Movie cults are born, not made. A youthful audience discovered Donnie Darko on its own, even as another demographic transformed The Sound of Music into sing-along karaoke — to name two of the 21st century's most notorious cult attractions. Still, no less than rocket science, show business relies on tested formulae — hence Repo! The Genetic Opera.
A week late for Halloween and 31 years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show first attracted press attention to the costumed, cross-dressing hordes descending each weekend on New York's Waverly cinema, Repo! arrives, wearing the cloak of midnight madness — not to mention black lipstick, cut-rate rococo threads and all the accoutrements of life in a blasted necropolis.
Based on a campy sci-fi/horror rock opera first staged in Toronto in 2002, Repo! is also an offshoot of the slash-mash-gash Saw franchise that's made gazillions for Lionsgate; it's directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, youthful helmer of Saws II, III and IV. No diabolical torture machines here, unless you read Repo! as a cautionary essay on the perils of the credit economy. Bousman's moderately gory cabinet of curiosities opens with a comic-book explication of its particular world. A half-century from now, humanity has been decimated by a plague and gone surgery-mad, with desperate survivors buying replacement internal organs from the GeneCo on credit. Then as now, people are liable to default — with scalpel-wielding repo men chasing down deadbeats to reclaim the company's transplants.
Two interlocking family dramas are played out amid the murky clutter of exploitable bodies. A brooding Sweeney Todd type (Anthony Stewart Head) does GeneCo's bloody business in order to provide medicine for his sickly goth-girl daughter (Alexa Vega). Meanwhile, the unscrupulous plutocratic head of GeneCo (Paul Sorvino) attempts to rule his spiritually or physically degenerate offspring — among them Paris Hilton, who, in her big number, appears as a degenerate Marie Antoinette before her face dissolves.
Repo! is a movie of wildly enthusiastic Grand Guignol grossouts. One GeneCo minion makes his entrance bellowing, "Well, who ordered pizza — I could go for a SLICE!!!!" It's also entirely sung through, mainly in a persistent belting whine. (The crooning corpses got a big laugh at the screening I attended.) Little Alexa Vega has a lively number, bounding from her sickbed to proclaim herself punkishly "Seventeen," accompanied by a teddy-bear chorus. And pop diva Sarah Brightman is on hand to accompany her number with holographic phantoms projected from her spooked-up peepers.
Jeepers creepers: The whole gaudy miasma reaches its climax with the entire cast converging on the local opera house, West Side Story-style. ("Tonight, tonight, we'll be at the opera tonight — it's gonna be a bloodbath — toni-i-i-i-ght!") This is Brightman's big scene, and Phantom of the Opera notwithstanding, Andrew Lloyd Webber's erstwhile muse has never seemed more in her element. Singing an Italian aria in fake snow, she blinds herself at the end to wind up impaled on the set before Vega, and, gathering her forces in a paroxysm of petulance, clobbers the mysterious masked man who might be her dad. "Someone tell me what's going on — tell me!" she pleads. ("Tell her! Tell her!" the crowd agrees.)
The grim finality of the ensuing pietà suggests the last act of Hamlet, or, rather, Hamlet 2 — so embarrassing that for the first time, I wanted to avert my eyes from the screen, although that might have been because Repo! appears to have been shot with a cell phone.