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“Repo”: a wild night at the genetic opera

In the back of the arthouse movie theatre, the performers unloaded their props and gathered their costumes. They weren’t aware that the line in front of the single-screen this Saturday night stretched clear to the end of the typically elongated San Diego block, dominated by black fabric and tweens staying out late. The giddy single-file assembly seemed to confuse the older, rocker types emerging from the bar next door. But only briefly: it’s rare to find the person nowadays who’s never been to a midnight movie.

But, in what’s become a recent development, the crowd wasn’t here for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. No, this group of “patients” had gotten together for the newest kid on the cult block:  “Repo, The Genetic Opera.”

According to Eric Schafer’s book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!!: A History Of Exploitation Films, the practice of midnight screenings dates back as the 1930s, when pulpy offerings were shown at out-of-the-way movie houses. And the 1950s saw the rise of the late-night television Creature Features now associcated with homage/parody touches like the much-endowed Elvira, the much-missed Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the much-overlooked Grindhouse Rodriguez/Tarantino team-up of a few years back.

But even if the high-brow New York Times credits the surrealist 1971 flick El Topo with being the first midnight “hit,” it would be RHPS – a distinctly New Yawk phenomenon, spawned by the unruly fans at the old Waverly Theatre, now known as the IFC Center – that has been, pound-for-pound, the heavyweight cult champion of the world’s cinemas. Decades of weekly showings have allowed both Rocky’s shadow casts – the troupe of not-quite-actors who at once imitate, mock and enhance the on-screen shenanigans – and its’ fanbase to regenerate more often than Doctor Who. The faces in front of the screen change, but most of the traditions – stand up for The Time Warp; call Brad an A-hole and Janet a Slut – have remained intact.

The emergence of “Repo” is the latest, most direct and, rumblings say, best-funded variant on the RHPS experience. The movie – which fans will be too happy to tell you is in no way related to Eric García’s book The Repossession Mambo or the film it spawned, “Repo Men” – started, like RHPS, as a stage play, by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, before taking to the screen in late 2008, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV).

Instead of relying on party-boy/girl sexual politics like RHPS, though, “Repo’s” story kicks off from a glibly glum place, a future overrun by GeneCo, the Big Bad Pharma that’s cornered the organ market for a populace devastated by plague. Delinquent customers are kept in line by the Darth Vader-like Repo Men, who trim the fat by cutting the merch out of the still-living deadbeats.

Our titular Repo … uh, guy in this case is Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), who hides his job from his sickly daughter Shiloh (Alexa Vega), while hiding her away from his boss/nemesis, GeneCo kingpin Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). Rotti, for his part, is hiding his own impending demise from not just Nathan, but his three no-account kids. And somewhere in the middle of all this there’s a guy called the GraveRobber (Zdunich), who’s hustling for dead-people juice and indulging the sexual and surgical whims of Rotti’s daughter Angel (Paris Hilton) but otherwise does nothing much of note.

The bigger problem with “Repo” as a film is this: for a rock opera, it doesn’t rock. Only two of the songs on the soundtrack – Zydrate Anatomy (CAUTION: NSFW imagery) and We Started This Op’ra Sh-t – have catchy enough beats; Zdunich’s character, the most visually compelling – no small feat, considering the rest of the cast – is relegated to narrator status; and though this isn’t anybody’s fault at the time, the Rotti/Nathan dueling-old-guy dynamic didn’t benefit from seeing screens less than a year after Johnny Depp & Alan Rickman matched singing and slashing chops in “Sweeney Todd”. It does, to be fair, hold up better in a second viewing, when it can be approached as a series of music videos connected by a lumbering story.

The Huffington Post describes Bousman’s relationship with “Repo” as a labor of love, mentioning that the director would drive to theatres with film reels in his car to get it onto more screens. Indeed, “Repo’s” earliest adverts trumpeted it as “The Next Rocky Horror!,” a claim which is resented, anecdotally and quietly, by some members of RHPS fandom, precisely because of the creative team’s connection with its’ burgeoning fanbase.

Rocky succeeded despite being mishandled and left for dead by 20th Century Fox, the argument goes; Bousman’s late-night drives and Zdunich’s frequenting local screenings helped make this “revolution” as synthetic as Blind Mag’s eyes.

Looking around the Ken Theatre on this night, though, it’s highly unlikely all of these people were astro-turfed into attending by the local cast, Elective Surgery. According to RepoShadowCast.com, ES is one of more than 50 similar groups who have formed since the movie’s release. In a show of solidarity, a handful of members of the L.A. cast are also in the audience.

It’s in a live setting where the similarities between RHPS and “Repo” really shine through – and it’s for the best, really. The story that plays out on screen benefits a ton from the energy of a live performance. And, it should be noted, from the love of the performers: the young man playing Nathan would later tell me he spent about $1,000 on his screen-accurate floor-length leather coat with GeneCo patch and ominous helmet with built-in lights. The woman playing Amber, the L.A folks say, consulted on various message boards to get the correct pieces for her own costuming. If shadow casting is defined by DIY ethics, this bunch isn’t skimping out on that aspect.

And the “Repo” audience also gets to take part, from an initiation game for the first-time attendees (or “pre-ops,” in show lingo) to a pre-show “anthem” (sample lyrics: “Don’t forget to clear your debt/Or go out with a bang!”) to, perhaps most importantly when dealing with a bad movie, Callbacks, the practice of throwing your best joke against whatever’s going on. It’s Rifftrax writ large: as the camera swoops across the film’s grim landscape, one voice sets the appropriately caustic tone: “Thanks a lot, BP!” the young man says, earning himself a hearty cheer from the crowd.

Throughout the night, the cast does its’ own riffs on the action; during one scene, “Amber” ambles onto the stage with a cut-out picture of Paris Hilton herself over her face. And as the film closes, the woman playing Grave Robber switches out the newspaper on the screen for a sheet of paper bearing a message: SEE YOU AT COMIC-CON. Whatever their fate is with the Ken, the ES crew and their L.A colleagues will team up during San Diego Comic-Con weekend – the geek Fashion Week. It may not be directly competing with “Rocky Horror”, but like the Largo kids, “Repo” doesn’t look like it’s waiting around for its’ cult-status inheritance.

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