“It’s time to play 31”. Violence has been the cornerstone of the Horror genre for as long as I can remember. Today there’s many sub-genres within horror, most of which contain violent themes but even before we specifically started categorizing films, there’s been violence in cinema. Back in the early 30’s there were films like James Whale’s, “The Invisible Man” and “Frankenstein” that illustrated a fair share of violence (given the times). Since then we’ve seen the birth of the iconic “Slasher” and its subsequent rejuvenation, in addition to graphic works like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Salo 120 Days Of Sodom”, all the way through to a new wave of extreme horror that’s coming out of Asia and Europe. Takashi Miike’s “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer” initiated what would eventually become known as “torture porn”, ultimately leading us all the way to the farfetched works of Olaf Ittenbach (Dard Divorce and No Reason) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police and Mutant Girls Squad), both Directors of exaggerated movies coined as “Splatter films”. As we’ve all evolved and grown (well most of us), so has the genre and its hardcore fans ongoing appetite for violence. For the most part, my love for the genre lies more in the behind the scenes phase, I take interest in the creative process as much as I do the end result. I don’t advocate violence simply for shock value. Showcasing the talent of special fx artists, via realistic practical effects isn’t violence for violence sake (at least not in my mind). Some of the most extreme films, such as the appalling “A Serbian Film” or aforementioned “Cannibal Holocaust”, have no real reason to exist other than to shock and disgust. They essentially have no redeeming qualities, they’re not art, they’re not meaningful and they’re most certainly not entertaining (if you find them entertaining I suggest you seek professional help).
This brings me to 31, the latest Horror film from Musician turned Filmmaker, Rob Zombie. Here’s a guy that up until 2003, only had experience shooting music videos until he came crashing onto the scene with “House Of 1000 Corpses”, a film about a backwater family of sadistic killers (I still haven’t seen it yet). Since then, he’s made four more feature-length films, most notably a stellar remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, “Halloween” and 31 is his fifth effort. I’ve seen all of his films excluding his first and there’s no doubt that each have been a startling experience in their own right and making that sort of impact is a big part of succeeding in the genre. 31 is about five traveling carnival workers who are kidnapped, held hostage in a compound of sorts and forced to play a life or death game called 31. The goal of which is to survive 12 hours against a group of sadistic clowns. The carnie’s consist of motherly figure, Venus (played by Meg Foster of “Lords Of Salem” Zombie’s previous film), free-spirited, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Levon (Kevin Jackson). The film also stars Richard Brake, Pancho Moler, David Ury, Lew Temple and Malcolm McDowell.
Let’s begin with the obvious shall we? The poster art. It’s a great layout and design that will undoubtedly change when the film hits DVD and Blu Ray, unfortunately these types of one sheets don’t stick around long. One might compare aspects of 31’s premise to that of Leigh Whannell/ James Wan’s “Saw” franchise. They’d be right in terms of the game style and set amount of time for events to play out in but this is a tonally completely different. What I mean by that is simply this, Rob Zombie films have a certain harshness about them, he’s a pulls no punches kind of guy and if you’re a hardcore horror fan that’ll please you and you have to respect that even if you’re not a fan of his. The very opening sequence of the film is one of my favorites, it’s in Black and White which is extremely effective. A slender man in the distance steps out of the light and into the shadows, the constant sound of dripping water echoes, as he makes his way down a dark and dingy basement corridor to address the camera (and in turn the viewer). From there, “Doom-Head” (played by Richard Brake of “Ray Donovan”) explains to the audience what’s about to take place, what you’re going to witness and why you’re going to witness it. It’s a disturbing introduction that showcases a hate filled monologue, some great makeup and really good foley to kick the film into gear.
The opening credits reveal that the movie is set in 1976, on display are some trendy Polaroids of the traveling carnival group doing their thing, being young and wild and free. I dig the 70’s aesthetic when it’s done well, look at films like Tarantino’s, “Death Proof” and Mickey Keating’s pulsating Suspense/Thriller, “Carnage Park” *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/carnage-park-review/. Zombie’s worked inside the parameters of the 70’s before, so his approach to the color palette here is much the same as it was in “The Devils Reject” and even the Halloween reboot. Washed out saturation and gritty detailing are what make this one feel like a 70’s exploitation flick. Scenes with the group in transit feel directly lifted from Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, minus them picking up a hitchhiker (which actually almost happens haha). Apart from the opening scenes, the highlight in a cinematic sense is a series of fantastic aerial shots over grimy and decayed bathroom stalls, eventually landing on a frightened Charly. As I said earlier, the foley all sounds great, as does the horn and tornado sound warnings used to commence the game. There’s a stylish, 1920’s piece of blues/jazz music toward the beginning and when the suspense picks up, the rest is a bass and synth pumping soundtrack. The detail in set design is yet another well conceived element of 31. You have to admire Zombie’s extravagant set pieces, he’s been doing it for years and you can’t say these aspects of the production value take a backseat when he’s driving because they don’t.
