[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.)