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Has Rocky Horror Lost its Edge?

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The shiny new cast of Fox’s TV special

There are droves of negative reviews for Fox’s shiny new made-for-TV special The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. The one thing missing from those reviews is surprise. It seems that no one had high expectations for the film this time (warp) around. The skepticism is understandable, because the original was so groundbreaking in its unabashed portrayal of the freaks and queers and punks among us. That’s kind of the thing about groundbreaking events – they can only happen once.

But happen again it did, and with an enthusiasm like nothing I have seen since, well, the first High School Musical. What’s that? Kenny Ortega, director of said preteen fiasco, also directed this remount of Rocky Horror? I thought I recognized that sickly saccharine taste in my mouth.

The new Rocky Horror isn’t bad. In fact, there is a solid case that the original wasn’t any good to begin with. That’s not what has made this cult film the legend it is. It opened doors for individual expression, gender fluidity, and all-out weirdness in a way that was revolutionary for 1975, when the film was first released. While the times have certainly changed since then, the original remains a standard of midnight moviegoers for that same reason – it offers a haven for outcasts to gather and revel in eccentric glory.

Now, a major, highly monetized television network has dredged up the corpse of the film, pumped it to the gills with money, and given it spotless choreography. The rough edges have been smoothed over and shined. Even the alternative-looking movie goers featured in the contrived “live audience” bits look like they got their clothes from Urban Outfitters as opposed to Urban Renewal.

Rolling Stone wrote, “The source material was a scuzzy midnight peep show with a boner for the B-movies of yore; this primary-colored sock hop feels more like an afterschool special hours ahead of schedule.”

Rocky Horror was and will continue to be a cult film, and cult films are not intended for mass consumption. Before Tumblr connected us across the void to other outcasts, before weirdos were glamorized by Glee, cult films offered a solace for the non-normative. One such non-normative person was a young Laverne Cox, who saw the movie when she was a dance major in college, experimenting with the newfound gender fluidity that made Curry’s role so captivating. Cox says that the role validated her exploration, and that “it provided this road map for me to become more of myself and to dream big.”

Cox is now a household name for both her acting chops, and her wave-making as a female transgender actor of color in a predominately white cisgendered male dominated industry. There is immense value to offering her this platform – or rather, these platform heels – to express the phrase, “Don’t dream it, be it.” However, Cox simply does not have the shock power that Tim Curry did – a power that made the film feel risky and garishly beautiful. This version is outwardly gorgeous, but far less emotionally impactful.

Perhaps it is because we have reached a level of progressiveness in which a beautiful transgendered woman does not shock us. Maybe it’s because Cox’s physical presence is so normatively stunning compared to Curry’s overtly masculine look that this version feels less status quo defying than the original. Casting Cox makes sense, especially given her personal connection to the role, but ultimately it doesn’t serve the intention of the film: to present and glorify the ugliness within us all. Cox’s version of Frank is simply too pretty to be powerful.

Ultimately, this Rocky Horror failed because Fox refused to take any risks with a piece that was so risky it literally failed in the box office before emerging as an underdog cult success. Rocky Horror doesn’t exist without a heaping spoonful of danger, and that danger was absent from the start to the inevitably confusing finish.

If you’re craving validation to be your spooky self this Halloween season, look no further than the original. And for the love of FrankNFurter, see it in a real theatre with a crew of other weirdos. In an era where face-to-face human connection is rapidly losing its grip, find a community in which you can be yourself – and don’t just dream it, be it.


A version of this post is set to appear on The BU Buzz.

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