A lot of the cast is made up of Zombie’s regulars, most notably his wife Sheri Moon as well as Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips (both from Lords Of Salem) and the infamous Malcolm McDowell. I think as much as he likes working and reuniting with old friends, he’s all about the right look for his characters. I know fans were complaining that Bill Moseley (who plays Otis in The Devils Rejects) wasn’t cast as Doom-Head or at least one of the other psychotic clowns. I’m not saying Moseley wouldn’t have fit the part but everyone was chosen for a specific reason. For example, both Jacobs and Jackson have that 70’s feel about them, I bought them as carnie members even with their uneven performances. Phillips sports those extra long side burns that flow into a gnarly mustache and beard… very 70’s. As for Meg Foster, she looks like she’s done it hard and that goes hand in hand with her character of Venus. Sheri Moon is a rarity in the sense that she’s got a sort of natural beauty about her (not often seen in this film) but she can play the promiscuous, foul-mouthed trashy girl well too. The supporting cast members have their moments but overall they lack consistency, however, there’s a couple of memorable performances in 31 and they come from Richard Brake and of course the accomplished Malcolm McDowell. Brake’s controlled aggression in regard to the portrayal of Doom-Head, makes him completely unpredictable. The peeling white makeup, greasy hair and distinctive teeth are unnerving in their own right but add Richard’s gaunt body type and it really makes that character. McDowell plays the master of games “Father Murder”. He dons aristocrat garb better suited to a revolutionary war picture but it’s still neat all the same. He’s got wonderful diction and he’s had a flair for the theatrics ever since Kubrick’s, “Clockwork Orange”, so this suits him perfectly. It’s great to see Tracy Walter in a small cameo again, that guy should just buy a convenience store or a mechanics garage because he’s always playing characters with those kind of roles (haha).
The most common question surrounding 31 is, How violent is it? Zombie came right out and said that this was his most violent film to date but I’m not sure I’d agree with that. Based on what I’ve seen, The Devils Rejects still holds that honor. Now that’s not to say 31 doesn’t have its fair share of carnage. There’s five other clowns roaming the warehouse besides Doom-head. A chainsaw wielding, brother duo called Schizo-Head and Psycho-Head (played by Ury and Temple), a crazy couple in Death-Head and Sex-Head (Torsten Voges and Elizabeth Daily) and a little maniac that goes by Sick-Head (Moler). Each of these villains enter one at a time and do their best to kill our five players and you just know Doom-Head is going to re-enter the fold at some point. You have to wait a little longer than expected for the good stuff, which can be a bit of a drag but gore hounds will still be pretty impressed. All the effects are practical and look quite good, the addition of the chainsaw in the clown sub-genre has been long overdue. Other than Marcus Koch’s “100 Tears”, I don’t recall seeing another clown film involving an extended use of the chainsaw. There’s another couple of impressive kills in which a spiked bat is used and a couple of throats are slit. Due to the hype surrounding the film and everything that it promised, I can’t help but feel a little let down in terms of the delivery and what was offered up with on-screen kills.
Let’s talk about the biggest issues with 31, the shooting style, lighting and of course that dialogue. Just because this is gritty and brutal in content doesn’t mean Zombie has to make it hard on the eyes. This is such a difficult watch in terms of the film making process. There’s a healthy (or more accurately, unhealthy) dose of carnage, or so it would seem but the shooting style lacks any kind of control. One can only think that everything is so rapidly edited in order to mask the lack of actual on-screen violence that Zombie initially promised us. It’s disappointing that there’s no graphic kills until almost half way through, to be fair, I heard that Rob went through a lot of cuts to actually get a license for a theatrical release. It begs the question, for someone who has a reputation for doing as he pleases, why is he suddenly worrying about the appropriate cut for a theatrical release. 31 was a mostly crowd funded project and I know theaters are where you get a return on your money but if he’s really about making a truly visceral film then show it to audiences how it was intended to be shown. In several of the stills above you can see some effective mood lighting, unfortunately that all goes south in the actual film. This is by far Zombie’s worst lit film, so much so that it completely distracts you from what’s happening on-screen. There’s some circular colored lights reflecting on and off the lens during the chainsaw sequences, followed by what feels like five or ten minutes of horrendously intense strobe flickers toward the end of the film.
