31 by Jonny Numb

31-poster-art-1[102 minutes. R. Director: Rob Zombie]

Watching 31 as a Rob Zombie fan is a precarious proposition. I found myself wanting to forgive so much of it; wanted to give it a pass and champion its worth because “the devil’s in the details”; and insist that the premise, while heavily flawed (and frankly lazy), lent itself to an overall atmosphere of visceral terror, and was enough to excuse its shortcomings in character, narrative, and logic.

But in the end, I just couldn’t – Zombie had asked far too much of his audience’s good faith, and delivered a disappointment.

31 isn’t without value; and while it shows an obvious (and perhaps deliberate) regression for the filmmaker, it provides a decent amount of compelling images and affecting moments. Viewers unfamiliar with Zombie’s brand of horror will not be converted, and fans will be left wondering why it isn’t better than what’s onscreen. As I fall into the latter bracket, my score of 31 may rank a little higher in spite of itself; others should gauge their expectations accordingly.

The film has a clincher of an opening: an out-of-focus Doom-Head (Richard Brake, from Zombie’s Halloween II) walks down a corridor, toward the viewer, until his smeared greasepaint face, beady eyes, and blood-smeared mouth dominate the screen, inescapable. Shot in black-and-white, he dispenses a philosophical monologue about the function of clowns in a historical context to his latest victim before dispatching him with an ax. Whereas the Firefly family were all shrill, profane bluster in their conversations, Brake convinces, with chilling authority, that he’s a total psychopath. It’s a promising beginning that devolves into convention far too quickly.

The director’s incalculable debt to Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reaches its saturation point with 31. The film is a veritable freakshow of psychos crafty with switchblades; sad clowns brandishing chainsaws; tutu-wearing giants wielding large, blunt objects; Betty Boop-voiced harlequins skilled with sharp objects; and Nazi midgets as ravenous as rabid dogs. It actually owes just as much – if not more – to Hooper’s own underrated carnival-gone-wrong opus, The Funhouse.

Given Zombie’s proven skills in delivering visceral impact, the effect of 31 somehow comes off as sloppier, jerkier, and less controlled a picture than Hooper’s notoriously sloppy, jerky, and compromised pictures. The tone isn’t wild or anarchic more than just maddeningly dissonant. The excessive grain and desaturated color palate presents a convincing vision of Hell, but also makes the film feel like just another Saw sequel.

The setup is so perfunctory that even Zombie seems bored by it: a group of carnies traveling across Texas are waylaid by a group of sadists on Halloween night, 1976. Presided over by a trio of retirement-age psychos adorned in Victorian Judge garb, the film does poke at the type of sick-fuck bourgeoisie that Cheap Thrills did a better job of satirizing. This side of the story is never really explored beyond a surface level, and the “rules” of the event (try to survive over the course of a 12-hour siege) are so basic that the film never springs forward with anything truly surprising. Furthermore, there is so little development in the early going that the performances – which are actually very good – are locked in a similar fight (to inhabit three-dimensional characters).

The script abides by that repetitive, tried-and-true structure of characters wandering around or waiting to be attacked, fighting twisted psychos, killing or getting killed, and repeating until one or none are left. The Judges (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, and Jane Carr) offer summaries and transitional lead-ins via PA, but how they’re monitoring the developments is never made clear; and their periodic announcements of characters’ odds of survival are illogical and hyperbolic (perhaps indicative of the insanity under the wigs?).

Which segues into the biggest issue plaguing 31: while the content is repulsive, it’s almost fittingly so for Rob Zombie’s defiantly un-PC, white-trash world of scummy and/or destitute characters. While he finds new ways to make viewers squirm in their seats, his meat-grinder aesthetic touches are the true villain of the piece: confusion rules the action scenes, which employ excessive close-ups; while this is irritating, it’s compounded to migraine-inducing lengths with the use of shaky handheld camera. In his Halloween films, this tactic worked in moderation, ramping up the visceral effect of the violence; in 31, the aforementioned tics – compounded even further by the dark, dank, and desaturated color palate – makes the action nearly impossible to follow.

That being said, and continuing with Zombie’s “greatest hits” approach to style, the use of slow motion, freeze frame – always accompanied by a chilling, omniscient push-in – and a convincingly frozen-in-time vision of a hot-as-hell, abandoned-by-God Texas landscape is almost compelling enough to compensate for his more ribald auteur tendencies. There are even moments that sing with a bizarre sort of poetic brilliance – a dual chainsaw duel is literally cut to ribbons, but turns the abrasive industrial noise and an underlying sample of Goblin’s Suspiria score into something rather aptly balletic.

