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“Repo! The Genetic Opera” (Otherwise known as that time Paris Hilton starred in a goth rock opera about organ repossession)

The subject of this review is a B-movie that combines science fiction, horror and comedy, based on an earlier stage musical. It boasts some fairly famous cast members but was largely ignored upon its initial release. Despite less-than-stunning critical reception, however, this film has since developed something of a cult following; some fans even gather in theaters to watch or perform “shadowcast” versions of the show, dressing up in costumes that mimic the movie’s raunchy goth aesthetic. No, this isn’t about “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), though fans of that movie may find much to enjoy here as well. It’s a totally separate cult classic; the 2008 film “Repo! The Genetic Opera.”

This surprisingly star-studded movie features socialite Paris Hilton, Alexa PenaVega (“Spy Kids”), Anthony Stewart Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Sarah Brightman (originator of the role of Christine in “Phantom of the Opera”), and even Joan Jett, who has a cameo on guitar during one song. However, none of these celebrities really get the chance to show off their full potential here. (Except, perhaps, Paris Hilton, who reportedly forced her way into a “Repo!” audition and blew the directors away, overpowering their previous reluctance to cast her because of potential sensationalist reactions from the press, according to MTV News and The Playlist). The less than Oscar-worthy performances can’t fairly be dubbed their fault, though — it’s hard to imagine what a well-acted role would even look like, within this ludicrous ninety-seven-minute script. 

The film takes place in a time period only specified to be the “not-so-distant future,” though signs in the background indicate that the 2030s have come and gone. After an epidemic of organ failure swept the planet (no explanation is provided as to why), a company called GeneCo became rich and powerful off of organ transplants, which are paid for with tempting long-term payment plans. By the time the movie begins, organ transplants and other general surgeries remain in huge demand, but have transformed into a largely cosmetic craze; as one GeneCo-funded ad to help clients “build a sexier X-ray” advertises, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts!” The payment plans are still extensive and expensive, but they now come with a little added kick. If clients can’t put enough money towards their new liver or kidney every month, they’ll be tracked down by a “Repo Man,” a highly skilled surgeon on GeneCo’s payroll who will “repossess” the underfunded body part by extracting it and leaving its previous owner to bleed out. (The company claims these organs are then resold to a new owner, although this would absolutely not be medically feasible given the methods of organ removal shown onscreen.)

The man who organized every moving part in this complicated scheme, from the payment plans to the squads of Repo Men to the lobbying campaigns that prevent bills delegalizing organ repossession from getting through Congress, is GeneCo CEO Rottissimo “Rotti” Largo (Paul Sorvino). He’s on top of the world, powerful enough to get anything he wants — except a cure for his unnamed, rapidly advancing terminal illness. And before he dies, he needs to select an heir to GeneCo. Unfortunately, his three children are all spectacularly unsuited for the job. Luigi Largo (Bill Moseley) has a temper so fierce that a GeneCo intern (or “Gentern”) has to follow him around at all times holding a fresh dress shirt, in preparation for when he rips his own off in rage — or splashes it with blood while stabbing a bystander. Pavi Largo (Nivek Ogre) is a loony womanizer who routinely wears a woman’s skinned face as a mask to cover his mysterious facial scars. And Carmela “Amber Sweet” Largo (Paris Hilton) is what the movie refers to as a “scalpel slut,” addicted to unnecessary surgeries, a concept that could come straight out of conservative fearmongering about why it would be dangerous to give Americans affordable healthcare. All of them crave the position of company head; none of them could handle it. 

Bereft of good options among his close family, Rotti looks to the daughter of his ex-fiancee; Shilo Wallace (Alexa PenaVega), a seventeen-year-old girl with a rare genetic blood disorder who has spent almost her whole life inside her house. Her father Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head) shelters her from both the outside world, telling her it will worsen her sickness, and from his own dark secret — he is not an ordinary surgeon, as Shilo believes, but GeneCo’s head Repo Man. Rotti blackmailed Nathan into taking the position after his wife’s death, convincing Nathan that his attempts to treat her blood condition were responsible for her demise (when in reality, Rotti poisoned Marni as revenge for leaving him.)

