Did you know that over a dozen films come out every year? That means that even if you saw a movie a month, you wouldn’t see them all. And it only gets worse when you consider that movies have been around for exactly fifty years, which means there’s another 600 movies to catch up on! Now that’s a lotta movies, film buffs!
With that many motion pictures, some are bound to fall through the cracks and fail to achieve the kinds of success their creators dreamed of. Today I’d like to revisit one of those movies. So come with me on a journey through time to a land I call 2008.
It worked! We’re back in the late aughts! And there I am, sitting in a theatre that hosts regular showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But on this particular occasion I’m there to see a different, new film. The producers hope, the theatre’s proprietors tell us, that it will become a new cult classic, sitting alongside Rocky Horror as a movie for which audiences will develop callbacks, prop humour, and memetic references. The movie we’re here to see? Repo! The Genetic Opera. (It’s the late aughts, mid-title exclamation marks are in vogue.)
Back in the present, the fact that you’ve probably never heard of Repo! is a tipoff to the fact that these hopes were, for the most part, never fulfilled. The film fell short at the box office, was critically panned, and soon found itself routinely confused with the big-budget, same concept Jude Law and Forest Whittaker film Repo Men released only two years later.
Why didn’t it succeed? For one thing, it’s clearly a passion project that didn’t entirely translate to a single film. You can tell the creators have reams of contextualizing material on the universe that couldn’t make it into the film—in fact, the film started off as a play called The Necromerchant’s Debt, then became a short film before ending up as Repo! Terrance Zdunich, one of the creators, even appears as the Graverobber in the final version.
Second, the songs are… well, they’re unconventional. Lines often seem to eschew obvious rhymes, melodies are atonal, and at times the subject matter doesn’t even make sense. And the singers? They actually span a pretty wide range, from definite pipes (Anthony Stewart Head) to “nominated for a Razzie Award” (Paris Hilton).
Finally, it’s kind of a weird premise. The whole ‘organs on loan and defaulters get their guts repossessed’ thing is a great concept for a bleak dystopian story, but the musical element seems to clash with it in this way that, in retrospect, definitely destined the film to be enjoyed by a narrow segment of audiences who were into both the camp and gore of the production.
But you know what? You should still watch it.
Where do I start? Anthony Stewart Head plays a dad who’s secretly an evil Repo Man and sings a song in a creepy voice while he’s ripping the organs out of a still-living victim.
Opposite him, Paul Sorvino of Goodfellas and Law & Order is the dying CEO of the evil organ company, who has to decide which of his incompetent children to bestow the company upon. The kids are played by the aforementioned Paris Hilton, horror veteran Bill Moseley, and Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre. They’re all incredibly disturbed in different ways: Hilton’s character is fame-obsessed and addicted to surgery, Moseley’s has a stabbing problem, and Ogre’s has a bad habit of wearing other people’s faces.
The real life Joan Jett shows up during one song.
The set design and costumes are genuinely pretty neat, the former depicting a world somewhere in between steampunk, cyberpunk, and a giant circus, and the latter being a blend of fetishwear, medical gear, and tailored suits.
There’s a scene where Paris Hilton’s face falls off.
Did I mention that Anthony Stewart Head plays an evil, yet overprotective murderdad who ultimately wants what’s best for his daughter?
The obsession with surgery almost for its own sake, as a kind of body modification or transcendent practice, was frankly ahead of its time. Is Paris Hilton’s character addicted to painkillers, changing her body, or just getting cut up? Yes!
And you know what? It was a passion project that failed to take off and it oozes all of the earnest charm that only those kinds of films can. It does have a small cult following, who dutifully—still!—put on cosplay gatherings and shadowcasts around the country.
If you can’t track one of those showings down, Repo! The Genetic Opera is available now on Shudder. It’s a wild ride, and it isn’t perfect. But where else are you going to see Paris Hilton sing a sexually-charged duet about future drugs with a fur-decked goth in a dingy alley surrounded by men in bondage gear and sunglasses? Nowhere, that’s where.