Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you about what you could be watching instead of falling down the trap of another social media hole of drama and boredom on the internet. I mean, I get it. There’s always a lot of shit going on in other people’s lives and sometimes that kind of high drama of “someone hurt my feelings and thus I’m going to complain about it all over my Facebook page but I won’t tell you who it is that wounded me and secretly hope that this person is going to look at this and feel bad about it” does have a rather awkward and compelling draw. But that, my dear reader, is why we have movies and if dramatics is what you are craving, I have just the dramatic, intriguing and weird film for you!
One of my favorite aspects of horror stories and what I admire the most about the genre is its adaptability. Its storytellers are often fairly fearless in trying new things by seeing what sticks to the wall and what will capture imaginations. At least, they try to be when the studios let them out to play. Every few years, those in charge of sending entertainment down the tubes into movie theatres tend to get scared that their precious dollars are wandering off unsupervised. For any genre, this is particularly annoying because it means that they won’t be producing anything of substance any time soon. What they will do instead is pump out movie after movie with the exact same storyline as the last film that made even a couple of bucks. In horror, these anxiety attacks from up top usually result in years of watching these studios rehash the same boring plots in the same incredibly stupid and annoying jump scare riddled sequels and remakes that no one asked for. The sad part is that horror is at its most interesting when it casts off the safety nets of the cash grabs and actually tries something new. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for people who want a new yacht, because not everything that comes out to play is going to be showered in dollars and sometimes it takes a while to find an audience. This is especially true when the movie takes a risk in calling back to an art form that has largely been associated with being the opposite of relevant or cool for a long time.
Unless you’re immersed in a particular group of people, the word opera likely brings up some rather specific images for you and I’m willing to bet that it likely includes a lot of old people in powdered wigs. Either that or maybe it’s brought up a kind of personality type in your mind that you don’t necessarily have the utmost fondness for. After all, in a lot of popular media, being a fan of opera or even just classical music is shorthand for “I’m a judgemental snobby asshole”, and it’s used by a large number of hack writers. At its most benign, you have characters like Brian from Family Guy, who isn’t necessarily a good character but is often seen as the cultured foil to Peter’s stupidity. Even that doesn’t save him from being the stereotypical asshole that is too good for everyone else, however. At its worst, this trope finds a comfortable home in puritanical, stuffy straw-men in any “rock is bad” stories. When it’s played for laughs, you get things like the gents in 2Cellos playing “Thunderstruck” for a horrified audience of (shocker) people in period costumes and powdered wigs. When it’s meant to be a call to arms, you get characters like Reverend Shaw Moore, the minister who rallied against modern music and dancing in Footloose. Whatever flavor you want to add to it, the base is the same in these portrayals: classical music, and especially opera, is only for oppressive, snobby, boring and very out of touch people. Perhaps this would be why Lionsgate did its level best to completely disown the 2008 film Repo! The Genetic Opera.
Now to be completely clear here, this is still a horror movie and it’s not actually an opera at all but I’ll get to that shortly. First, a little backstory: According to the hallowed halls of the intertubes, this film got its start when writer Darren Smith, inspired by one of his friends losing his home to foreclosure, thought about the nature of repossession and got the disturbing idea about what it would be like to have people financing their vital organs. The idea grew and soon with co-writer Terrance Zdunich (who has played the Graverobber in every version of this story to date), created the first version of the tale, then called The Necromerchant’s Debt. This was a musical that was first performed in a small theatre in LA in 2002 under Darren Lynn Bousman’s direction. That name might be familiar if you’ve seen any of the Saw sequels, for which he was known at the time. Without Bousman’s passion for bringing the project to screen, it would never have been shot. According to rumor that I remember being passed around at the time of this film’s release, Bousman even refused directing duties to one of the Saw films if the studio wouldn’t green light Repo! for him to do next. I can find no mention of that these days, so it might just be a rumor but I do very much remember one of thing about this film’s release and that was that the studio wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. It was painfully obvious considering that Bousman and Zdunich were more or less forced to do all their own promotion for the film. Think about that for a second. When’s the last time that you saw any filmmaker forced to power their own hype machine? We’re not talking about someone sitting down with big name directors or producers to talk about it on one of those Hollywood lifestyle shows either. We’re talking, going out and making their own videos and putting them out on YouTube and bringing their own grassroots campaigns to the internet to get people talking about this movie. Later on, the pair even went so far as to go on tour with it to host screenings. And they were forced to do this because other than the trailer, there was a whole lot of not much that Lionsgate or Twisted Pictures did to promote this film at all.
