31 (2016)

The Show Must Go On

I really wanted to like Rob Zombie’s 31 — I honestly did. I dig his grungy, ’70s grindhouse aesthetic, his bleak, grainy canvases and that feeling of violent, brutal confusion that the musician-turned-filmmaker seems to be able to capture almost effortlessly. You see, Rob Zombie wants to make ‘good’ films, films that will appease his extremely loyal fan base; so, in this regard, it saddens me to report that 31 is a bloody disappointment and a darn right mess. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that 31 is Zombie’s most pedestrian effort to date. Who needs a plot when you’ve got chainsaws, swastikas and sickos, right? Wrong!

31 takes place in 1976, on Halloween to be exact (which probably alludes to the pic’s title, although it’s never actually made clear), where we meet a group of traveling carnival workers — including Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Levon (Kevin Jackson), and Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips).

Death is the Only Escape
Death is the Only Escape

After they’re attacked and abducted by a secret society, the carnies awaken to find themselves chained up in front of a group of elderly folk clad in aristocratic garments, powdered wigs and 18th century make-up. That’s where we meet Malcolm McDowell’s Father Murder, a gamemaster who informs his ‘prisoners’ that they’ll soon be partaking in a simple competition whereby ‘contestants’ are set loose into a large isolated compound known as Murderworld, along with a number of blood-thirsty maniacs dressed in carnivalesque outfits, where they must survive for a total of 12 hours. As a crazy host of five ‘whatever’ Heads pursue our protagonists, bets are placed on the competitor’s odds of survival, each fighting to stay alive.

While 31 may sound okay in theory (and on paper), the film just doesn’t work, this part and parcel to Zombie’s paper-thin script, which never evolves beyond its wicked idea. Firstly, the characters are bland and insipid: the antagonists don’t have a motive and the victims lack depth, their only function, to be murdered in bland and unexciting ways. The movie itself is also a victim of repetition, the narrative basically echoing a humdrum cycle that goes as follows — a demented killer steps out of the shadows, shouts some sorta filthy threat, the participants flee, the executioner catches up, good guys/ bad guys die, rinse and repeat.

'Quit clowning around!'
‘Quit clowning around!’

Unlike similarly themed pics such as The Hunger Games series (2012-15) or even The Running Man (1987), there’s nothing to dissect here, no weight, no subtext, nada, just a mishmash of better movies, and violence for the sake of violence. The flick is also littered with predictable kills (most of them happening off-screen) made almost unwatchable by Zombie’s nauseating shaky cam and use of unnecessary close-ups. Additionally, in an effort to go quasi-Tarantino, Zombie injects proceedings with painful monologues about blood, death and whatnot, all of which add up to nothing, these bits and pieces slowing down momentum when it ought to be flowing.

A prime example of style over substance, 31 (at least) looks ferociously slick. The painted assassins, for one, are interesting on a visual level; we’ve got Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a twisted Nazi-midget with a red nose, a couple of chainsaw-wielding rednecks named Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), an unhinged nymphomaniac who calls herself Sex-Head (Elizabeth Daily) her defender, the tutu-wearing hulk Death-Head (Torsten Voges), and the Sadistic murderer Doom-Head (Richard Brake) — each clad in a well-designed signature costume that enhances the picture’s drab stench of dread. Similarly, the coarse cinematography by David Daniel, State Property (2002), is both gorgeous and bleak, whilst the wild sweltering sets capture that feeling of sickness that Zombie fans have somewhat come to expect — a standout being the vaginal-like entrance of a kinky funhouse.

Rob Zombie's Passion Play
Rob Zombie’s Passion Play

Performances aren’t bad either, despite the flick’s overall sense of hollowness. Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange (1971), relishes his role as Father Murder, the 73-year-old veteran bringing the devilish deviant to life with a playful breath of foulness while his cohorts Jane Carr, The Five-Year Engagement (2012), and Judy Geeson, The Lords of Salem (2012), are equally as eerie, portraying Sisters Serpent and Dragon, respectively. Richard Brake, Batman Begins (2005), is wonderfully deranged as the lethal adversary Doom-Head (perhaps Zombie’s version of The Joker), whilst relative unknown Pancho Moler is solid as the grotesque dwarf who resembles a mini Hitler, Psycho-Head. And oh, Zombie regular Sheri Moon, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), looks flippin’ smokin’ as the butt-kicking babe Charly (if only she had a personality to go with those good looks).

A serious step-down in quality from 2012’s darkly poetic The Lords of Salem, 31 stands as a missed opportunity for writer-director Zombie, who’s unable to distract audiences with his usual manic energy. Nasty (in all the wrong ways), self-indulgent and downright tedious, 31 is an undercooked gonzo sideshow, one that doesn’t feature a single thing worth caring about. If you want to spend 102 minutes in the company of one-dimensional characters being trailed by baddies with rusty tools and little to no motive, be my guest.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

31 is released through Monster Pictures Australia