Because of to the rabid and pervasive cult following it was able to generate in the 33 years since “The Rocky Horror Picture” show first appeared in theaters, it’s been easy to forget that it had been a resounding flop when it premiered. Numerous attempts have been made to cash in or imitate this phenomenon: there was the sing-a-long “Sound of Music” and midnight screenings of “Showgirls,” but both projects felt too engineered to spark an actual movement like “Rocky Horror” did. The reason “Rocky Horror” became the monster it did is because it was allowed to grow slowly, through word of mouth. Friends brought their friends, who brought their friends, and while most people weren’t sure what they were seeing, they were at least touched by how different it was and felt like they were a part of something.
And now we have “REPO! The Genetic Opera,” which while obviously aspiring to cult classic status, might actually succeed because it shares something in common with “Rocky Horror”: they’re not actually that good as films.
There, I said it. But the truth is this fact probably helps “REPO!’s” case for true cult status. There are going to be people that are going to LOVE this movie right off the bat (they’re called goths), and there are going to be people who will HATE this film right off the bat (they’re called film critics), but the fact is the film is such a unique animal that it developing a cult following over time is inevitable. It is unlikely that it will be very successful initially outside of small, isolated pockets, but it’s reputation will grow on in the years that follow until we find ourselves shaking our heads as our kids run off to midnight screenings dressed as Pavi the Face Stealer or Blind Mag.
Based on a little known off Broadway play, “REPO!” tells the operatic tale of Shilo (Alexa Vega, “Spy Kids”), a pale girl with a rare blood disease kept a prisoner in her own home by an overprotective father (Anthony Stewart Head, or Giles to “Buffy” fans). What Shilo doesn’t know is that her father is also the murderous Repo Man, using his surgeon’s skills to extract designer organs when their owners fall late on a payment. The organs are the property of Geneco, a giant conglomerate owned by the evil Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino, no really). Rotti’s days are numbered, but he has to stick around long enough to find an heir to his fortune who isn’t one of his disastrous children: the murderous Luigi (a rather embarrassed looking Bill Moseley), face stealing Pavi (Nivek Ogre of industrial music pioneers Skinny Puppy) and plastic surgery addicted daughter Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton). Also playing a major role is Sarah Brightman in her film debut as Shilo’s godmother, Blind Mag.
There isn’t really much point in recapping the plot further, the film does a pretty good job of that all on its own, which is definitely one of its main weaknesses. Almost all of the dialogue is sung, making it closer to being a true opera than a regular film musical, but director Bousman, best known for “Saws II, III & IV,” also includes comic book panel sequences to fill in the back story. The problem is that these explanations start to feel redundant as they are usually followed immediately by a song which sums up the pertinent facts, or at least the ones we need to know at that point. Much of the story probably would have played stronger if we were allowed to discover things as they were being sung, since the comic panels can’t convey the emotion that the songs can.
As for the singing itself, it’s largely top notch, with Brightman being an obvious stand out and Head and Sorvino clearly enjoying this rare chance to strut their stuff (Head played in “Rocky Horror” on stage and Sorvino is a trained opera singer). Also very strong is the teenaged Vega, and while he doesn’t actually have much singing to do, Ogre is delightfully arch and engaging. Not faring as well are the usually addictively watchable Moseley, who seems uncomfortable and confused and Hilton, who does her best to portray a spoiled brat and almost succeeds despite it not being that big a stretch. The one thing in the film’s favor is that everyone manages to play everything deadly straight, lending credibility to Shakespearean hysterics, with the possible exceptions of Moseley and Hilton who do seem to be trying, just not very hard.
The biggest surprise of all is co-writer Terrance Zdunich as the Grave Robber, a sort of troubadour character who appears intermittently and introduces the epilogue. He has a wonderfully dark singing voice and a commanding presence that makes you wish he was in the film more. As it is most of his appearances are kind of confusing as his relationships with the other characters are often not clear.
The real weakness however, is the music itself. While the novelty of a goth/industrial/techno musical is undeniable, the film lacks a real show stopping number that the audience can hum all the way home. Singing all the dialogue means a lot of the lyrics are expository and other than the final climax at the opera, the lyrics are not very strong. For example, Shilo has to ponder such doosies in song as, “why are my genetics such a bitch?” Not helping matters is the sometimes schizophrenic editing, with as many as 10 separate cuts during a single phrase. It is obvious that Bousman is trying to create visual interest by showing things from as many angles as he can, but the frequent shifts in focus actually take us out of the moment emotionally, lessening our connection to the characters.
Which is in a way the film’s biggest weakness, but also the reason it is destined for cult status: it’s just too much. While the universe Bousman creates for us is as fully realized a visual world as we are likely to see, the attention to detail starts to feel obsessive and fetishistic. And yet this is what will appeal to fans the most in the long run. The film is in many ways a triumph of style over substance and the style is impressive, from the oddly saturated cinematography to the goth/punk art direction. But the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole, nor is the film quite gory enough, though there is some good grue.
Only time will tell whether “REPO!” can live up to its cult potential, but the potential is most definitely there.