Repo! The Genetic Opera

“Is this movie for everyone? Absolutely not. Will there be people that hate it? Absolutely. But the fact is – what I can say is we didn’t sell out… This movie was made triple fold not only because I love the story and I wanted to do a musical but to basically show people that you can make something different. You don’t have to regurgitate the same ideas over and over again. There are original ideas out there. You just have to fight for them and get the audience out.”
Darren Lynn Bousman

Zdunich (left) and Bousman field Repo! questions
Zdunich (left) and Bousman field Repo! questions

Some things seem doomed to fail. High on the list would be a horror musical with no advertising budget, buried by its distributor, whose stars include Paris Hilton, the lead singer from industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy and that guy off Buffy. But 500 people came to Chandler Cinemas late on a weekday night, paying $15 each to watch Repo! The Genetic Opera. Mainstream Hollywood would kill for that level of viral buzz. What the hell is going on?

Repo started as a ten-minute opera called The Necromerchant’s Debt, written and composed by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich in Newport Beach. It grew from there, with additional songs and characters being bolted on, and eventually developed into a full-length 2002 stage-play, which ran at Hollywood’s John Raitt Theatre. That was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, then 23 and, at that point, with no feature experience at all. However, after he helmed Saw II and Saw III, he used some of the cast and crew to make a 10-minute promo reel.

Twisted Pictures, the producers behind the Saw franchise, took the idea up and the movie was green-lit with an $8.3 million budget and an eclectic cast. Shooting begain September 2007 in Toronto, with a release date originally scheduled for April this year, as shown on the image, top-left. Post-production delays – an opera proving significantly harder to edit, etc. than a regular movie – pushed this back to November. However, Lionsgate – and I can certainly see their point, though the arrival of new head Joe Drake probably didn’t help – simply didn’t believe there was a market for the film. They basically dropped out of promotion and released Repo on just eight screens [even worse than Lionsgate’s dump of Midnight Meat Train in August]. Matters weren’t helped by some particularly vicious reviews.

  • “Misery is enduring this Rocky Horror Paris Show” — Rolling Stone
  • “Excruciating new torture” — New York Times
  • “Unfunny, unscary, preposterous… Self-indulgent misfire” — USA Today
  • “Appears to have been shot with a cell phone” — Village Voice
  • “Plain awful and nearly unwatchable” — LA Times

It’s hard to find much disagreement among the mainstream press: the movie currently has a 17% Fresh rating among the top critics at Zdunich and Bousman were undaunted, inspired by the better reaction on blogs and indie sites that there was an audience for their film out there – if only they could find it. The warm reception it had received at film festivals also helped convince them Lionsgate were wrong, and with the help of a dedicated Internet following, they took their movie on a tour across North America in November. Sold-out screenings followed, with the creators somewhat bemused to find fans turning up in costume as characters – to watch a film they’d never seen before.

The creators deny having deliberately set out to create a “cult movie.” I think it’s probably true, though the obvious potential inherent in the concept is clear – if you can capture the singing goths of the Rocky Horror fanbase, and the Whedonites, attracted by the casting of Anthony Stewart Head, you’ve got a fiercely loyal audience. Said Zdunich, “I think we appeal to a group of people who are hungry for more than just your typical moviegoing experience. They’re hungry for something that feels like an event, that feels like a community.” There’s no doubt, based on the reaction and attendance on Thurday night in Phoenix, that this sense of community is no mirage.

Hard to say where the film goes from here. Bousman has vowed to keep touring, all the way through the release of the DVD in January, and beyond [we want to bring him back for our Phoenix Fear Film Festival next year]. However, it seems tough to create a theatrical cult in the DVD era, where home viewing is increasingly superior to the multiplex experience. Time will tell whether this current, undeniable phenomena is merely a short-lived curiosity, or develops into a lasting feature on the cinematic landscape.

And with that all said, is the movie any good?

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman
Star: Anthony Stewart Head, Alexa Vega, Paul Sorvino, Terrance Zdunich

The year is 2057. The world is dominated by GeneCo, the company under Rotti Largo (Sorvino) that helped defeat a wave of organ failure, by providing transplants – at a cost. And woe betide you, if you feel to keep up with the payments, for they’ll send repo man Nathan Wallace (Head) after you for a friendly chat and the foreclosed organ. However, both Largo nor Wallace have their own issues: the former discovers he is terminally ill and has to decide which of his three dreadful offspring will inherit GeneCo, while his employee has a teenage daughter (Vega) suffering from an incurable blood disease. The two have a connection that goes back a long way; Nathan’s now-dead wife had been engaged to Largo, back before he saved the world. I trust the potential for tragedy, of the Wagnerian kind, needs no emphasis.

I don’t think this is as original as has been claimed in some quarters. While the rock opera [note, not musical: that just contains songs, while this contains almost no spoken dialog] is a genre that’s not exactly been seen much, aspects of this come from – in chronological order of the movie versions – Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The last-named may be the closest, for its mix of arterial spray and show-tunes. Add elements from the likes of Brazil and Blade Runner [while the central notion is close to Python’s Live Organ Donors] and the result is about as original as the average Tarantino film. Still, what emerges is unquestionably its own beast – albeit in much the same way as Frankenstein’s monster.

The movie’s strongest suit is its visual style, which is little short of breathtaking: a future world with a dreamlike atmosphere has been created, mostly using sets but with effective use of CGI to add scale. Much credit to cinematographer Joseph White and production designer David Hackl for their sterling work creating a backdrop, into which all the characters fit perfectly. Head is the standout performance, commanding the screen with a combination of pathos, presence and gallows humour; he is no slacker on the singing front either, though having seen him on the London stage as Frank N. Furter, back in the early 90’s, that’s not really a shock. Zdunich appears as a graverobbing drug-dealer, and gets one of the best songs, though his character seems peripheral – it may have served a greater purpose on-stage?

Paul Sorvino is a pleasant surprise [with some research, it seems shouldn’t be]; not so Vega, whose voice comes over as thin and reedy; it’s probably appropriate for her 17-year old character, but lacks anything to make it a pleasure to listen to. Sara Brightman, as an opera singer whose site was restored by GeneCo, also makes an impression, albeit probably as much for her enormous false eyelashes as anything else. Paris Hilton shows up as one of Rotti’s appalling children, and doesn’t suck as much as you might expect, though I’d still have welcomed it if her character’s fate had matched that suffered in House of Wax.

For an opera, it’s a major weakness that the tunes are eminently forgettable: less than 24 hours later, I can’t remember even a couple of notes of any of them. Being charitable, let’s assume they take a few hearings to sink in. Though mostly unremarkable, I liked the neo-industrial feel to most of them [the presence of Ogre from Skinny Puppy, playing another of Largo’s kids, makes a great deal of sense], and there’s enough variety to keep things interesting. Joan Jett shows up at one point, for reasons that escaped me.

Even if the results are wildly uneven, I have nothing but enormous respect for the creators: they clearly went into this with a vision of what they were trying to create, and they refused to compromise it one iota. In a world of increasingly-sterile entertainment, the love that went into this, both in front of and behind the camera, is a pleasure to see. The dedication to and passion for the film shown by Zdunich and Bousman is both obvious and infectious, and is likely a key part of the reason why fans of their work appear to be every bit as enthusiastic.

Rating: B-