Cultural infamy: Repo! The Genetic Opera started life as a stage play, garnering a cult following in the process. Sometimes “cult film” refers to a movie that failed in theaters, but was eventually embraced by a vast, dedicated underground support network; sometimes the term is just slapped on anything that’s so offensive, weird, or narrowly focused that only a small, determinedly perverse collective could love it. Repo! is the latter, the kind of item that’s labeled as “cult” even before its release, because it has no chance of finding any other kind of audience. It’s too gory (as expected, considering it was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind Saw II, III, and IV), too ridiculously trashy, and trying way too hard to be perverse and outré. As with any good cult item, the mainstream instantly rejected it: The critics blasted it (32 percent rating on Metacritic.com, 33 on the usually more forgiving Rotten Tomatoes), it barely played in theaters, and Lionsgate apparently even buried the full-soundtrack CD release. It was an $8.5 million movie, and Box Office Mojo lists its worldwide take as under $200,000.
Curiosity factor: And yet it sounds like such an appealingly crazy, extravagantly wild project. It’s a comic-book-fueled glam/goth-rock musical starring Paul Sorvino, Alexa Vega, Sarah Brightman, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head. (He alone would have been enough to lure me in.) Paris Hilton and Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre show up in bit parts. Joan Jett plays guitar; Rasputina’s Melora Creager plays cello. But mostly… well, just watch the trailer. It showcases a richly designed, garishly ambitious freakshow world and a shamelessly camp energy that’s clearly trying for 21st-century Rocky Horror Picture Show status:
Besides, our own Sean O’Neal—in the most positive review listed on Metacritic, by a solid 25 points—praised it as a cult-worthy phenomenon. And since I wasn’t able to get tickets for the sold-out one-night showing at the Music Box here in Chicago, I jumped on the film as soon as it hit DVD.
The viewing experience: One of the main issues with Repo! The Genetic Opera is that nearly every aspect of it goes on too long. The songs are generally overextended, which is a particular problem given that most of them are also atonal and dull, either chanted or seemingly assembled from a series of clunky, ill-fitting, barely rhyming lines. The plot points get repeated over and over, so every storyline seems overextended as well. A good half of the songs completely fail to push the plot forward or reveal anything new; they just consist of the characters reminding us of what they were feeling the last time they sung, and what they’re still feeling now. The whole project begs for a good editing.
That starts with the introduction, a three-and-a-half-minute quasi-animated sequence styled as a series of comic-book images and frames. It sets up the characters and plot just fine, like so: In the “not too distant” future, millions of people die from “an epidemic of organ failures.” A company called GeneCo offers organ transplants that keep people alive, so long as they keep making payments on their new body parts. If not, the repo man shows up to hack them apart and take back GeneCo’s property. GeneCo’s founder (Sorvino) and his three spoiled, crazy children (Hilton, Ogre, and minor horror icon Bill Moseley) profit hugely from this legalized extortion and murder. Okay, fine, that’s all been covered. So why is it necessary to follow that introduction with a full-length song covering much of the same ground, accompanied by live-action footage that matches what we just saw in cartoon form? And why does the narrator reiterate it all again as part of another painfully slow song just a few minutes later?
At any rate, Sorvino soon reveals that he’s dying, and that none of his hated children is worthy of his legacy—Moseley is a raging psychopathic killer, Hilton is an addled, plastic-surgery-obsessed fetishist, and Ogre is a straight-up freakjob who skins people and wears their faces stretched over his own. They all disgust Sorvino, but he’s running out of options for heirs to his empire, as he explains in a typical Repo! song, a stilted blend of recitative, chant, and operatic wailing:
Ideally, he’d like to leave the whole kit and kaboodle to Vega, the unspoiled, sheltered 17-year-old daughter of Anthony Steward Head and an old flame of Sorvino’s. Vega has been a shut-in since birth, with Head telling her that he’s trying to protect her from the disease that killed her mother, but the truth is a lot more complicated and, well, operatic, with lies and betrayals and murders and complicated interdependent relationships and whatnot. Vega comes across as Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, a pale little goth girl totally caught up in the beauty of her own suffering, alternately rebelling against her father and languishing in the lacy prison room Head built her. As the story plays out, Sorvino—who’s blackmailing Head on trumped-up evidence and employing him as chief organ-repo man—attempts to seduce Vega into killing her dad, accepting a heritage of cold-blooded murder and mayhem, and taking Sorvino’s place at the head of the company.