Another positive: Zombie collects his familiar repertory group and plugs them into unlikely roles. As Charly, Sheri Moon Zombie exhibits a physicality that echoes Baby Firefly, but possesses a vulnerability that metamorphoses into hard-bitten toughness that’s like a close-but-no-cigar female corollary to Snake Plissken. Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is the Rob Zombie surrogate, a snaggletoothed jokester who is eventually forced into rationalizing unfathomable, life-or-death scenarios; he’s a relatable character by the end. Perhaps most distinctive among our heroes is Venus (Meg Foster), an unassuming matriarch who possesses equal parts down-to-earth rationality, compassion, and delusion once events start to spiral downward – it’s a great performance (miles from her work in The Lords of Salem and They Live) that, like much of the rest of the ensemble, demands more development. On the villain end, the trio of McDowell, Geeson, and Carr deliver what they can with their vaguely-defined roles, while Elizabeth Daily leaves an impish impression as a cross between Baby Firefly and Harley Quinn. But it’s Brake’s Doom-Head who runs roughshod over the rest of the Rogues’ Gallery – a signature Zombie concoction who does S&M in a manner as queasy, unglamorous, and savage as the Cenobites in Hellraiser.

But overall, 31 is too conventional to transcend beyond its basest intentions. The ending is confusing and contradictory (and appears to have been edited out of order), and the film is too serious in tone to be just a winking homage. The Ginsu editing, gritty visuals, and disjointed narrative – the hallmarks of many horror directors working in the shadow of Zombie – have been too overused to exist solely for their own sake anymore. And with this year’s crop of similarly-themed survival-horror films – Green Room; Don’t Breathe; and Hush – going out of their way to push the genre forward,  feels hopelessly stuck in the 1970s.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) spends his days clowning around for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and writes horrific movie reviews by night. His work can also be found at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.


(Art via Joblo.)

12 Replies to “31 by Jonny Numb”

  1. Jonny, you’re review is as right as acid rain in Spokane!
    Amber and I were able to attend the limited early premier performance before its normal release, I guess.Amber paid. Thank you lawd! It had a good bit of extras after the film. While some may appreciate Zombie’s stated “screw the dissenters” attitude, I found it a lot harsh for those of us who continue to plop down lots of green to experience his horror gorefest or shock-on-carnagecrack vision. Amber’s a huge fan. I’m much less than that.
    It was cruel indeed to see the opening scene that I thought was rather brilliant only to have the recliner seats snatched from under us. It wasn’t until Richard Brake reappeared that the film became interesting again. His character and his performance of the killer clown maniac, exuding confidence, control, and a measure of evil authenticity was riveting. It’s a shame Zombie didn’t see this from behind the cameras. The entire clutch or gaggle of killers combined with the silliness of the three wigged clowns running the ludicrous show were quite laughable with a couple of hired killers bordering hysterical laughter. The Nazi dude could have been dispatched with an unarmed whisper.
    This one, 31, did nothing to improve the crispness, taste, and aroma of the hot-buttered popcorn because it was about 3/4 shy of horror soul… comedy (unintended) comes to mind. It reminded me of MOULIN ROGUE impregnated by either his way out there HALLOWEEN II or by the demon seed of THE LORDS OF SALEM’s wee Satan.
    Your rating is most generous. 1.5 at most here.

    1. I went to a preview screening, as well. The music videos beforehand were negligible (I’m not much of a fan of Rob Zombie’s music), but I actually appreciated the post-credits interview – even when his films miss the mark, he’s someone I could listen to rattle on about craft, influence, and technique for hours. Actually, I would’ve preferred that to 31 itself. But that “documentary preview” which followed the interview went on far too long…

      Like I said in my review, Zombie brings absolutely nothing new to the tired premise, and with other films this year picking up that subgenre slack, something as lazy as this is pretty inexcusable. I knew it wouldn’t be another GREEN ROOM, but it could’ve tried a LITTLE harder. If you want a more savage – and perhaps more honest – review, Consequence of Sound pulls no punches: http://consequenceofsound.net/2016/01/film-review-31/

      Still, I’m left with a quandary: as with his other films, I will probably be compelled to revisit 31 when the director’s cut is released, just to see if it makes any difference at all. (Don’t worry, Ron, I’ll take that hit for team.)

