A helpful shortcut for negotiating the heaps of texts in this modern world: all attempts to give something familiar or antique a self-consciously edgy, gritty makeover can be, de facto, written off as terrible. Reassuring American songbook standards ("Over the Rainbow," "What a Wonderful World," etc.) performed in breakneck pop-punk style? Terrible. Movies set in centuries past where actual rules of comport are ignored and everyone acts like frisky undergraduates with ruffled collars? Terrible. Steampunk? Terrible, terrible, terrible.
Enter "Repo! The Genetic Opera"--"Not your parents' opera!"--a cloacal sludge of Guignol, compared to which watching "The Apple" is a cultural experience on par with hearing "Rigoletto" sung at the old La Fenice. A designed cult object hopefully anticipating a congregation of worshippers, "Repo!" arrives in (limited) release to make a play for the hearts of high-school musical theater vets and those kids who wear 18-hole Doc Martens and hang out by the food court Arthur Treacher's in full mortician's wax makeup.
Set in some future dystopia, the film stars Paul Sorvino as patriarch Rotti Largo, a genetic engineering/plastic surgery magnate, who sees his death approaching and looks to find an heir outside his irresponsibly sociopathic brood (which includes Bill Moseley, Skinny Puppy's Nivek Ogre, and Paris Hilton). His attention falls on cloistered teen Shilo (Alexa Vega), child of a former flame, whose father (Anthony Stewart Head) secretly spends nights in the employ of Largo's organ repossession business. There's some other stuff involving Andrew Lloyd Webber's ex-wife that doesn't bear recounting--a lot of plot, really, forever tripping over itself only to be hastily untangled by backstory footnotes done in Manga panels and "grainy" filtered home movies.
Sorvino, it will surprise many to learn, has a handsome tenor--the rest of the cast range from gamely tuneless (Hilton) to doing that insidious Sprechgesang monotone familiar from any number of goth-rock acts (courtesy of grave-robber Terrance Zdunich, the stage play's co-author). The tunesmithing is functional, the orchestral preset mostly variations on Front 242 stomp.
Set dressers amass significant clutter on a shoestring--the "rich, dark production design" promised by the press kit is more dark than rich, as the sconces, candelabras, and bordello wallpaper murk together from the myopic smeariness of the HD cinematography. It should be mentioned that hack director Darren Lynn Bousman's primary previous accomplishment, if it can be called that, was directing several dozen "Saw" installments. He sets the movie squawking away in an approximation of Baz Luhrmann effulgence, periodically cutting to slopping, slithering intestines to remind us we're having a ghoulishly good time.
"Repo!"'s ineptitude and air of derivative deja vu is so obvious, the only hope is to rope in Hot Topic teens who don't know any better--so Shilo gets an anthemic, teen angst-pandering Runaways knockoff showpiece to declare herself "Daddy's little fucking monster" and assert that she's "seventeen and it's better than forty." Meanwhile the publicity street-team troll online, looking to statutorily rape young'uns; am I honestly expected to believe that someone other than a viral marketer signed onto imdb to write that "'Repo!' far surpasses the 'Saw' films in originality, creativity, and artistic integrity"? Begone!
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]