Everyone, whether they show it or not, goes through a goth phase. Movies are no exception. Every few years, there’s a new wave of dark, Gothic-with-a-capital-G movies about the aesthetics of heavy eyeliner and lace veils as much as they’re about the macabre.
The 2000s saw one of those goth revivals. And, 15 years ago, one movie took the trend to an entirely new level, blending in Victorian nostalgia and adding a bizarre yet perfect element: opera. Repo! The Genetic Opera, directed by Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman, is technically a rock opera, but it’s really a rock musical, a classic opera, a body horror dystopia, a social satire, and a tragedy all at once.
Repo! opens with a comic-book-style prologue that establishes a world where organ replacement is the new health norm. But organs are expensive, so payment plans have to be signed. And if you fall behind, the organ is up for repossession through any means possible. Well before Mike Flanagan delivered a dark Big Pharma story in The Fall of the House of Usher, Repo did the same with the Largo family.
Patriarch Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) is trying to divide his empire among his children: Luigi (Bill Moseley), Pavi (Nivek Ogre), and Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton, who “won” a Razzie for her performance). Meanwhile, the sickly young Shilo Wallace (Spy Kids’ Alexa PenaVega) goes on an adventure to discover the secrets of her past, defying the will of her scientist father, Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head).
Repo understands that while casting big names is important, strong vocals should be a musical’s top priority. While PenaVega and Hilton don’t exactly have opera pipes, their performances are passable, leaving classically trained singers like Anthony Stewart Head and Paul Sorvino to do the heavy lifting. Iconic soprano Sarah Brightman, the original star of The Phantom of the Opera, even plays in-universe opera singer Blind Mag.
And there’s a lot of singing. Repo is a sung-through musical, meaning every single line of dialogue is sung, like in Les Miserables. It adds an otherworldliness to the story, allowing your suspension of disbelief to go that much further. When every word is sung, you’re willing to buy into a world where an overdue heart could be pulled from your chest.
While the opera elements take the spotlight, this movie is full of rock and roll, from Shilo’s black mesh sleeves to a surprise Joan Jett cameo. It’s not just for theater kids who have a closet full of Rocky Horror costumes; it’s a sicko classic that should stand next to The Craft and Corpse Bride in the gothic movie canon.
The entire movie is filmed with a 2000s’ out-of-focus haziness that makes it all feel like a dreamy music video, and the fashions are straight out of Hot Topic, but that doesn’t make Repo! any less fun. Even if you didn’t have a phase where you listened to Evanescence and bemoaned normies, there’s still a perverted good time to be had here. Repo! is dark, but campy, and it knows it. In 2023, when “dark” is inevitably followed by “and gritty,” it’s fascinating to look back on what used to be.