I exist on a staple diet of gory horror and heavy metal. Deliver them to me simultaneously and I’ll be dining out for decades on what has been served. This is precisely why Repo! The Genetic Opera is a firm favourite of mine; a film I will revisit time and time again for a dose of Grand Guignol merriment. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and featuring performances from Bill Moseley, Anthony Head and Sarah Brightman, the film’s soundtrack also boasts an array of beloved credits, including Slipknot’s Shawn Crahan and Korn’s Ray Luzier. Since its release in 2008, the film has developed a cult following of shadow-casters, cosplayers, and everything in between. I was lucky to catch it at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield as part of its UK tour.
Nathan (Anthony Head) is a repo man employed by Geneco: a company owned by Rotti Largo that offers financing for organ replacement in a surgery-addicted society. Should you miss a payment, Geneco can legally repossess your organs, and the repo man steps in. Nathan’s teenage daughter Shilo (Alexa PenaVega) is sheltered due to serious illness; she knows nothing of his work, nor of the world beyond her bedroom window. However, her world is turned upside down as Rotti decides that his own offspring are not worthy heirs to the Geneco fortune.
Visually, this film is enthralling. Set in the future, the city is aglow with technology; floating digital billboards, holographic communication devices, and artificial eyes available for purchase that visually record memories. Yet for all this technological enlightenment, this society dwells in darkness. The city is evidently in ruin; a dystopian gothic nightmare. This juxtaposition creates some really cool visual contrasts.
This decadent society is hooked on plastic surgery and there are frequent references to masks. These have sinister undertones of hidden identities in a world consumed by concerns over self-image and genetic perfection. Such dark themes have a strange resonance in the colourful, carnivalesque aesthetic of the final scenes in the opera, in which people rejoice over the cosmetic alterations and convenient organ transplants that Geneco have made possible; the same company that exerts an Orwellian grip of fear and control over them with a threat of legal organ repossession. It’s a mind-blowing concept. Combine this with music and my much-loved gore, and what you get is a completely unique viewing experience, climaxing in a histrionic and tense resolution on stage (an interesting reminder of the film’s theatrical heritage.)
The GraveRobber character, who serves as narrator in this film, is also an extremely effective and entertaining plot device! He addresses the audience with occasional updates, immediately enhancing our level of involvement with his macabre and darkly poetic speeches. He closes the film in this manner and the story ends with the same mischievous, darkly enigmatic tone that the opening scenes embodied, leading to a satisfying conclusion to which the entire cinema responded with loud applause at the screening I attended.
For all the praise I tend to heap on this film, there are a few aspects I rate less highly. For example, the first time I watched this film, I was actually a little thrown off by the musical style. A certain amount of plot detail is delivered to us ‘opera style’ - through songs. It’s easy to misinterpret these songs as a musical break from the narrative, a momentary development of an important detail which has been dignified with an interlude, as is the case with many mainstream musicals.
While we’re picking nits - the narrative is also a little clumsy. The film begins with some unsubtle exposition and then rushes through various plot points, making certain revelations feel relatively insignificant even though they’re really not, such as the fact that Rotti is terminally ill. At times it also feels as if certain characters play out as narrative devices rather than something we can become invested in. For example, there is little time spent addressing Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) and her conflict in the film; her apparent confinement is never portrayed as a situation of such severity that it necessitates such a gruesome gesture of triumph towards the end. Instead, her circumstances serve as a reminder of Geneco’s power, and the ultimate point of contention between the main protagonists who steal the show.
Ultimately, such comments around plot, pacing and character development are rendered pointless when you take a step back and appreciate Repo! for what is really is – an audacious, unique and outrageous display of bloody, rock & roll pageantry; a melodramatic gore-fest that’ll have you belting out its tunes long after the curtain has lowered.