Cult-film wannabe 'Repo!' needs a crowd, and preferably at midnight

The Baltimore Sun

Can you design a movie to be a late-night cult item? Repo! The Genetic Opera may have been produced to test that notion. Opening today at the Charles but scheduled only for 10 p.m. shows, it plays as if someone had put together a midnight-film computer program from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, bits and pieces of Tim Burton's oeuvre, high points of classic horror films such as Eyes Without a Face and the disaster-deluxe decor of futuristic sci-fi like Bla de Runner.

It's a Frankenstein monster of a movie, wearing every suture proudly. Still, films that beg for group reaction as fervently as this one often get it. Repo! The Genetic Opera left me cold when I watched it alone at an early screening; I thought it would only become interesting if it developed a following, and you saw it with that following, and you could comprehend why they followed it into that dangerous realm where banality merges with disgust.

It hasn't acquired a cult yet - only a handful of Internet fiends who defend it on critical roundup sites. That's probably because audiences willing to give it the benefit of every doubt can't invest their own energy in a piece so ersatz and enervated. As with Zach and Miri Make a Porno - mainstream comedy that would have been a better fit as a midnight movie - all the creativity went into the title. That exclamation point in Repo!, a la Oklahoma! or Oliver!, has more wit than any string of words or images in the movie.

The story is all backed-up from the beginning. Too bad the director, Darren Lynn Bousman, doesn't have the gift that Brian De Palma had in The Fury (now there's a potential midnight movie) of making a movie's impacted subplots tremble and quake before they all come flooding out. A few decades from now, the movie tells us, in response to an international organ-failure epidemic, a company named GeneCo has the savvy to establish loan programs for organs - with the cavity-wide caveat that GeneCo can repossess any organ if the buyer fails to make his payments. But that's only the beginning. Organ transplants and organ surgery in general become so popular that well-heeled consumers come to crave designer interiors for their bodies, and designer exteriors, too (including full facial transplants). That demand fuels black-market grave-robbery rings, a wave of surgery addiction, a demand for a seductive new painkiller and various black markets for that.

So much happens off-screen that nothing seems to be happening on it. The tale of GeneCo's ailing CEO, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), and his disgust with his three children - hothead Luigi (Bill Moseley), freakish, faceless Pavi (Nivek Ogre) and surgery-addict Amber Sweat (Paris Hilton) - intersects with the tale of Repo Man Nathan Wallace (Anthony Head) and his sickly daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega) in overly complicated and fatally static ways. Director Bousman wants to be a comic-book gore artist, working two families' tragic fates in a pair of overlapping circles resembling the intersection of Venn diagrams, drawn in a purple shade of scarlet. The feeling of being stuck in gore-filled muck permeates the rancid visuals, the monotonous performances and even the soporific way the music registers on the soundtrack. (I bet it plays better when you listen on CD and can forget everything else about it.) You begin to look forward to the comic-strip interludes that fill in each character's back story with more kapow than Bousman brings to the front stories.

The clotting of pop opera and carnage, as well as the trash-icon appearance of Hilton and the daring casting of Sarah Brightman as GeneCo's singing spokesperson, Blind Mag, comprise this film's bid for pop chic. Hilton is passable (I presume audiences cheer when her face peels off ), and Brightman summons the bracing delivery and regal presence of an authentic operetta star. But there's no zest or imagination to the slaughter, as there is in a Burton or De Palma movie. After a while, all you see during the worst mayhem are thrown-together piles of imitation guts.

The naughtiness alone may attract some disaffected-youth crowds to Repo! The Genetic Opera. Seeing films like this at odd times may promote the sense that a viewer joins a club and may also release inhibitions about embracing something so aggressively decadent.

But seeing films in theaters at 10 or midnight or in the wee small hours of the morning can do more than loosen uptight personalities. When a film such as the reggae classic The Harder They Come presents raw vivacity and passion, it can become even more of an exhilarating high seen at the point of exhaustion.

The Harder They Come was one of the great midnight movies of my college years, but it comes from a different midnight-film tradition. During the counterculture, you dove into an after-hours screening as if you were leaping into a sensory bath. It would be great to see if moviegoers at theaters like the Charles would pick up on that legacy - if given half a chance.

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