31 (dir. Rob Zombie)

Posted: September 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

It is very clear that Rob Zombie did not want to make “31”. In the Q&A that followed the Fathom Events screening of the film, he basically recounts that the film got made because he was trying to make a different film (a based-on-a-true-story drama about a hockey team), it fell through, and he thought he could come off with a simple and dumb idea off the top of his head in 30 seconds and it would be able to get financed much easier. He wasn’t quite right about the financing (it took two crowdfunding drives to raise the budget of “31”), but it’s easy to see by watching the film that Zombie didn’t have much heart in it.  It largely seems like Zombie was upset that “The Lords of Salem”, a film of his that was much different from his prior films, was a critical and commercial flop that many of his fans found disappointing. So, he decided to make a film that simply gave people what they all expect from a Rob Zombie movie, and not one iota more. We’ve got the 1970s, southern white trash, evil clowns, Nazi paraphernalia, unnecessarily vulgar sexual language, using the word “fuck” to sound tough, Sheri Moon Zombie, blaxsploitation  characters, and pretty much everything else you’re familiar with from “House of 1000 Corpses”, “The Devil’s Rejects”, or one of his “Halloween” remakes.  If you picture what a Rob Zombie movie is in your head, this movie goes the full Rob Zombie. It feels like Zombie is not making the film he wants to make, but rather the film he thinks his fans want from him, which makes sense given the fan-funded nature of the film. Still, “31” is not cynical or lazy. Zombie is a talented visual stylist, as showcased by his previous music video directing experience and his art work. “31” may narratively be something a mess, but it is often visually stunning given it’s no-budget factory set.

When the film begins, with a black-and-white scene in which the film’s most interesting and fun to watch villain, Doom-Head (Richard Brake, who steals the whole film) delivers a monologue to a soon-to-be-victim, it might as well be Zombie talking to the audience. Doom-Head says something along the lines of, despite looking like a clown, that he’s not here to entertain the victim…but, the least he can do is tell him a story. This feels like Zombie’s way of saying he’s upset that Hollywood won’t finance his movies and his fans didn’t appreciate it when he tried to do something out of the box (“Salem”), but that if his fans are willing to show up to a film of his (and pay to have it made) he feels he owes them a film (he thinks) they want to see. It’s a damn good scene, with better dialogue than Zombie is known for (dialogue is not really Zombie’s strong suit, as evidenced by any line that is spoken by a character other than Doom-Head in this film), and its sly metafictional purpose in the film reeks of Tarantino and is kind of appreciated.

The film proper begins after Doom-head dispatches with his victim. We’re introduced to a group of people who work for a carnival (their van seems too small to be travelling with the carnival’s equipment, so presumably that is shipped to their location separately). There’s Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), the blonde sexpot who hustles people into the carnival, Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), the young brains of the operation, Venus (Meg Foster) the owner, Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) who is Jamaican with the obligatory accent, and Levon (Kevin Jackson). There’s some other members too, but they don’t survive long. Anyway, as they travel through a rural area on Halloween night, they find some giant, scarecrow-looking voodoo dolls blocking the road. As Roscoe gets out to move them, they are beset upon on clowns dressed in striped prison outfits and are kidnapped. Then, they are chained up, numbered one through five, and we meet three people dressed in Victorian outfits, powdered wigs and all. The main Victorian fop is apparently named Father Murder (his name isn’t given in the film proper, just the credits) and he is played by the legendary Malcolm McDowell. Father Murder tells the five captives that they are going to play a game called 31, which seems to have that name because it takes place over 12 hours on Halloween night, which is of course the 31st of October. Basically, if the five can survive 12 hours inside this factory maze, they’ll be allowed to go free. But, they will be hunted by an assortment of murderers with “–Head” as suffixes to their name (Doom-Head, Sick-head, etc.) and the Victorians will place odds on each of the five surviving and place bets on them. The film misses a great opportunity to have a social message about the rich fucking with the poor here, but I don’t think Zombie gives much of a shit about social commentary.

