They rehearsed on an Ybor City backyard slab, sweaty while mosquitoes bit their shins.
They were misfits with cigarettes in their lips, tattoo artists and students and burger slingers and dancers. They had two days to showtime at the Ritz Ybor, where they'd become the Unworthy Heirs, the official Tampa shadow cast for Repo! The Genetic Opera. They'd follow in the tradition of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, acting alongside a movie while a crowd sang and called out crude quips.
But this was different. This was darker. This was Rocky for a new generation.
"You shouldn't be smiling," Kris Botha told the actors Wednesday. "He's going to gut you in a minute."
Calvin Mynatt fake-plunged a knife into Dylan Slimak's stomach.
"Uggggh!" Slimak cried.
"There we go!" said Botha. She clapped, flashing a tattoo snaking her along wrist. A lyric from the show.
Remember, you can change.
• • •
What makes a cult movie? A cult person?
Primarily, it should be shunned by popular society. Repo! The Genetic Opera, showing tonight at the Ritz Ybor, had that going for it right away.
The 2008 film's concept: An organ failure epidemic strikes, and body parts are financed. People get addicted to surgery. But when they can't pay, a repo man takes the parts back. Bloody and campy and strange, it's set to operatic rock.
If you could be perfect, it asks, would you?
Former Lightning owner Oren Koules was a producer. It stars Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Stewart Head, opera singer Sarah Brightman and celebutante Paris Hilton. It got panned. Rotten Tomatoes called it "bombastic and intentionally gross." It cost $8.5 million, opened on only eight screens and grossed $140,244.
"It was considered a box office flop, which I think has helped it more than anything else because people always like an underdog," said Botha.
The creators took it on a road tour, showing it in theaters around the country. They invited the audience to their hotels to hang out, avoiding slick clubs. They created bonds with people who had none.
"The disenfranchised," said the film's director, Darren Lynn Bousman, who has also directed several Saw movies. "The people who don't fit within the mainstream. It's people like me. I wasn't a jock, I wasn't a brainiac. I considered myself an artist, and it's a group of people that a lot of mainstream media take for granted. They have choices."
The fans launched websites, chats, podcasts. They memorized the show's 64 songs.
"I've seen it like 500 times," said Mynatt, 20. "You get desensitized when you watch it as much as we do."
In 2009, shadow casts started performing, staging with elaborate props and rubber masks and set pieces. It was a boon for the filmmakers.
"We had nothing," said Bousman. "The fans became our publicity. One shadow cast opened, then another, then another, and the next thing I know it's in hundreds of theaters every night. If the mainstream embraced it, I think none of this would have happened."
• • •
Kris Botha sang into the trees in her yard, eyes clenched in dramatic passion.
"I'll keep these vultures guessing!"
At 27, she was playing Repo's old man, portrayed in the film by Paul Sorvino. Growing up in Lakeland, she never performed. She had one or two close friends. She was painfully shy.
She worked as an executive assistant and learned about Repo through Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When the film came out, she was transfixed. She flew to Toronto to see a shadow cast perform. She started an online radio show. She interviewed Paris Hilton.
"Within a few months I went from someone who went to work and went home, to, I'm talking to people across the world. It was weird. It was different. It was new. I chased that down."
Her personal life shifted.
"I had a husband," she said. "We are not married anymore. I changed too much."
She decided to start her own shadow cast. She got Sam Burke, a Blake High acting grad, to help direct. She took out a loan, paid $800 to rent a theater at Channelside and held auditions. She flew out Repo's creators, Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, who originally wrote it as a stage show. She performed in front of 300 people.
For the next two years, Repo ran her life. She put on shows at the Tampa Pitcher Show, at conventions out of town. Fans knew her. In any given city, she had at least three friends.
"I felt like I was locked down before," she said. "Like I couldn't get out of my situation. Now I feel like it's possible. It absolutely changed me."
• • •
The actors mulled through the yard, trying on wigs and hugging and showing off tattoos. When they got too loud, Botha barked at them to pay attention.
She shook her head.
This show had to be great. It might not be her last, but time had come to reel back Repo. It was taking over. She recently enrolled in massage school. She realized she couldn't make a career out of shadow casting, and that was fine. The show didn't belong to her, anyway. Other people could have their chance.
Under the trees, Burke directed. He is 21 now, a pest control guy by day. He thinks people who make fun of Repo miss the point. "It's got its flaws," he said. "But it's not laughable."