The Genetic Opera Screams Off-key

Do you find organ failure amusing? What about addiction? Are you the type of person who thinks vivisection is cause for riotous fits of laughter? Well then, Repo! The Genetic Opera might be just what the doctor ordered. (Spoilers ahead)

Just so we’ve got things straight, Lionsgate/Twisted Picture’s Repo is not a comedy, it’s billed as a “future rock opera cult-horror.” Maybe that’s why it feels like the movie can’t decide which genre it actually wants to be. It’s just like it’s teenage main character Shilo Wallace, it still has some growing up to do.

The film is directed by Saw II-IV helmsman Darren Lynn Bousman. Co-creators of the original stage production Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich wrote the screenplay, music and lyrics for this dysfunctional look at our future. It’s the year 2059 and the biotech company GeneCo is humanity’s savior following a worldwide organ failure epidemic. Of course, like any big corporation, greed plays a big part. Once you get your new organ you better make sure to keep up with the payments or else GeneCo’s Repo Man will come to rip it out of your still-breathing body. You’re guaranteed not to make it out of this surgery.
Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is the Repo Man but that’s just his night job. His real name is Nathan Wallace and he’s father/doctor to the very sick Shilo (Alexa Vega from Spy Kids) whom he keeps locked in her room all hours of the day for fear of the horrifying world outside her windows. Like any teenager, Shilo rebels and finds a way out, though how she actually does this is never explained. That’s something you have to get used to while watching Repo unfortunately, a lot goes unsaid. However, through clever use of Sin City-like comic panels we learn the background stories of our main characters.
Nathan was married to a woman named Marni. She became pregnant with Shilo but was struck so ill Nathan had to make a choice who would survive. He chose the child but he may or may not have kept his wife’s corpse in a perverse diorama in his house. These are the kinds of missteps that plague Repo.
President of GeneCo, Rotti Largo played by Paul Sorvino, is the dying patriarch of an ungrateful trio of psychotics. Horror legend Bill Moseley is wasted here as the eldest son Luigi Largo. He has a terrible temper and likes to stab people yet we barely see him do so. Regrettably Moseley does not have the voice of an angel. Industrial rock musician Nivek Ogre is intriguing as the younger son Pavi. His fetish is the beautiful face of a woman after he cuts it off her and places it atop his own like a mask. It’s a frightening image fit for any horror movie and is, in fact, reminiscent of Moseley’s character from House of 1000 Corpses. In another inexplicable move Pavi does all his work behind the scenes and, even more curious, is the only member of the family to speak with an Italian accent. Jack-of-all-trades Paris Hilton is Rotti’s daughter Amber Sweet. She’s addicted to plastic surgery and the painkiller Zydrate which is available illegally on the street. For all intents and purposes Hilton is just playing herself. Minus the plastic surgery of course. With all the hype about her being in the film she barely rates as a featured character. In the middle of a sibling argument (watch the clip) over who their father will leave the company to she simply disappears off-screen. She’s also denied singing a full song all by herself. To her credit, she allows herself to look ugly for a change.
Repo is called an opera for a reason, there are only about four straight-foward spoken sentences in the entire film and two of them are by Hilton. The music is all original and was recorded by a veritable who’s who in the rock industry and is Repo’s main draw. Performances include Joan Jett (who also has a cameo), Richard Patrick (Filter), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Clown (Slipknot), Brian Young (David Lee Roth’s band), Richard Fortus (Guns & Roses), David J (Bauhaus/Love & Rockets), Daniel Ash (Love & Rockets), Blasko (Ozzy Osbourne), Tommy Clefetus (Rob Zombie’s band), Melora Creager (Rasputina). Singer/songwriter Poe also lends her voice to the soundtrack.
Creator Terrance Zdunich is marvelously delicious as the anti-hero Graverobber. He acts as an involved narrator throughout the story, helping Shilo along the way while explaining to the audience where Zydrate comes from. Think Fight Club, only worse. It comes from dead bodies. Zdunich shows proper stage talent that would be well at home on Broadway. “Zydrate Anatomy” is one of the best songs of the entire film. Alexa Vega actually has a Broadway background (Hairspray) and was an excellent choice to play the curious and frustrated Shilo. Her solo “Infected” is impressive and she really has the bratty behavior down pat on “Seventeen.”
If you were a fan of Buffy you’ve already seen Anthony Stewart Head belt out a few choice notes. Giles fans will be giddy with excitement over his performance, a lot of “Ripper” comes through as the Repo Man. He’s a true rock star on “Legal Assassin” even though it’s pacing slightly interferes with it’s enjoyment. Even though “Thankless Job” sounds like an alternate horror version of “Master of the House” from Le Miserables, hearing Head growl instead of sing like we know he can is off-putting and unnecessary. Watching Repo you’ll find yourself considering what Sweeney Todd would have been like had Head had the title role instead of just his small cameo.
Although Paul Sorvino is classically trained, the unmistakable talent here is ethereal singer Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag. GeneCo gave her the ability to see, and then some, with a special pair of peepers and now she’s indebted to them for life as their resident talent. The entire movie it feels like she’s waiting to be released on the audience, “Chase the Morning” (watch the clip) is a beautiful song, along with Vega and Nancy Long, but is just a fraction of what she can do. It’s not until the very end of the film we get some honest to goodness opera and by then it almost feels dull and out of place next to the raging rock tracks throughout, although it certainly does it’s job.
Repo is almost shockingly bloody at points but if you were expecting Saw-type horror you came to the wrong place. Some of the effects are very well done, a mass grave of naked corpses was specifically impressive, while others felt very do-it-yourself (That brain was jiggling a little too much). It could have been budgetary concerns (It was made for less than $10 million) or it might have been done purposefully but that’s what was so frustrating. This is the main area where Repo went wrong. It’s trailer makes it out to be hard-as-nails, unrelenting and cruel and while it starts out like that, a humor creeps it’s way into a storyline that would have been remarkably intense had it not gotten laughs.
While these issues may not bother the average fan, not to mention the rabid fan-base that has grown in anticipation of the film, avid movie-goers will find one big problem with Repo. A plot device is revealed in Rotti’s backstory, turns out he was with Marni before she married Nathan. When she left him and didn’t come back he decided to poison her and make Nathan think he was responsible, hence her illness while she was pregnant. He explains this to the audience and makes it feel incredibly important, and it is, except it’s never followed through. Writing 101. Checkov’s Gun. It means, if you show a gun hanging on the wall in the first act it must be fired by the last. Rotti never admits he killed Marni to Nathan and a heart wrenching realization is completely lost. It very well could be the result of Smith and Zdunich’s lack of experience in the film industry but it’s hard to believe no one mentioned it to them.
Even though Repo has it’s quirks it does present to us a frightening idea of a future that may not be that far off. One of GeneCo’s happy customers boasts about her new liver, “Now I can drink whatever I want!” It’s not hard to believe that’s what some people would do given the opportunity. It’s also not hard to see this will easily become a cult classic no matter what the reviews. “We Started This Op’ra Shit” has midnight movie material written all over it just like The Rock Horror Picture Show. In fact, because Repo is only opening in limited release, they’re taking it on the road through November to give more fans the chance to see it. If you’re just hearing about Repo it would probably help having some interest in musical theater in order to get enjoyment out of it. Or, you could just be the kind of person who thinks intestines are funny.