It begs the question of why a studio would be so committed to seeing this project disappear. I mean, they want to make money right? And the idea for the story was pretty horrific so that counts as new but it’s compelling at least. It’s not like Zdunich and Bousman didn’t have evidence to back that up while they were selling out theatres running the live show. It was also an interesting enough premise that there was a sci-fi thriller book released only a year later and a movie that followed, both of which had a similar plot device at its core. So if the organ repossession plot was enough to get the attention of audiences more than once in different artistic formats, surely it couldn’t be that people didn’t want to see it. So could it be the music that they were so afraid of? I get that it’s a bit of a risk that studios run when they jump into the musical ring, but this is the same ring that comes with a soundtrack that also plays out as its own advertising. Think of it, who doesn’t know at least one song from Grease? People who have never seen Cats still know the song “Memories”, or have at least heard the tune. People who don’t even know that The Phantom of the Opera was originally a book know the sound of the organ from the theme of the Lloyd Webber production. Considering that the Schumacher adaptation of that film came out only about three years before Repo! and was considered a hit with audiences, I’m going to humbly suggest that their issue was something a little more petty and a lot more stupid.
Like The Phantom, Repo! has the word opera in the title and the similarities don’t end there. (Yes, Sarah Brightman has played in both as well but that’s not the point.) I think one of the reasons that this film really was something no one in charge wanted to touch was that it took that part of its name to heart and built its core around those dramatic tropes used in those stories. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert in this area at all. I know my horror tropes but when it comes to the art of opera, I am a cultural baby. Thus, I am going to let someone far more versed in it help us out and give us a better picture of what opera actually is and what it entails.
Our guide for the world of opera is none other than the very lovely and incredibly talented mezzo-soprano, Adrienne, from the YouTube channel Ligeia Resurrected. One of the first things I asked her about was something that I figure a lot of people are in the dark about: what’s the difference between a musical and an opera? According to Adrienne, operas are almost exclusively sung from beginning to end, even most of the dialogue, which is referred to recitative. And you don’t have to look at many musicals to know that most of the well known ones are in English. That includes literally every example I’ve given so far and those are just a few of the many musicals you can find listed on any site like IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. If you’re wondering why that’s a big deal, Adrienne gives a thoroughly helpful explanation on how operas are sung in one of her videos here, but the short answer she provided me was this:
“Operas are commonly in Italian, French, and German, but can sometimes be in Polish or even Russian, but VERY rarely in English. One of the main reasons being that English is not an ideal language to sing in as far as the capacity, endurance, and range is concerned in the operatic voice.
In musicals, it’s not required that the singers are necessarily classically trained, but have had some form of vocal training. In opera, it’s essential to train the voice on the Italian basics or IT CANNOT FUNCTION in an actual opera.”
Now I will say that Repo! has a particular pedigree of musicians working on it, including Daniel Ash and David J. of Bauhaus fame, Rob ‘Blasko’ Nicholson who’s worked with Iron Maiden, Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osborne to name a few, Shawn Crahan of Slipknot, Melora Creager of Rasputina, and Ogre of Skinny Puppy who played the role of Pavi Largo. All of these people are accomplished and professional musicians but at no point did any of them learn to sing in Italian for this film. In fact, even Sarah Brightman, who did attend Julliard and can indeed sing in the different languages Adrienne listed, is not really considered an opera singer but rather a classical crossover soprano, as she has never sung in an opera as far as I can find. And even if we were going to go with her background training to make any argument otherwise, Brightman’s presence in this film still doesn’t make this an opera any more than Ogre’s makes it a formidable piece of art in the industrial scene.