      1. Thanks, Jon. I’ll check out Consequence of Sound’s link and review of 31. Also, taking the director’s cut thing for the team is much appreciated. Amber and I were discussing this “director’s cut” craze earlier last week. It would seem more prudent to me to release the best possible cut of your film the first time and say screw the rating game crap. We’ve tossed plenty of bucks out the door on the more gruesome or harsher rated director’s cuts, and many times, it’s almost a total rip. Yet, Amber will insist we buy them. Just part of the racket, I suppose.
        As for me, RZ is quickly becoming a 1 to 1 1/2 at most trick, horror, carny ride. Of course, he isn’t alone in this. QT leaps to mind here.
        Killer review, though.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I will eventually, to be fair. I am apprehensive though. I’m a huge fan of Rob Zombie the person and his music. His movies though, not so much, aside from “The Devil’s Rejects” and “Lords of Salem”, which are the two highlights of his filmography.

    I was excited when “31” was announced in 2014, although a little put off that it was crowd-funded, but I understand that’s the times we live in. After further details were announced and trailers released, my heart sank. This bullshit again? Especially, after “Lords of Salem”, which seemed to be a welcomed departure for Zombie and an awakening for him and his fans.

    But as your review, and the reviews of many others have noted, this appears to be a regression. Funny you should add, Jonny, that this regression almost seems deliberate, because I agree. This can also be added to writer/director Kevin Smith, of who I am also a huge fan, whose filmography over the last ten years has taken a cognizant and depressing devolution.

    Why??? I just don’t get it.

    Anyway, thanks for the review, Jonny. I’ll check this movie out eventually.

    -Paul Williams

    1. Hey, Paul! As I read your comments, I realized that fans put pressure on directors like they put on their favorite bands: Keep it the same, don’t evolve, don’t change a thing. I always want to see directors I enjoy take me to new places. Yes, I love David Lynch’s work, and one can easily mark down the themes, motifs, and tone, etc. Yet, Takashi Miike, for example, is as eclectic as they come. For Miike fans, they don’t know what they’re going to get, but they’re usually not disappointed.

      Zombie’s and Smith’s fans need to let the directors they love break the mold they created so it doesn’t become a trap and destroy their storytelling passion.

      1. So true, Jonny. I suppose this touches upon the subject of one of your last podcasts: Fan service. I know firsthand it’s hard to write a “good” script and make a “good” movie, and I know there’s no magic formula for all this, so I’m definitely not suggesting it’s easy.

        And I’m certainly not suggesting these guys are “phoning it in”, but, I don’t know, there does seem to be a complacency to it all. They are famous millionaires married to hot women, so maybe they don’t feel the pressure as much.

        1. I don’t know, but I’d love to hear them answer as to why they do it.

          Radley Metzger stopped making movies because he stated that he had said everything with film he had wanted to. The only problem: Metzger made the same movie over and over again.

    2. Thanks for the comments and insights, Paul!

      With the notion of crowdfunding, I sometimes wonder if filmmakers (or artists in general) temper the end result to fan expectation, since they are the ones controlling the purse-strings. It does strike me as a slippery slope. I know a lot of Zombie’s fan base hated LORDS OF SALEM, and I told someone on Twitter my suspicion that 31 was a “penance project” to regain the supporters he’d lost. But while some of the high-profile horror sites have been singing its praises, I feel the reaction on the fan level is an altogether different beast.

      Let us know what you think once you see it!

  3. Hey guys,

    So I watched this last night. Admittedly, I liked it more than I thought I would (a byproduct of going in with low expectations, I suppose). Jonny, I completely agree with your review; it sums up my praise, complaints, and final score of the movie. I might only point out that I thought Sheri Moon’s (who is adorable) acting was terrible, and I don’t think it was purposely or consciously bad. It’s a poor performance facilitated by nepotism.

    Well, I’m sure Mr. Zombie will have a new movie in the near future. We’ll see what he has next for us…

    -Paul Williams

    1. Thanks again for the kind words, Paul!

      Nepotism aside, I honestly feel that Sheri Moon is good in Zombie’s other films, and that her performance here was more endemic of the rushed, slipshod quality of the film overall. None of the characters were developed enough for their fates to have much of an impact. As a result, the cast – containing some more-than-capable actors (Brake; Foster; even Phillips) – were left to flail with the half-baked script.

      That being said, some of the passages in 31 remain stuck in my head, and I will more than likely check out the Director’s Cut to see if it changes my opinion.

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