From the visionary mind of Rob Zombie comes the horrific story of five carnival workers who are kidnapped the night before Halloween and held hostage in a large compound. At the mercy of their captors, they are forced to play a twisted game or life or death called 31. For the next 12 hours they must fight for their lives against an endless parade of homicidal maniacs.
October 21, 2016
Elizabeth Daily as Sex-Head
Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly
Meg Foster as Venus Virgo
Malcolm McDowell as Father Murder
Rob Zombie cites the 1932 thriller The Most Dangerous Game, based on the classic short story by Richard Connell, as the inspiration for his latest horror film 31. Not The Hunger Games, (go cry me a river, tweens). Not Battle Royale, (shut up, hipsters). Either way, it’s an incredibly old story. So let’s say it together, shall we? A bunch of people are imprisoned and forced to fight for their lives for the amusement of the wealthy. Abandon all originality, ye who enter here.
That’s not to say 31 doesn’t have a lot going for it. The story isn’t fresh out of the oven, but the villains certainly are. Katniss Everdeen never fought a little person sporting Nazi swastikas, or a living sex doll, or a redneck clown spouting philosophy in a Deliverance drawl. She’d probably sh*t herself. Rob Zombie has made the kind of “Rob Zombie film” he thinks we all expect from him, and sometimes even the best magician can’t hide all the strings.
Halloween, 1976. A group of carnival workers stop for gas in the middle of nowhere. Their leader is a stoner named Roscoe, (Jeff Daniel Phillips). Roscoe accidentally divulges their destination to a hitchhiking floozy. A series of unfortunate events later, Roscoe and his group find themselves at the mercy of a foppish Malcolm McDowell, as well as some other aristocratic English sadists. If I seem nonchalant with the setup, that’s only because Rob Zombie could care less about any of these people. He should’ve just started with the killing.
Well, to Zombie’s credit, he does. The opening scene, (featured heavily in the marketing), is a masterpiece unto itself. A black-and-white short film essentially, it features Richard Brake as McDowell’s jocular assassin Doom-Head. Brake is the reason to see this movie. His acting work is extensive, most notably The Night King on HBO’s Game of Thrones. There is a depravity in his Q-ball eyes, a cruelty in his snaggletooth smile, that makes your blood turn to ice cubes.
Doom-Head, bedecked in clown white, pontificates to his latest victim about Hell and popcorn, before dispatching the poor soul with an axe. The camera holds steady and steadfast on his face the whole time. No tricks, no gimmicks. Just pure intensity, rendered in sharp chiaroscuro. If only the rest of 31 had been this sophisticated. But once again, you have to give Rob Zombie credit. He knows what kind of movie you’re paying to see.
Malcolm McDowell, channeling Caligula in a powdered wig, makes a deal with his prisoners. If they can fight off his assassins until the end of Halloween night, hence the number “thirty-one” of the title, he will release them. Who will survive? Maybe it will be the scrappy Charly, (Sheri Moon Zombie). She’s a hellcat, you can tell from her skimpy midriff with a lion on it. Maybe it will be Venus Virgo, (Meg Foster), the prostitute with the heart of gold. Naturally the two black guys die first, (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Kevin Jackson, who are both quite good by the way). Maybe it will be Roscoe. Nah, probably not Roscoe.
Sheri Moon Zombie is the closest heir apparent to a Heather Langenkamp “scream queen” we’re going to get. Her acting is consistent, believable, and always a compliment to her husband’s work. But here she is given a run for her money by Meg Foster, my second favorite performance in 31. Foster’s Venus Virgo is a force of nature, and far more sympathetic as the proxy mother of the group. There wasn’t a moment when I didn’t love her chutzpah.
Ironically, the movie suffers from its own efficiency. 31 was shot in twenty days, which is remarkable from a technical standpoint. I have nothing but mad respect for the design departments, and the movie gets an extra star for their work alone. The production design by Rodrigo Cabral is a symphony of nastiness. Glenn Garland, Zombie’s go-to editor, keeps the story tightly paced throughout. His work is all-at-once seventies vintage and innovative. Maybe freeze frames will be back in style again, like bell-bottoms. It’s all very well done, and it adds up to very little.
The quick cuts and tight, handheld shots feel like a conscious attempt to compensate for a lack of time, budget, and resources. That is commendable on a pragmatic level, though not particularly innovative. Zombie’s shaky cam doesn’t just shake, it seizures. This sledgehammer approach seems to be his trademark now, his brand of magician misdirection. But does it actually elevate the material? Well, maybe the same way a quarter pounder tastes better with cheese. Or the addiction young Michael Myers had to candy corn, in Rob Zombie’s unnecessary remake of Halloween. Too much of a good thing can make you sick.
After a while, despite all the sturm und drang, it just gets old. The film feels like a pantomime. The assassins are surface level in their freakishness. Am I supposed to laugh at the little person in the Hitler mustache, as he guts the black guy? Is there really nothing more you want to say, Rob? One clown hacks at poor old Roscoe with a chainsaw, while screaming “I’m gonna kill you!” I’m glad the script felt the need to tell me that, because lord knows the bloody chainsaw wasn’t cutting it. The one popcorn kernel of meaning, the working class fear of the one percent, sadly goes undeveloped in favor of diatribes about… well, popcorn.
31 is currently playing in a theater near you. It’s a must see for any Horrorhound. As I mentioned earlier, mad props to the design work. You will lose your head over one decapitation scene in particular. Such joie de vivre would have been better served by a more thoughtful script. But a Rob Zombie film isn’t about ideas. It’s about the sheer Dionysian pleasure of sensory overload. You’re either on that bus, or you’re not.