A review requested by Kelleson Dale, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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Here's the one thing that is unambiguously true about Repo! The Genetic Opera: it sure is a hell of a lot of movie. I can imagine almost any possible reaction to the film: I can imagine someone feeling incredible passion for the movie and turning into a raving cultist on the spot; I can imagine someone being repulsed within seconds and treating the whole thing like the most appalling trash. But I cannot imagine someone being bored, or indifferent.

The film was born as a stage musical developed by Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich over a period of years; the first version was staged in 2002, the last in 2005. And whatever else one might say about the movie, I offer the unmitigated praise that it never once feels in any way stagebound: indeed, it's so free-floating and energetic as a cinematic object that I truthfully can't quite figure out what a stage version of this material might possibly look like. Now, one of its iterations along the way was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, a recent film school graduate at the time. And Bousman was about to become kind of a biggish deal, thanks to his screenplay The Desperate, which was being dismissed as "too close to Saw". This went from being a weakness to a strength in short order, when Bousman rewrote it to become the 2005 release Saw II, which he also directed. Just like that, Bousman became the temporary keeper of the enormously profitable Saw franchise, further directing Saw III in 2006 and Saw IV in 2007 (neither of which he wrote). Somewhere in all that, he and Smith and Zdunich agreed to develop a Repo! movie, starting with a 10-minute proof-of-concept short that Bousman directed in 2006. And that plus Bousman's good standing with Lionsgate, was enough to get the project off the ground late in 2007, for an ultimate 2008 release that is notable primarily for how extraordinarily small and noncommittal it was.

Not so small that the film wasn't able to develop a fairly ravenous cult, though, and it's not even slightly surprising that this was the case, nor hard to see what the cult was on about. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a true original, a film that feels more or less unprecedented. I suppose it's possible to roughly triangulate it by comparing other things - pretty much everybody's first thought would probably be The Rocky Horror Picture show, mostly because that musical's glam rock and this musical's goth have DNA in common, and both owe a strong debt to horror cinema, but the gulf between the two films is still pretty extreme. It needs to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show "plus something", and if I were to offer as a formula "Rocky Horror plus Southland Tales plus the music video for 'This Corrosion' by Sisters of Mercy, filmed inside a Hot Topic", well, I would certainly feel like I just nailed it, but would I have succeeded in telling you anything about it?

Alright, so let me tell you about it. As we are told in a prologue taking the form of minimally-animated comic book frames, the middle of the 21st Century was struck by an epidemic of organ failures, and humanity was saved by GeneCo, a manufacturer of artificial organs owned by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). In hardly any time, these organs shifted from being a primarily medical concern to an aesthetic object, as people began manipulating their bodies for fun, though this ends up having very little to do with the rest of the plot and arguably weakens the film's message, so I'm not sure why the film stresses it. Anyway, the GeneCo organs are big business, but financing them is even bigger business still, and as customers begin defaulting on their loans, GeneCo sends out surgical repo men to get the organs back, and such a pity if it means death for the poor sap who couldn't make their payments.

That is, once again, all backstory, presented solely in a frantic slideshow, and then repeated in the first musical number, "Genetic Repo Man", which Bousman filmed on the sly after the studio declined to fund it. Which is utterly mad; Repo! is already a daunting movie to watch, moving at ramming speed through all of its very dense 98 minutes, and "Genetic Repo Man" - introducing us to the world, the scenario, and the sort-of narrator within the diegesis, the Graverobber (played by Zdunich himself), who fills the role in this show that Che fills in Evita - is an indispensable part of how the film trains us how to watch it. Even with the opening number, I could barely keep up.

This is both the great pleasure of Repo! and to a large degree the great frustration. Again, this is a lot of movie: it's edited quickly, scenes start and stop almost at random, it moves from garishly cheap CGI to surprisingly convincing sets, given their obvious cheapness, depicting a whole world in the space of just a couple of blocks of some rundown megalopolis in the year 2056, and the whole thing is sung-through. That's not itself unusual - the term "rock opera" is much older than this show, after all - but Smith & Zdunich's songs are certainly not designed for maximally easy lyrical uptake. For one thing, there are a whole lot of imperfect rhymes, the sort that jam the brakes on the flow of words rather than easing comprehension. For another, these are extremely "thick" songs, if that's the word; the score takes that word "opera" very seriously, and what we have here is a collection of 51 different cues (some of them only several seconds long) that have each been treated with the heaving grandeur of a Jim Steinman production. That is, there's more in the way of extravagance and bombast that works on you guts-first, rather than coming in through the brain. The vocals have, to be sure, been given prominence in the mix, but even the vocals have a kind of thick pomposity about them. Just in the second song, for example, we're trying to pick up important plot details being imperiously spoke-sung by Sorvino as a female voice keens "Things you see in a graveyard" (the song's title) furiously in the background, and even if the chorus and verses are kept pointedly separate, it's easy to hear them bleeding into each other.