So we are left with a musical with some heavily talented musicians behind it with a promising premise that we definitely know is not actually an opera. So what gives? Why the reluctance over a little word that we’ve now established isn’t really a threat? After all, The Phantom of the Opera has the same word in the title and that didn’t stop studios from busting out the marketing for that film when it came out. Then again, Phantom has a history of making money and a studio can always draw on people’s memories of the stage show to guarantee an audience. With a name like Andrew Lloyd Webber attached to the project, you also get a little more traction for your money. Meanwhile, names like Daniel Ash, Melora Creager and Ogre will mean a lot to certain people but aren’t going to necessarily find purchase in a mainstream audience. And that wasn’t the only thing that whizzed right over the heads of mainstream audiences, especially the critics.
Now that we’ve established all this background, you’re probably wondering what the film is even about. Well, settle in because this is about to get complicated! If you watch the trailer, you’ll discover that at the heart of the story is a sick young girl named Shiloh, played by Alexa Vega, who is sheltered from the world by her father, Nathan. In turn, Nathan, played by Anthony Stuart Head of Buffy fame, has led her to believe that he is a surgeon but he is actually employed by the massive medical corporation, GeneCo. He is a legal assassin called a Repo Man who tracks down those who have defaulted on their payment plans and takes back the organs, minus any kind of anesthetic or surgical setting whatsoever. This would be enough for the setting of most horror movies but this film was meant to pay homage to the art form in its name, so we have more layers to dig through yet. You see, Nathan was married to Marnie, whom he loved with all his heart, but she grew ill when she was pregnant with Shiloh. Being a doctor, he did his best to treat her through her illness but unbeknownst to him, his cure that he’d developed was sabotaged with poison by Marnie’s jealous ex-lover. The plot thickens when we see that said ex is not only Nathan’s boss but also the founder of GeneCo, Rotti Largo, played by Paul Sorvino. Unable to save Marnie and tormented by the guilt of believing that he killed her, Nathan is manipulated by Rotti and in exchange for keeping him out of prison, he puts his surgical skills to use as a Repo Man.
Meanwhile(!), Rotti has troubles of his own as he laments that his health has begun to fail him. He is confronted with his own mortality in the face of the fact that the company has basically given him power over life within the whole world, which is suffering a plague that is causing organ failures all over the globe. He is enraged that he cannot conquer death himself despite his power but as an added insult, his legacy is going to fall into the hands of one of his three adult children, for whom he has no love or affection as they sponge off him and behave like spoiled brats. He sets his sights on leaving everything to Shiloh, believing that if Marnie had become his wife instead, she would have been his daughter.
Meanwhile(!!), GeneCo is going ahead with giving its annual celebration wherein the company opens its doors to the public in a carnival-esque atmosphere to let them all see into the “kingdom” that Largo has built. This year, their resident darling spokesperson and singer, Blind Mag, a soprano with mechanical eyes that are able to project holograms as well as give her sight, is to give her final performance for the company. Behind the scenes, however, Mag is little more than a slave to GeneCo, thanks to the contract she signed to give her the eyes that are now part of her public persona. She is also Marnie’s best friend and was appointed as Shiloh’s godmother. She was led to believe the child died with Marnie and has never known that Shiloh ever existed. That is, until Rotti more or less abducts Shiloh when she sneaks out and introduces them for the first time.