Zombie’s dialogue, at least in any of his original work, has always been rather crude and I suppose that’s par for the course with the kinds of horror films he makes. However, the writing in 31 is unbelievably juvenile and crass and that’s not just coming from our villains mouths. We get it, these clowns are bad people and for the most part they have no redeeming qualities but what’s with our so-called protagonists? A majority of the dialogue is just trash that plays as filler until the violence hits. The conversations that take place in the camper were difficult to make out and there’s no subtitles for the small portion of foreign dialogue throughout the film. I found a lot of the linguistic riffing quite offensive (and I’m not easily offended) and it will no doubt be seen as demeaning toward women, especially when there’s sexual content being spouted off by the brother duo at an alarming rate. I think I speak for us all when I say we could have done without the extra nightmare scene involving Schizo-Head and Psych-Head because it’s just more of the same sleazy junk being spewed out. Audiences might be disgusted with what they hear but they won’t be scared by these clowns because they just talk way too much and it negates any tension that could have been created. If I’ve learnt anything from Horror it’s usually that less is more (in terms of the suspense). Our cast playing carnies are only given a bare bones arc to work with, which I’m sure was Zombie’s intention but what you’re left with in the end are characters you can’t invest in because you haven’t learnt to care about them.
If you can get past the shoddy presentation and cheap talk you’ll still be witness to some forced acting and uncomfortable innuendo, the gas station sequence involving Phillips and Daily’s characters comes to mind (similar to The Devils Rejects). The kidnapping sequence begins so hurriedly that you can’t make out where the striped men come from or how they’re able to gather everyone together so quickly. Not to mention the action can’t be seen properly because the scene is way too dark. Then there are problems with the finer points of the plot development as well. You’ve got three characters led by McDowell’s “Father Murder”, who are overseeing the game and make announcements while re-adjusting their wagers on who might win the game. Somehow they seem to know everything that’s happening in the game at any given time, yet it’s the 70’s so there’s no technological advancements available. There doesn’t appear to be any surveillance, we don’t see them monitoring anything and they don’t receive any phone calls in regard to the events of the game, So how do they know what’s going on? My biggest gripe is that you’ve got Sick-Head dressed as a Nazi, being played by a Chilean actor, yet for some reason he speaks in Spanish. Then you’ve got Death-Head, who appears to be speaking German but he’s dressed like a transvestite and not a Nazi like he should have been, it’s all back to front and I’m not sure what Zombie was thinking. The part that really had me scratching my head is the complete absence of the mandatory freak out moment. You know what I’m talking about, that moment in any given Horror film when the individual or group finds themselves in a life or death situation and they lose their shit like a shit collector with amnesia (a quote from Dane Cook). Each one of our protagonists adjusts to the severity of the situation without a moments trepidation. There’s no struggle, no breaking down, it’s just suddenly they have it in them to kill and to do so without hesitation (for the most part anyways). A true horror fan loves to watch the process of those ordinary characters do something extraordinary and rise above and beyond in the face of certain death and 31 just doesn’t have that. There’s an effective ending to the film that I was genuinely impressed by but it’s somewhat negated due to the unnecessary twist that follows.
I’ve been eagerly anticipating Rob Zombie’s, 31 for over 12 months and with that comes a lot of expectation, especially when he promised so much. There’s no ifs, buts or maybe’s, 31 is an unapologetic, nihilistic, no holds barred, mean-spirited film from a Director who likes to push boundaries. Let’s ignore for a second that Billy Pon’s, “Circus Of The Dead” which also centers on a carnival of clowns and features a disturbing leader (played by Bill Oberst Jr.), was probably committed to screen long before the idea for 31 even entered Zombie’s twisted head, *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/circus-of-the-dead-review/. So with that in mind, I dug the 70’s aesthetic and the limited cinematic camera work, most notably the chilling introduction and Brake’s first appearance. Most of the music works and the sound effects are unbelievably sharp, Zombie’s usual attention to detail in the set design is a positive. Performance wise, McDowell and Brake are leaps and bounds ahead of the supporting cast, I suppose Sheri does her bit too. There’s a steady blood flow and a good variety of kills but unfortunately some terrible editing and shaky camera work ruin most of what’s presented to us. There’s no sugar-coating it, the gritty shooting style and hyperactive lighting are just plain bad and the worst I’ve seen from any of Rob Zombie’s film. The dialogue is tasteless and empty, whether that be chit-chat among the group of carnies or threats from the clowns. The characters arcs completely lack individuality and some of the specifics in the plot development don’t add up. The big thing for hardcore fans is that the violence an on-screen havoc don’t live up to expectations. For all its hype, 31 is probably Zombie’s weakest film and I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed in a Horror film for a long time. I suggest fans keep an eye out for Damien Leone’s upcoming film “Terrifier”, it’s another clown film promising bigger and better things…. maybe you’ll have more luck with that.
My rating for “31” is 5/10