Then & Now: Repo! The Genetic Opera

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Geoff Harris

Repo! The Genetic Opera was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, based off the stage musical written and composed by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich. It tells the tale of a world ravaged by a mysterious plague. The biotech company, GeneCo, offers organ replacement at a rather steep price; miss a payment and The Repo Man comes to get the organ back…by whatever means necessary.  This movie crosses multiple genres. It’s a musical, science fiction, horror, comedy with a very close pacing to classic operatic structure. Zdunich himself stars as Grave Robber, playing the part of the oracle framing the narrative. The plot is divided into interwoven threads. One deals with Nathan and his daughter Shilo. He has raised her since birth alone, her mother having had died. Nathan is secretly The Repo Man. A secret which tears at his mind and soul. Rottissimo “Rotti” Largo, head and chairman of GeneCo, is dying. None of his three children are worth assuming the mantle he will leave behind. One’s a thug and a bully, one is pretty damn twisted, and his only daughter has a surgery addiction and to the drug Zydrate.

Then

This is one of those movies I learned about strictly from word of mouth. It had a very limited theatrical release so it slipped past my radar. People at conventions would sometimes bring it up in conversation or be singing songs from the soundtrack. Intrigued, I tracked down a copy and gave it a view. Where as Rocky horror has a more tongue in cheek cabaret vibe, Repo! is dark and foreboding. The songs are more modern and have varying lyrical structures but maintain a semblance to operatic themes. In contrast, Repo’s themes are more about obsession and angst. Their world is a swirling cauldron of familial conflict and primordial archetypes. The Father. The Daughter. The Dying King. It is not a “happy” movie. Nor is it truly sad either. I was drawn in almost immediately and found myself really enjoying the post-modernist noir feel.

Now

I’ve seen it a handful of times since and it still holds up. I will admit the pacing is a bit schizophrenic and does take some getting used to. The songs are a mix of memorable sing-a-longs and narrative boosters. Yes, I can hear your groans. There are those who PREFERRED this to Rocky Horror. To me, they are like brothers. One older and a bit outdated. The other more attune to modern sensibilities but troubled and needing guidance. It’s not a bad movie; It just moves strangely. The scenes jump in odd ways and the flow is jagged.  Once you’ve watched it a few times it makes more sense. Often when something is translated from stage to screen certain scenes get warped or reworked to fit a different framing.

This film is very popular in the goth community. The music has a touch of the industrial sub-genre and a healthy dose of dark cabaret, which strengthens its connection to RHPS. Both are movies about inner turmoil and dark urges. Repo is more visceral, especially the “recollection” scenes. All are handled with a sense of hyper-reality reminiscent of slasher films of the 80’s and 90’s. Deeper down, Repo is a story of love overcoming adversity. Shilo has a tracking character arc in which she goes from restless teen to ultimately embracing the world as a young woman. Nathan’s track is a spiral into madness and finally redemption.  His duties as The Midnight Surgeon clashing with his desire to give his daughter a normal life, albeit based on a lie, generate sympathy. (He connived Shilo that she was born with a rare condition making her highly susceptible to disease so she can’t leave the house without regular treatments of “medicine” only he can provide. There’s a serious Munchausen syndrome here.) Rotti was in love with Marny, who married Nathan instead. Rotti holds Nathan responsible for her death and uses guilt as a weapon to manipulate The Repo Man into continuing his grisly duties. A broken heart can become a wicked and poisoned vassal of hate. Rotti sees Shilo as his surrogate child and seeks to groom her to assume control of GeneCo upon his passing. Through it all Grave Robber gives a commentary about this great epic unfolding before us.

Not one of my “Go To” movies but I will sit and watch if it’s playing somewhere. I have also seen shadowcast versions in which people act out the movie as it plays behind them. An old standard for RHPS adapted to a different film. I admire the effort. Both started life as stage productions. In a way it’s almost poetic that both would be presented as both live and projected entertainment. The shadowcast of Repo gives a glimpse of what the stage show may have been like. I am sad that I never got to see it. Maybe I’m getting old or just developing different tastes. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a relic of a world of which I shall never be a part of.

I walk in many worlds. I have a multitude of interests but I rarely hold absolute intelligence to any given one. I can see the beauty of this film. I can appreciate its shadows and its flaws. I sing along to some of the songs I like most. I just always feel left out somehow. Like I’m a pretender who’s cool enough to be invited to the party but everyone knows I don’t really belong there. Maybe it’s a lack of life experience? Maybe it’s something inside me? Maybe it’s just bullshit and I’m projecting way to much into my own head. To quote someone, I will always keep them guessing…

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