There’s more. There’s actually a lot that I’m glossing over with this film but in truth, there’s no way to do the plot of this film justice in one little tiny synopsis and some people have seen this as a mark against it. In fact, if you look at the critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll notice that a lot of movie critics hated it. I remember when this film came out and among the negative comments that I heard were things like “over wrought” and “bombastic” and at least one that I found more recently stated that “Andrew Lloyd Webber is probably turning in his grave”. (The first two I’ll get to in a minute but let us all have a moment of silent smirking at the gent who seemed to think that Webber was both dead and somehow traumatized by a film that he probably never saw and was guaranteed to have nothing to do with. Andrew Lloyd Webber is still very much alive at time of writing.) Stupid reviews aside, if we look at the first two comments that I came across, I think this is important because it showcases a kind of snobbery that often gets lobbed at another area that I’m passionate about: Gothic stories.
When you break it down, Repo! has all the trappings of those rich, dramatic, emotional tales from Gothic literature. If you love that kind of art, you’ll find out very quickly that while some classics are lauded for what they are, a lot more of those stories are often dismissed for being the same kind of over wrought, emotional, bombastic tales that people deem unrealistic. But why shouldn’t these stories be brimming with emotion? They’re tales of passion and love and murder and betrayal and lust and revenge and redemption! All of these are heavy topics that I, for one, don’t want to see squished down into pretty dramas that get resolved over the course of two hours. And again, I am willing to argue that these spiralling, complex storylines are entirely on purpose when you look at the kind of tragic tales that are often seen in operas. Once more, I did turn to Adrienne for this who had this to say about the use of dramatic tropes in opera:
“A tragedy will often have a lot of emotional conflict, love triangles, LOTS of drama, oppressive male authority figures, star-crossed lovers, madness, betrayal, and death (whether by murder or by a broken heart, etc). The tragedy will DEFINITELY have a lot of the plot twists such as (…) with (Donizetti’s) La Favorite.”
That sure sounds like most of my favorite Gothic tales and probably why I love this film so much. I get that it’s not a film or a genre for everyone but I want the emotional rollercoaster, dammit! And at a 73% audience score for this film, looks like there are plenty of people who also felt that the dramatics and the emotion suited them just fine. This is a film that wanted to get its horror swirled around in some heavy dramatic territory and decided to use the backdrop of a musical to do it. It decided to take a risk and incorporate elements of an art form that is often misunderstood and dismissed and the end result is all the richer for it. If you are in the mood for something that is at once a parody of the modern world and a call back to the world of opera tragedies of the past, give this a look. It has gained a cult following for a good reason and if Gothic tales are your thing, you’re doing yourself a disservice by skipping out on it.
And while you’re at it, if Repo! has gotten your attention and given you a craving for a richly layered tales of love and betrayal and death, do yourself a favor and look up the aforementioned La Favorite by Donizetti! Among the others that come recommended for those who are just as much of a baby as I am, our lovely guide suggested the following: Werther by Jules Massenet; La Damnation du Faust by Hector Berlioz; Carmen by Georges Bizet; Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns (the beloved composer of the iconic “Danse Macabre”); La Traviata, Othello, and Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. She also recommended a couple more by Donizetti called Lucia Di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena, which is indeed about Anne Boleyn for you history enthusiasts out there. Just looking up the synopsis on any of these, it should keep up to all your cravings for drama that is far more worth your time than anything on Facebook.
And with that, I have to say a huge thank you to my guest expert, Adrienne, who was sweet enough to be my guide through this art form and without whom this review wouldn’t have happened. I highly suggest that you look up her videos on YouTube, especially if you love Gothic literature, enjoy learning about the history of absinthe and if you want more on any of the opera background information that mentioned. Thank you very much!
And thank you for joining me again for another Friday Nightmare Review! If you are wanting more horror and needing a small break from drama, be sure to check out my serial fiction story Hello Dolly on Mondays! You can read the spooky misadventures of my horror hostess, Dead Eye Dolly, who along with misfit friends tries to put on an internet show while dealing with a world of real monsters. And until next time, may all your dramas be rich and fictional and may all your nightmares be pleasant!