Some movies become cult items after audiences have had time to consider their merits, or lack thereof. Sometimes it takes years. The Phantom of the Paradise, for example, dive bombed at the box office in its original release, but found a rabid following a decade later and now there’s even a yearly convention dedicated to the film and its outlandish characters. Other movies are born for a cult audience. El Topo and Eraserhead never found mainstream success, but both films were instant hits on the underground cult circuit.
I suspect Repo! The Genetic Opera falls into the latter category.
Despite the presence of tabloid favorite Paris Hilton it’s unlikely that a musical about a mad business man who sends a hired killer to repossess human organs is ever going to beat High School Musical at the box office.
Set in the near future Repo! The Genetic Opera starts with a world plagued by an epidemic of organ failure, and I don’t mean Wurlizter. Hearts stop beating, spleens turn to mush. To the rescue is GeneCo, a biotech company specializing in synthetic organs. Like any business though, if you don’t pay up you might have an unpleasant, and in this case, deadly, encounter with the Repo Man. Running parallel to the organ replacement payment plan plot is a second story thread involving a young girl (Spy Kids’ Alexa Vega) who is searching for a cure for her rare blood disease. When she becomes involved with GeneCo’s evil owner (Paul Sorvino) and his twisted kids (Paris Hilton, Skinny Puppy singer Ogre and Bill Moseley) she learns some terrible secrets about her family and illness. The two storylines collide head-on in the film’s bloody climax—The Genetic Opera.
Repo! The Genetic Opera looks like a music video with feature film aspirations. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, best known as the helmer for Saws 2 through 4, has spared no expense in the dry ice department, flooding many scenes with enough atmospheric smoke to rival any Platinum Blonde music video. And while he creates a convincingly dystopian atmosphere on screen the look of the film too often resembles an Iron Maiden music promo. It would be interesting to see what a visionary director like Tim Burton could have done with the same material.
Bousman isn’t aided by a leaden musical score which too often sounds like the result of an unholy ménage à trois between Ywengie Malmsteen, Marilyn Manson and Kurt Weill. Actually written by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich there are no catchy tunes and only the occasional interesting line. This is the rare musical that might have been a much better movie without the songs.
Operas are supposed to be about big ideas and passion and Repo succeeds on both counts. The story raises interesting parallels to America’s health care crisis and there are some fun over-the-top performances from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head (his human hand puppet scene is a highlight), a spectacularly mascara-ed Sarah Brightman and Paul Goodfellas Sorvino but they are let down by a grating score that will leave no one humming as the credits roll. It’s not that I crave the ear-soothing, non-interruptive sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, but a little less atonal racket and a bit more actual score would have been nice.
The movie almost redeems itself with a wild, gory finale that literally gets the blood pumping but by that time I was lost, pining for the more tuneful days of Rocky Horror and The Phantom of the Paradise.