It’s typically operatic stuff, full of such grand, soaring emotions that they can only come out through bellowed songs and rock screams and tortured poses and really fast, jumpy cutting. But there are a number of problems. One is that it’s all way more complicated than it needs to be: One subplot involves a painkiller that makes repeat surgeries possible somehow, and which is illegally extracted from the faces of human corpses. Another covers Sarah Brightman as a blind singer who performs for Sorvino in exchange for cybernetic eyes. Sorvino’s unruly kids have their own sideplots and scenes, which are the worst of the film. The repetition of already-established characters and themes are again a problem, as they explain once more that they each want to inherit Sorvino’s company, but far worse is the gross slapstick comedy (dig those goofy sound effects) and broader-than-broad manic overacting:
They aren’t alone in the excess. Even Head, normally such a reliably charming presence, struggles with his flat, toneless, staccato songs and rock-star howling, in this case about his dead wife and single parenthood:
The acting is a running problem throughout Repo!, which is all about stylistic excess—the amazing visual excess of intense colors and layers, the much-less-amazing excess of gore and grotesquery, and the more-isn’t-nearly-enough performances. But those clunky, all-but-unsingable songs are also a constant irritant. Turn the sound off, and Repo! looks pretty terrific; for such a cheap film, it’s impressively stylish, with its rich costumes and sets and cinematography, and its gaudy effects, like the hologram-projector eyes Brightman puts to the test when she tries to lure Vega out of her house by showing her images of her dead mother. The song they sing together is somewhere between stilted rap and Rent-esque rock back-and-forth, but the images would make a hell of a music video. Unfortunately, Bousman likes the trick so much that he keeps using it over and over, until it starts to get old:
And on and on it goes. Much of Repo!: The Genetic Opera is a lurching tug-of-war between a number of opposing factions, each of which has to repeatedly have their say with the audience, and none of which gains much ground until the big finale. Most of the plot developments eventually just revert to the status quo: Head does a lot of killing and a lot of singing about it, then decides he wants to stop. A great deal of singing and slaughtering is devoted to getting him to go back to murdering for Sorvino, which he eventually does. Vega wants out of her prison home, and keeps singing her defiance, escaping, and then getting shut up again. Brightman wants to quit singing for Sorvino, and a lot of time is spent on various people worrying about what he’ll do to her, but her story doesn’t go anywhere until the film’s final moments, after her big farewell performance. Many more comic-book intervals fill in all the backstory, but then songs and dialogue remind us of what we’ve just been told. Much of the film just feels like watching some extremely pretty wheels spin, and occasionally get splashed with blood and shreds of human meat.
It says something that the musical’s catchiest song is essentially a delivery method for a couple of pieces of information that we already know from previous scenes: That zydrate, the drug derived from corpses, helps prep people for surgery, and that Paris Hilton’s character is a surgery addict. (Also that Hilton herself is kind of a skank.)
Oh, but eventually Paris Hilton’s face falls off. That’s worth something, at least. It doesn’t justify the whole disappointing enterprise, but it’s worthy of a larf:
How much of this experience was a total waste of time? In the sense that there was always something interesting and gothically pretty to look at onscreen, none of it was a waste. In the sense that I spent the vast majority of the film either bored or squirming with discomfort over the cheap gore, the arrhythmic songs, and the phenomenally bombastic performances, I’d give this about a 10 percent return-on-time-invested score. It’s like nothing else out there, but there’s a perfectly good reason why: An awful lot of it is either excruciating, dull, or just needlessly disgusting. It’s cult-ready in the worst, least motivated sense, with the understanding that anything this full of guts, goth, and garishness will at least find a few devoted adherents, even if the rest of the world ignores it.