Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Producer: Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro, Eddie Vaisman, Andy Gould, Rob Zombie, Mike Elliott
Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Richard Brake, Jane Carr, Judy Geeson, Malcolm McDowell
A group of captured carnival workers is forced to play a game of survival in a gauntlet of psychotic clowns.
It’s worth wondering what the general perception of Rob Zombie as a filmmaker would be without his “Halloween” duology in the mix. People predisposed to disliking Zombie, whether it be “sellout” accusations or an aversion to his music equating to distaste for his movies, merely mention “Halloween” in the same breath as “Rob Zombie” and an automatic debate ensues with the remake (review here) and its sequel as the sole focus.
Like him or not, Rob Zombie is inarguably among the most distinctive voices in contemporary horror cinema. There is no mistaking a Rob Zombie film when you see one, and that statement applies to a relative minority of modern moviemakers in the genre, e.g. James Wan, Mike Flanagan, and Ti West being among others who immediately spring to mind.
Commonly, Zombie is criticized/complimented for exploitation-era aesthetics and wifebeater-wearing characters dealing in obscenity-choked dialogue, conventions which are characteristic components of his films. So are familiar faces in his casts, classic rock soundtracks, and sepia-toned settings finishing that flashback feel of sleazy seventies style. We can dispute how successful he is at achieving intended ends through such means, but Zombie nevertheless fits the popularized definition of an auteur. And horror fandom often seems unable to academically mull his merits as a creative personality without “Halloween” constantly clouding the conversation.
With a different talking point, we might collectively be better positioned to objectively dissect the value of a movie like “31” and the position it deserves in Zombie’s filmography. No doubt someone, perhaps multiple someones, will praise “31” as his/her favorite Rob Zombie film, though I can’t imagine why.
It’s initially all well and good to follow the expected modus operandi of trailer trash plunking poop into toilets, making lewd offers related to scrotums, and licking black teeth while brandishing a blade at a woman’s neck flesh. In one sense, that’s precisely what we’ve been conditioned to expect of a Rob Zombie production. In another, that’s more of a disappointment than a success with “31.” Because with six consecutive features now tapping into this telltale brand of roadside hillbilly horror, following formula no longer challenges audiences to be shocked, terrified, titillated, or entertained.
It’s October 31st, 1976. (Perhaps intentionally defiant with the date, Rob Zombie is not helping my case to separate him from horror’s favorite holiday.) Traveling carnies Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda, Venus, and a handful of other unlikely-named companions are waylaid on a desolate highway by unknown assailants. Bound and gagged, the group is dragged before Malcolm McDowell, wearing a powdered wig and flanked by two makeup-caked dowager-types reading rules off a scroll in English accents. Imagine Tom Cruise in a mask or Tommy Lee Jones in gold paint to fill out the visualization.
Those not killed in the initial capture have been sentenced to play a survival game in “Murderworld,” a mashup of “The Running Man” meets “Saw” meets “The Purge,” but with considerably less chilling charm than those movies. Charly and the carnies have 12 hours to make it through a maze-like industrial building, fighting their way past a cabal of craven clowns, differentiated by little more than their costumes and whether they choose English or German to shout about all the bodily orifices they threaten to forcibly insert themselves into.
That’s essentially as deep as “31” digs. In spite of all attempts, and there are plenty, to throw repeated gut punches of grit-infused imagery and psychologically-suggestive terror, “31” is Rob Zombie at his tamest, plagiarizing his past films (and some others) for a microwaved reheating of repetitive action-horror. By the time clowns #2 and #3 of six enter revving chainsaws and spitting profanities through dirt-stained masks, it’s evident that superficial substance is all the film has on hand.
Jeff Daniel Phillips plays a shockingly unsympathetic Final Guy defined by whining and wimpiness. The script gives Sheri Moon Zombie inconsistent moments for making her role as memorable as Baby Firefly or Deborah Myers. Her Charly is alternately on an arc of empowerment or simply ineffectually irrelevant. With protagonists this bland and antagonists so thinly motivated, there are no gears to grind for building a momentum of menace, madness, or meaningful heroics.
Had this been Rob Zombie’s first film, there would be food for thought regarding misogynistic mayhem, redneck rage, and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”-type homage. Having overeaten on these themes already starting with “House of 1,000 Corpses” and running all the way through “The Lords of Salem” (review here), it’s hard not to see “31” as Zombie’s “Greatest Hits” compilation, except the timing isn’t yet ripe for relying on past triumphs when considerable room remains for moving forward.
If you want a “battle to the death” thriller where unwilling contestants are forced to fight for the amusement of elitist spectators, seek out Josh C. Waller’s “Raze” (review here) with Zoe Bell. Not only does it flip the typical script somewhat with an all-female core, the action hits harder because the cast has better characterizations and a fuller story to hook into.
Review Score: 45