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Repo! The Genetic Opera is a gory, disturbing, awful musical that defied all odds

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The film has one hell of a history

Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.

In 2004, director Darren Lynn Bousman sought to ride a wave of horror films focusing on grotesque, boundary pushing imagery with his script for what would become The Desperate.

Bousman tried to sell The Desperate to a couple of studios but was told his story was too grisly for a mainstream audience. The script got into the hands of Leigh Whannell and James Wan, who had become overnight celebrities in the horror world thanks to their film, Saw, and invited Bousman to direct the sequel.

Bousman would hang on to direct the second, third and fourth Saw films before handing it off to David Hackl, and although he loved working on the movies, there was always another pet project that he wanted to launch: a horror-musical set in a dystopian future based on a play he staged in both New York and Los Angeles. Despite his success with the Saw franchise and his rapid rise to the top of the chain in the world of horror cinema, Bousman couldn’t get a studio to finance the musical.

By 2008, Bousman decided he didn’t need the support of Lionsgate, the same studio that distributed Saw, and financed 90 percent of the musical himself, taking it on a cross-country trip and handing out flyers to college kids to get them to see the movie. The director spent two months self-marketing with very little help from Lionsgate, and even though the film only grossed $147,000, Bousman succeeded in creating a new, iconic horror rock opera that was just as angry and revenge-seeking as he felt at the time: Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Repo the Genetic Opera

Repo! The Genetic Opera was born out of passion, anger, reckless abandon and a DIY-punk attitude that would have made Sid Vicious proud. The result was a subpar horror musical that has earned an army of devoted fans who re-enact it live every Halloween.

The film takes place in a dystopian future where surgeries are handed out like ice cream cones and personal debt is on the rise as people take out loans to pay for their cosmetic fixes. GeneCo, run by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) and his three children, is happy to give out loans to pay for the surgeries, but if you miss a payment, the Repo Man (Anthony Head) is sent to your house and either takes back the organ that you had transplanted or mutilates you.

At the same time, there’s a rise in addiction to a painkiller called Zydrate — which comes in a little glass bottle — as addicts scramble to find the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich) and beg him for the tiniest sample. It's a world where everyone is either entirely plastic, numb or both, and the Repo Man's daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega), is slowly learning this horrific truth.

There are three important aspects of Repo! The Genetic Opera that can be examined to see why it became the cult film that it has: the cast, the ambience and the music.

From Paris Hilton to Sarah Brightman

In order for a film like Repo! The Genetic Opera to be taken seriously, it has to have a stellar cast, no ifs, ands or buts. Bousman, a director who likes to work both with classically trained actors and an array of interesting people, viewed Repo! as a way to work with some of the most talented people in the industry, including Sarah Brightman and Anthony Head, but also iconic figures at the time, like Paris Hilton and Skinny Puppy’s ohGr.

"The movie appeals to the fringe, it appeals to the goth-y outside-the-box [crowd]"

Part of Repo!’s charm was its collection of misfits on screen. Much like The Rocky Horror Show, the other horror-based rock opera that attained cult status following its releas in 1975, Repo! didn’t emphasize one actor or musician being better than the rest, but worked because the cast ranged from the most prolific of actors to some of the most amateur who joined the project because they believed in the film.

It’s important to remember that Bousman didn’t receive much from Lionsgate to help finance the movie, and it’s pretty obvious when you’re watching it. The sets aren’t up to par with other horror films of the early aughts, the costumes are obviously cheap and the effects are more comical than they are scary. Despite that, the cast of Repo! do a fantastic job of using what’s available to them to turn this dystopian future they’re living in into something truly petrifying. The film itself is pretty gory for a musical, but the actual horror is in the message of addiction and reliance on plastic surgery and huge financial loans that the cast is able to drive home.

It's a gift to goths

The second aspect of the film, and perhaps the most important, is its ambience and attitude. As a self-professed goth kid with a love of anything remotely macabre, there’s certain imagery that attracts me right away and Repo! The Genetic Opera is full of it. It’s got cyber-punk elements, but for the most part, Repo! feels like a film made by gothy art kids for other gothy art kids. In fact, Bousman told Filmmaker Magazine in 2008 that the film was made specifically with that audience in mind.

"The movie appeals to the fringe, it appeals to the goth-y outside-the-box [crowd], the gay crowd, the theater crowd," Bousman said.

Repo the Genetic Opera

When you’re a teenager and looking for a piece of art that connects to how you’re feeling, what you’re going through or mirrors back the image you’re going for, there’s no better feeling than actually finding it. When Repo! The Genetic Opera came out, I was 15 and at my heaviest goth phase. With the exception of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a few other independent movies, nothing in the realm of film featured a look that I was obsessing over until Repo! came out.

Looking at the cult status it has built for itself, I wasn’t the only one who felt like that, and soon there was a mass of teenagers and adults who had found what they were looking for during their era. We weren’t reliant on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which while still the queen of horror rock operas, didn’t feel like ours. Repo! The Genetic Opera was what we were looking for and it came during the height of horror’s revamp following the bleak period of the ‘90s.

And oh, that soundtrack

The last facet of the film that needs to be addressed, and what I return to time and time again, is the soundtrack. Repo! is less a horror movie than it is a musical, so naturally it’s important that the soundtrack reflects that. If the sets and costumes suffered from the financial setback Bousman faced from Lionsgate, the soundtrack more than made up for it.

Most of the songs, like any good musical, are tracks you can play on a car ride or just keep rotating in a playlist. Songs like "21st Century Cure," "Zydrate Anatomy," "Legal Assassin" and "Night Surgeon" are extravagant, heavy tracks that encompass the theme of the film and have a biting edge. They’re full of dismal, macabre references, but they don’t feel like songs from a horror movie. They exist on their own and each track is so enticing that the soundtrack sticks with you far after the movie ends.

There are moments when the songs are corny, but all of that ties into the trashy magic that Repo! The Genetic Opera is known for now. The songs perfectly fit the ambience of the movie and while no one would ever argue that Repo! is a well-made movie, objectively, the soundtrack acts as the beating heart to the weird monster that Bousman created.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is an odd film that never should have been created. But as Halloween edges closer and I start planning out my marathon, I can’t help but search for my copy of the film. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a trash fire of ideas and although someone probably should have stopped Bousman from financing it himself — especially considering the return on investment — I’m thankful every year that this magical, gothy trash fire exists.