Monday, May 11, 2015

This Ain’t Your Mama's Opera


I wanted to do something different for this entry, and there is not much that is more “different” than Repo: The Genetic Opera. The brainchild of Terrence Zdunich, it began as a 10-minute club musical, The Necro-Merchant's Debt, and then evolved into the full stage version of Repo! The Genetic Opera. After two highly successful Hollywood productions, Zdunich decided to make it into a film. Nine years later, his goal was achieved, and the film was released, though in a limited number of theaters. At those theaters, however, it consistently sold out. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the avant garde approach was an instant hit with the underground theater crowd, and the film soon assumed cult status with an audience participation aspect, though not quite at the same level as Rocky Horror. I admit, the first time I saw it all I knew was it had Anthony Stewart Head, and he sang. The film, itself, however, won me over with its unique premise, stylistic visuals, and the near whimsical approach to a rather horrifying concept. Think Blade Runner meets Sweeny Todd meets The Addams Family set to rock music. Note that it should not be confused with the 2010 film Repomen. The stories are vastly different, and this one was first. Now to give fair warning, for those who have not seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.

            One of the most unusual aspects of this film is the cast. The film boasts what has to be one of the strangest casts ever put together. Two of the lead characters, Anthony Stewart Head and Paul Sorvino are top notch, well known actors. Though she has done films, Sarah Brightman is best known for her role as Christina in Phantom of the Opera. Alexa Vega, all grown up, is most recognized as the sister from the Spy Kid series. Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre are both B movie horror actors, though Nivek is also a member of the band, Skinny Puppy. And then there’s Paris Hilton. No, seriously, Paris Hilton. She is actually really good in the role, as is every other member of the cast. Despite their diverse backgrounds and experience, somehow they blend together marvelously.

The movie itself brilliantly satirizes capitalism, the healthcare industry, and modern day obsession with beauty and plastic surgery, but it also comments on darker, more philosophical themes. Shiloh’s song Genetics Are Such a Bitch asks us to reflect on how big a role our inherited traits play in our fate, while the Graverobber questions “And what if you could have genetic perfection? Would you change who you are, if you could?” At the same time it is campy in the extreme, at times poking fun of itself. For instance, one scene with Sarah Brightman has her singing outside, yet there is cobwebbed chandelier hanging over her, and obvious reference to her Phantom role. Anthony Stewart Head, in his Repoman guise gleefully dances around, scalpel in hand, blood flying. Though often quite violent, the scenes are over the top bloody, reminiscent of Sweeny Todd or Kill Bill. In addition, it is a remarkably stylistic film. The overall feel is that of a graphic novel, but there then are actual animated sections to present an expository backstory. The animated sequences were also designed by Zdunich, who counts comic book art as one of  his many talents.

            The story, relayed almost entirely through song, is set in a futuristic, distopic world where a mysterious virus has caused wide spread organ failure. The Geneco Corporation, a genetics company owned by the Largo family, rises to power by meeting the ever growing demand for organ transplants and offering them on credit plans that work something like car loans. The downside is that if the client defaults on their payment, Geneco has the legal right to repossess the organ, despite the fact that it generally ends with the client’s death. It is legally sanctioned murder that is carried out by repomen. One side effect of this new industry is an addiction to surgery and an anesthetic drug known as Zydrate. Our guide through this nightmare world is the Graverobber, as drug dealer played by the stories creator, Terrence Zdunich. The movie is presented largely from the point of view of Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head) and his 17 year old terminally ill daughter, Shiloh (Alexa Vega). Shiloh’s mother, Marni, died of a blood disease that Shiloh has now inherited. Due to her illness, her overprotective father keeps her indoors, which creates resentment in Shiloh both for her deceased mother for giving her the disease and her father for keeping such a tight rein. As Shiloh struggles with her need to explore the world and her longing for a cure, her father works to keep his life as a repoman a secret. When Marni died as a result of a medicine Nathan developed in the hope of curing her, Nathan was arrested for her murder. Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) bailed him out, but then blackmailed him into working as a repoman. Nathan is apparently so guilt ridden that his personality has now split, and the Repoman is almost a separate personality. Things become more complicated with the Repoman is ordered to target Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), a friend of Marni’s and Shiloh’s godmother. In the meantime, Rotti discovers he is dying from cancer, and even his own company cannot save him. This sets off a rivalry between his 3 children Luigi (Bill Mosely), Pavi (Nivek Ogre), and Amber (Paris Hilton). All three indulge in varying forms of narcissism and addiction, and are highly unstable. Luigi is homicidal, carrying a knife and striking out at the slightest provocation; Pavi is a womanizer who murders the women he dates for their faces, which then he then wears over his own scarred one; and Amber is addicted to surgery and Zydrate, which she obtains from the Graverobber by exchanging sexual favors. This leads Largo to target Shiloh as his heir. Various secrets and subplots connect all of the characters into one larger narrative.

By the end, of course, all of the secrets are out, except one. In one of Rotti’s solos we learn that he is the one responsible for Marni’s death; acting out of jealously, he replaced Nathan’s cure with poison. However, only the audience ever knows this; it is not revealed to any of the other characters. One of the surprise twists that is revealed is that Shiloh did not inherit her mother’s disease. Her father has been making her sick because he was afraid she would leave, and he didn’t want to be alone. In the final scene, Rotti reveals all of Nathan’s secrets to Shiloh and invites her to kill her father, offering Geneco as a reward. Shiloh refuses, stating she is not a murderer. Nathan encourages her to choose a life that is worthy of being remembered. The story ends with Rotti shooting Nathan and then succumbing to the cancer. Nathan dies in Shiloh’s arms as she tearfully forgives him. There is a bit of metanarrative as the climax actually takes place at an opera in front of an audience.  Though the ending offers closure, those who like karmic resolution will not enjoy the ending of this film, as no one gets what they deserve. Though Nathan dies, Shiloh forgives him. Rotti dies a hero as no one ever learns he killed Marni. His children then ban together to run Geneco, with Amber taking the lead with the full support of her brothers. Even the drug dealing Grave robber continues to deal his drugs unmolested. Like the rest of the film, the end is a mixed bag. But it’s still one I enjoy reaching into from time to time.




--Cheryl Jensen

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