In what reads as a twisted attempt to make up for his wrongs, or perhaps just to reconnect with the only thing left of his ex-lover, Rotti uses the promise of a cure for her condition to lure Shilo out of her house and into the backstabbing world of GeneCo. She runs into a motley ensemble of characters there, including the Largo siblings, a man only referred to as “GraveRobber” (Terrance Zdunich) who trades a painkiller he makes from corpses for sexual favors, and GeneCo spokeswoman-slash-famed opera singer Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), who may carry important information about Shilo’s mother and her family’s past. 

There are a lot of plot points and details in “Repo!” that go over Shilo’s head or are simply never mentioned to her, but semi-fortunately, the audience has access to continual heavy-handed exposition. Said exposition is delivered primarily via cuts to what appear to be graphic novel panels—which admittedly look great—providing glimpses into different characters’ pasts and motivations for long minutes at a time. Songs by the GraveRobber, the closest thing the movie has to a narrator, also provide useful background information about things like how the largely organ-based economy functions and exactly what point the viewer is at in the film. Genuinely, it would be hard to tell at times without his assistance, because the film can’t seem to decide on a principal storyline. Is it about Shilo’s struggle to get free of her overprotective father and discover who she can be? Is it about Nathan’s struggle to protect himself and Shilo from GeneCo, and the terrible things they desire for safety has led him to do? Is it about the Largo siblings’ struggle for power and their father’s approval, or about Rotti’s struggle to find a way for his dark legacy to carry on? “Repo!” wrestles with all of these questions in a semi-equal measure, and never manages to find a satisfying answer to any of them. 

Another less-than-satisfying element of “Repo!” is its music, which is astoundingly weak. There’s no need to worry about leaving this film with a song stuck in your head, because at no point in the reportedly fifty-six-song “hard rock” score does something recognizable as a “tune” emerge. Rhyming lyrics are few and far between, and when the writers do manage a rhyme — no matter how much of a stretch it might be — they’ll repeat it until it’s lost all meaning. It’s hard to know when one song ends and another begins, not only because of the absence of melodies, but because it’s often difficult to tell whether an actor’s lines are stilted speech or an unenthusiastic song. Most of them sound like they’ve just been handed their part for the first time and are trying to bluff their way through a rehearsal without revealing that they don’t know how to read sheet music. The music directors have seemingly attempted to distract the audience from these flaws via frequent guitar riffs almost intense enough to drown out the actors. Said attempts are not successful, but credit where credit is due, the riffs do sound pretty cool. 

The film is not without genuine artistic merit, however. The vaguely futuristic, incredibly goth and campy aesthetic — you could catch a pod of orcas with all the fishnets in this film — is a delight to behold. Some visual highlights include Hilton’s ever-changing appearance as Amber (her addiction to surgery means she’s sporting a “newly enhanced face” in every scene, thanks to ambitious and remarkably successful work with makeup and prosthetics) and the ridiculously unsuitable outfits of the Genterns, who handle freshly extracted organs while clad in three-inch heels and pristine white halter dresses, cut short to allow Pavi to rip off their underwear at a moment’s whim. And while those organs may not be extracted in a manner compliant with the Hippocratic Oath, they do look surprisingly realistic and deliciously gruesome. (Fun and possibly relevant fact: “Repo!” was made by Twisted Pictures, the same company responsible for the “Saw” horror movie franchise.)

One cannot rightly call “Repo! The Genetic Opera” a good film, but many of America’s most-beloved movies don’t or shouldn’t earn that moniker, and it doesn’t make them any less fun to laugh and groan at over a bucket of popcorn. If you’re interested in losing yourself in the unholy union of soap opera and slasher flick, feeling like you’re back at pre-pandemic Hot Topic or tormenting a friend who has perfect pitch, then “Repo!” is here for you, and available for free on Tubi and with an Amazon Prime subscription.