The film”31” most resembles is “The Running Man”, as it involves our protagonists trying to out run and kill off a series of colorful pursuers for the viewing enjoyment of others. In the Q&A, Zombie claims it wasn’t a conscious influence, and that he was more influenced by “The Most Dangerous Game”, but “The Running Man” seems to have more in common. More contemporary comparisons could be made to “The Hunger Games”, with the emphasis placed on ever changing odds, but that comparison is, at best, superficial. Both “The Running Man” and “The Hunger Games” were social commentaries as well, though, so when Zombie claims that his films have “no socially redeeming value” it is less because of the subject matter and the genre than because he’s not interested in saying all that much.

The film has the violence you expect it to have (the film was rated NC-17 two or three times before being cut to an R rating), but unfortunately the violence is often filmed in a quick and very shaky-cam manner so you don’t really get to register it and “enjoy” it before the film cuts away. Whether this was intentional or was an after effect of trying to cut this down to an R I don’t know, but it doesn’t make much sense to make an exploitation horror film with a lot of violence if you’re going to make that violence so fast and barely visible that you hardly tell what is happening and to whom. There are axe murders, knife murders, chainsaw murders and more, but by the time your eyes can figure out what is going on, the kill scene is over.

What there is to love about this film are some of its visuals. Despite the almost nothing budget, this film finds a good way of making the sets interesting. Light fog, interesting lighting, and nice wall graffiti and scattered art direction make it seem like Zombie took notes on how to make a nothing space look great when he was working on the haunted house mazes for Universal Studios’s Halloween Horror Nights. One very impressive scene in the film involves a strobe light, and it is filmed in a different way than the rest of the film (seemingly with a super-sharp digital camera, whereas the rest of the film is shot in digital but processed to look like film stock). In most films with a strobe light scene, the film simulates the effects of a strobe light by simply cutting from the image to black rapidly, but it never feels like when you’re actually in a location where a strobe light is present. In this film, the scene in question features the first time I can recall in a film where the strobe light effect actually looks like when an actual strobe light is going off, with the odd perception of movement. This scene is not recommended for the epileptic. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but Zombie is the only director I have seen to successfully translate the strobe effect to a movie scene.

In addition, the scenes with Father Murder and his cohorts (played by Judy Gleeson and Jane Carr) are lit with candles with subtle lens flares and opulent, warm lighting. It feels like an homage to Kubricks “Barry Lyndon”, which makes sense since “Lords of Salem” was trying to be a mix of Kubrick and Argento. Hell, when “31” gives us fully naked women in Mardi Gras masks serving the Victorians, it seems like Zombie is throwing in an “Eyes Wide Shut” homage to boot.  Even if Zombie was being a little lazy with the screenwriting duties, he actually put effort into the direction, production design, and cinematography of this film. He’s showing off the tricks he can do in hopes of getting financing for his next film without the need to crowdfund. The finale scene of the film, which takes place with no dialogue and is scored very well to Steven Tyler’s solo version of “Dream On”, shows how well Zombie can cut a scene to a music, even if that scene doesn’t make much sense narratively and sidesteps plot concerns.

The music in the film feels Carpenter-esque at times, and more 80s than you’d expect for a film that sets itself (somewhat unnecessarily) in the late 70s, but I won’t complain. John 5 and crew, who scored the film, did a very nice job.

There are more than a few plot holes in the film and unexplained questions you will walk of the film asking. Far too many to raise in this review (and many would involve in depth spoilers). For a plot this relatively simple and straightforward, Zombie didn’t do his due diligence in making sure this world and its rules makes sense or is in any way clarified. This is a film that gives us a Hispanic little person dressed as Hitler, though, so perhaps no explanation can suffice.

“31” is not a successful film, but it is a film that is often really nice to look at, nice to listen to, and features a great, hypnotic performance by Brake as a pretentious but intimidating killer. Doom-Head is the one memorable creation of this film. I wish the scenes of violence weren’t done in shaky-cam and you could actually SEE the gore you came to see. I wish you cared more about the characters. I wish the backstory of the Victorians were more developed, and that some social commentary could have been attached to what they are doing. I’d like to know how and why they have an army of clowns on retainer for this little annual game they have. Really, just the operating details of 31 the game would have been nice.

“31” is a step up from “The Lords of Salem”, which was visually stunning but a complete mess on a story level, but after the height of “The Devil’s Rejects” Zombie’s film character has been stalled. “31” was the film he thought his fans wanted. “Salem” was the film Zombie wanted and his fans did not. Here’s hoping Zombie can make a film that will please both the fans AND himself next. C+

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