(You can also view this review at GEN)

9 Responses to “The Genetic Opera Screams Off-key”

  1. Sure, characters SAY they’re going to do things all the time, it doesn’t mean they’re going to follow through with them. In fact, it makes for better drama if they don’t. Sorry, I still think it was a huge missed opportunity.

  2. Meres says:

    I hate to point this out, but you seriously missed something. They did follow Writing 101. Rotti tells you in the opening song:

    “In denial, Nathan blamed himself for Marni’s sudden death
    But never once thought to suspect the man who wrote his checks!
    I guess… I’ll take it to my death!”

    So yes, they show you a gun. They show you that Rotti has no intentions of telling Nathan, and he does just that. I admit, it might not have the same impact as Nathan agonizing that he did not poison his wife, but when I walked out of the theater and realized that, it was a punch to the gut.

  3. Thanks Caroline! What I wrote is pretty much my personal view, I just kept the I’s and Me’s out of it. I was really really pumped for the movie and it just didn’t do enough for me. Like, I thought there’d be a lot more about the whole world itself but we only saw one tiny portion of it. The music is mostly all awesome though. I have the soundtrack and I’ve been playing it almost every time I’m in my car. :)

  4. Caroline H. says:

    Really comprehensive review, kudos!
    I’d love to hear more of your personal take on it! Lauding or scathing is always fun to hear. ^_^

  5. Haha you’re welcome! I’m sure it’s too long for Chuck to read.

  6. Tara says:

    thanks for letting me come with!!
    and this is the most detailed review i have ever read!! awesome job!!!!!!!

  7. Jay Amabile says:

    i can’t wait to see this…forget all the paris hilton haters…

  8. Definitly have to check this out.
    Thx for the heads up!