But again, this is all part of the film teaching us how to watch it. Truth be told, once the actual plot kicks in, I was pretty consistently able to hear what was going on, though it's definitely a film that requires focused attention (then again, the sheer variety of visual and auditory stimulation means that it film that holds one's attention pretty definitively). The plot, now that we've finally arrived here, is that one particular repo man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head) has a 17-year-old daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega), who he keeps locked away in their dungeon-like apartment, treating her for a blood disease inherited from her late mother, which will surely result in her death if she steps outdoors. Shilo, of course, leaves at every possible moment. Meanwhile, Rotti is dying of a disease even his scientists can't cure, and he's forced to confront the ugly necessity of leaving GeneCo to one of his awful children: psychopath Luigi (Bill Moseley) surgery and painkiller-addicted Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton), and the freakish Pavi (Nivek Ogre, vocalist from Canadian electronic industrial band Skinny Puppy), who wears women's faces stretched grotesquely over his own, all Leatherface-like. Over the course of the next few days (I think), we find out that Nathan and Rotti have a shared history, and it involves Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman, ex-wife of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and creator of the role of Christine in the blockbuster musical The Phantom of the Opera, another one of the many things floating around in Repo!'s gene pool), the opera-singing celebrity spokesperson for GeneCo, and when all is said and done, it turns out that Shilo has a little bit of Destiny about her.

Somehow, despite how many moving parts this has - I haven't touched on all of them - and how consistently the film keeps trying to sonically batter us into submission, this is all pretty easy to follow. It helps that the most important thing is that we understand Shilo's frustrations as a put-upon teenager and Nathan's terror as an overprotective dad, and those are both pretty straightforward narrative stereotypes. Anyway, I can't say that the plot doesn't really matter, because the film obviously believes in it intensely. For the film believes in everything intensely. This includes not just its music and its characters, but its "decaying castles of the future" production design by David Hackl (who designed all three of Bousman's Saw movies and did much to set that series' look; this film is a much better line on his CV), and its mad scientist costumes, particular for Nathan in his repo man guise. It includes the helter-skelter editing by Harvey Rosenstock, which I think would require several viewings to completely parse: much of the film, particularly in the first third or so, has been assembled almost associatively, with the song doing one thing as the visuals cut between other things. And it includes the shockingly off-putting cinematography by Joseph White, which embraces the film's low-budget and use of 2008-era digital cameras. I'm not even a little bit sure how to explain the way that the film looks; "like a goth-metal music video" is the best I can do, and since Repo! basically is a goth-metal music video, that's a perfectly fine path for it to choose. There's a blown-out quality to it, a sense that everything is super-white and super-fuzzy, and also that everything looks plasticine. "Shocking" I said, and it is that: the thing that took me the longest to learn in the film was how in the hell to cope with the aggressively artificial sheen to the visuals.

The whole thing is constant bombardment on the eyes and ears, married to a plot that's half gooey sentimentality and half pure gore pornography of the sort that constantly reminds us that yep, this guy made Saw movies. "Opera" isn't a half-bad way to describe the complete lack of restraint with which the film wants to do everything all at once for its entire running time. I'm at a loss to say whether any of this is good or bad, and whether "good and bad" are meaningful words in the first place; we can look at Hilton's Worst Supporting Actress Razzie win for this film (the same year she won Worst Actress for The Hottie & the Nottie) and sort of take the point they're getting at (then again, it's the Razzies), but on the other hand, what possible benefit could the film be with a "better" performance of that character? Head is objectively good, something true of no other aspect of the film: he moves between the film's sentiment and flamboyant violence well, and along with Brightman he has one of the only truly great singing voices to be heard, and he also manages to push Nathan's humanity through the murk of violence and excess, which helps to make the film's final scenes work as more than just grand guignol perversity. But being objectively good is of only slightly more importance than Hilton being objectively bad is.  Mostly, this is just a film about big, gigantic spectacles of primitive feeling being put over by enormous music. I'm not sure if I liked it, exactly; and yet I have no doubt that I'll be returning to it, several times probably, just to gawk at its sheer energy and weirdness. There's only one other film that had such an immediate galvanising effect on me despite my suspicion that it was actually quite terrible, the aforementioned Southland Tales - I have no idea what the hell was up with future shock indie film epics in the late 2000s, but I deeply regret that it seems to have gone away.