First off, this movie features an engaged couple who finds a haunted house and naively stumbles into a raging drag party led by a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.” This mad scientist doubles as a dominatrix, seduces both of them, and then uses brainwashing to bring about their sexual liberation.
If that isn’t your cup of tea, then you might want to stop reading now.
The movie was written as a parody of B-rated science fiction flicks and first released in 1975 starring Tim Curry. The film is widely known for its rich tradition of live “shadow casts”—fans who dress up like the characters and reenact the film’s action in front of the projector.
I had the chance to attend one of these screenings with some friends my freshman year. The theatre was filled with people who most conservative Christians would find strange, but they were relatable in that they had found a film that was very important to them. They had seen it so many times, they had memorized every line and were able to heckle it with perfectly timed jokes. This wasn’t hard, because, parody or not, it’s a pretty terrible movie.
I have heard some nightmare stories of people who went to a screening and felt very threatened. When I went, the cast called up everyone viewing the film for the first time to get spanked with a wooden paddle—good thing I didn’t raise my hand. Honestly, it would probably be better to fall asleep in a back alley in Brooklyn than to be messed with at a shadow cast theatre. But there is a creative aspect to audience experience of the RHPS that is unparalleled anywhere else in cinema.
Despite having experienced significant gender dysphoria myself, I found the original to be highly disturbing. The screenplay was written by Richard O’Brien, a writer who has questioned his own gender identity, supposedly as a reaction against the condemnation he faced in the 70s. But as a product of O’Brien’s time in many ways, the transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter comes across more demonized than relatable. There are themes of sexual assault and sexual slavery in his actions, and the film plays on fears of how “freakish” he is.
The movie ends in a massive swimming pool orgy, with the whole cast in gender bending corsets singing, “Don’t dream it—be it.” The songs are catchy, but you can’t get around how, in every way, the film is a celebration of fetishization, primal sexuality, and giving into your desires.
This year, Fox tried to revive (or cash in on) the property by producing a remake that stars Laverne Cox alongside Victoria Justice, Ryan McCartan, and Adam Levine. It follows the same script but distinguishes itself in a few ways.
Frank-N-Furter is still villainous but has been reimagined as a confident, post-op transgender woman, rather than the sniveling and perverted crossdresser of the original. The modern actors are self-aware, intentionally delivering the lines even campier than the original’s amateur cast, to hilarious results.
All of the musical sequences in the remake are heavily dubbed and auto-tuned, recreating the feel of a shadow-cast. Shots of a theatre audience laughing and jeering with the most famous jokes were included to recreate some of the live experience, but ultimately, it would have been more effective if they had livestreamed it on Twitter.
The remake is still incredibly provocative, but much of the eroticism of the original is missing from the modern take. There is sex, but it’s portrayed so ridiculously that it ceases to be edgy. The remake doesn’t try to make you uncomfortable, making it more accessible to new audiences. While watching it, one feels like they are in the middle of a big, gay party. For better or for worse, the tone is not meant to be taken seriously.
Should you watch it? For the love of God, probably not.
The characters’ extremely casual attitude toward sex, and the idolization of sexuality will always be dangerous. However, there has perhaps never been a better time to try and understand the transgender experience than right now.
When one digs into what the filmmakers are actually doing, you’ll notice that, ironically, there has never been a sex comedy that tries harder to disavow its own obscenity. In my judgment, the remake is less about its sexual messages, and more about reinterpreting the original in the most sublime and outlandish fashion possible. Like a good drag queen, this Frank-N-Furter runs on showmanship and flair.
As much as I disagree with its premise, the new Rocky Horror manages to turn grinding into an art form, and that just may be intriguing enough for some musical fans to give it a spin.
So Happy Halloween.