultaneously show the film screening inside a theatre where the audience would be doing at least parts of the live routine that had become traditional.

Eventually the studio rather gingerly released the film on DVD and gave you the choice of watching it au naturel or in the 1993 TV version with that particular audience immortalized — and when Charles and I got this disc we double-billed it with The Bride of Frankenstein (the 1935 horror masterpiece by more or less openly Gay director James Whale) as “the two Gayest takes on the Frankenstein story ever made.” That was four years ago, and neither of us had seen the original since, which put us a bit back of scratch in assessing how close this version came to it — though the two are close enough that the only screenwriters credited are O’Brien and Sharman, who did the script for the original. The director is Kenny Ortega, who’s best known as a choreographer (he worked on the marvelous and underrated 1978 film American Hot Wax, about D.J. Alan Freed and his role in promoting rock ’n’ roll in the 1950’s) and who did some quite nice dances even though Charles was disappointed that the shock-cut that introduces the “Time Warp” number wasn’t quite so shocking this time around. Whoever was responsible for this film did add some felicitous touches — notably having Brad propose to Janet in front of the tombstone of Mary Shelley, author of the original Frankenstein — and Fox blessedly left in the sequence in which Brad, having sex with Dr. Frank and having just learned he is not Janet, says, “Don’t stop, don’t stop — I mean stop, stop!,” which was censored from the 1993 TV showing of the original film. The most interesting departure from the original was the casting of genuine Transwoman Laverne Cox (best known for her ongoing role in the Netflix TV series Orange Is the New Black) as Dr. Frank, which puts a quite different “spin” on the character than when s/he is played by a guy in drag (like Tim Curry, who starred in the original stage and film versions and turned up here as the narrator, “The Criminologist” — his performance as the Criminologist seemed weak, but mentioned that this is his first acting role since he had a stroke in 2012 and therefore I can’t be too hard on him). Assuming she didn’t have a voice double, she’s quite good in the songs and acts the part with a marvelous degree of authority and comfort in her own body that’s quite appealing to watch and helps make up for the fact that, on the whole, this cast is considerably weaker than the one we’ve been watching since 1975.

It was fun to watch Ryan McCartan as Brad wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs and flashing an enviable basket, and Victoria Justice was cute and properly perky as Janet but somehow I won’t be holding my breath to see her develop a reputation as a serious dramatic actress and political activist who eventually wins an Academy Award the way 1975’s Janet, Susan Sarandon, did. Adam Lambert is certainly hotter than Meat Loaf, but that’s not necessarily to the good — and though he’s openly Gay and narrowly missed winning American Idol he’s still not that interesting a performer, and if he has any reputation today it’s as a sort of beta version of Sam Smith. Charles and I both found it hard to judge the new version of Rocky Horror because, even though we hadn’t seen the original in four years, enough of it was imprinted in our memories that we couldn’t help but make the comparisons and find the new version falling short of the original — and while the proposal between Brad and Janet in front of Mary Shelley’s tombstone was a neat touch, other not-so-neat changes included having the show open in a movie theatre that turns out to be called “Castle” and later appears as the Frank-N-Furter Castle — Rocky Horror gets created in a huge ice chest of the kind used in 1950’s movie theatres to keep the sodas cold (in 1975 he came to life in a giant aquarium tank built by Hammer Studios in 1958 for their remake The Curse of Frankenstein, and indeed one thing I noted in my last go-round with Rocky Horror is that whereas Young Frankenstein was a spoof of the 1930’s Frankenstein films from Universal, Rocky Horror was really a spoof of the Hammer Frankensteins). It’s one of those remakes that’s O.K. on its face but makes you wonder why they bothered — why they didn’t just do an anniversary showing of the original film instead — and I’d still like to see a Rocky Horror that would follow the example of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s live production of the play (during which they had to solemnly instruct the audience not to do any of the traditional interjections because they would throw off the actors’ timing), in which, instead of a nice little British voice doing the opening “Science Fiction” song, they cast an African-American who belted it out in full gospel-soul voice à la Aretha Franklin. Now that’s a thrill I could have used last night!