Repo! The Genetic Opera
by Jason Coffman
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The true cult film, the one that truly finds its own audience spontaneously and grows into something more than what its filmmakers intended, is an increasingly rare beast. The simple fact is that as film has developed over the years, genres, subgenres, and niches have all become part of the business. Things are a lot different now than they were when Jodorowsky, Lynch, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show set about creating the “Midnight Movie” phenomenon. Every so often, a studio will try to explicitly market a film as a “cult” movie, usually with disastrous results. A true cult film ends up finding an audience more or less by accident; marketing a “cult movie” is rarely successful. However, this is usually because the film in question isn’t really cult material— for a recent example, look at Snakes on a Plane. Pushed hard as “so bad it’s good,” the film came out and was just a mediocre action movie awkwardly marketed as something it wasn’t.
Repo! The Genetic Opera, on the other hand, is unquestionably cult movie material. How else to describe an “industrial rock opera” about a dystopian future where the Repo Man comes to take back your organs instead of your car? And with a cast like this: Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Ohgr (vocalist of Skinny Puppy), Bill Moseley (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Sarah Brightman (world-renowned opera singer), and Paris Hilton? Repo! was conceived from the ground up to be a cult film, something completely different from director Darren Lynn Bousman’s work on Saw 2, 3, and 4. Faced with such a defiantly non-commercial film, Lionsgate has done exactly what any big studio in its right mind would do: put it in eight theaters around the country and see what happens. As a result, director Bousman and actor Terrance Zdunich took the film out on a “Road Tour” to seven cities in seven days to get the film more into the public eye.
The film is mostly the story of Shiloh (Alexa Vega), a 17-year-old girl with a rare blood disease who lives with her father Nathan (Head) in a vast city in the not-too-distant future that has been ravaged by a pandemic of organ failures. Shiloh is unaware of the great tragedy of her mother’s death, which intersects with the lives of Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), the head of a company that creates replacement organs and is thus the most powerful corporation in the world, his family, and Blind Mag (Brightman), a singer with cybernetic eyes under contract to Largo. Largo is told he is dying, and must choose an heir to the GeneCo throne before he passes, but his children are all monsters. Luigi (Moseley) is basically a sociopath, Pavi (Ohgr) seems insanely vain but otherwise mostly harmless, and Amber Sweet (Hilton) is addicted to both plastic surgery and Zydrate, an illicit painkiller extracted from the corpses of repo victims and sold on the streets by the Graverobber (Zdunich). The Graverobber also occasionally acts as a Greek chorus, directly addressing the camera, usually before particularly important scenes.
Confused yet? The film takes precious few pauses for breath, using comic book panel illustrations to fill in background information before rampaging forth again through more songs that push the story along at a frantic pace. Its cast of interconnected characters, as well as its sci-fi leanings and ambition, are reminiscent of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Like that film, Repo! starts on uneasy ground with a convoluted backstory and a large cast of characters tied together by tragedy, lies, and various other motives that may or may not ever be made clear. The film also clearly shows the results of having been restructured and re-edited, but its seams are more prominent than those in Southland Tales and the music-video aesthetic renders some stretches of the film almost incomprehensible. Also unlike Southland Tales, Repo! has more than one musical number— it really is an opera. Every line of dialogue is sung over the film’s ever-present score.
Unfortunately, the music is exactly where the film falls flat. If you’re making a rock opera, you need damned good songs. I’ll admit right now— I hate The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hate it, hate it, hate it. But I know songs from it that have strong hooks, something to grab onto and that sticks with you long after the film is over and that I find myself enjoying even though I can’t stand the film from which they originated. I’m a fan of musicals in general— I’ll watch Phantom of the Paradise or Moulin Rouge any day of the week. The music in Repo!, however, is mostly of the “industrial rock” genre and suffers for being exactly that: there are big guitars, metallic percussion, and not much in the way of catchy choruses. Memorable songs are few and far between in Repo!, with most of them just serving to further the story and flesh out the characters at the expense of lyrics that make any sense outside the context of the film or melodies that stick with you after the end credits roll.
This isn’t to say that the quality of the music is bad— it’s well-produced and more than ably performed by its (mostly) invisible band members and a cast with some truly great vocal chops. Anthony Stewart Head has a fantastic voice, and his songs are among the most lively scenes in the film. Paul Sorvino has shown off his voice a few times before, but he gets to really belt it out in this film, and he’s great. Sarah Brightman, of course, is brilliant. Hell, even Paris Hilton is pretty great in her fairly small role. There’s no shortage of talent on display in Repo! in front of or behind the camera, in either the visual or the musical components of the film. So it’s even more of a disappointment that the final product is so weirdly unengaging.
Repo! seems to be finding its audience just fine. At the Chicago stop on the “Repo Road Tour,” there were already fans in costume who had traveled hundreds of miles to see the film. There were a lot of people in line outside the theater hours in advance of the 10:30 p.m. start time, and several blaring the soundtrack and singing along on the sidewalk. When Bousman mentioned The Rocky Horror Picture Show during the Q&A after the film, most of the remaining audience went wild. This seems to indicate that the film is already completely critic-proof: if you’ve already decided you’re part of the “Repo Army,” nothing is going to change your mind, including the film itself. Perhaps this means that Repo! will be one of the few exceptions to the rule, the cult film marketed as such that hits its anticipated demographic with surgical precision and finds new life after its initial theatrical run as a “cult movie.” However, just like many “cult movies” (studio-manufactured or otherwise), the film itself doesn’t stand up very well on its own. I imagine someday people might stumble across Repo! and find themselves in the same position as people who watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show at home by themselves, wondering what the fuss is all about.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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