PLOT: A group of carnies are abducted and forced to play a deadly game where, to gain their freedom, they have to survive twelve hours in a labyrinth while being hunted by psycho-clowns.
REVIEW: You have to admire Rob Zombie. More than a lot of other genre directors out there, he has a sensibility and style thatís immediately recognizable. Much of this comes from his love of seventies grindhouse cinema. While 31 is definitely a step back into the horror mainstream compared to the experimental LORDS OF SALEM, it delivers exactly what hardcore horror fans probably want.
The premise is nothing new, with this feeling like a kind of THE RUNNING MAN/SAW/TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE mash-up, but Zombieís balls-to-the-while style and sense of character distinguishes it. In a festival full of ambitious, art-house fare, 31 feels like a kind of respite, in that itís unapologetically a piece of ultra-violent, grindhouse horror, with so much gore itís amazing this has somehow squeaked by with an R-rating.
In an era of PG-13 horror films, movies like this often get ignored by the mainstream and sure enough, Zombie had to crowdfund it. In that respect, he gave the fans exactly what they paid for. Itís probably his most straightforward film, but itís also far-from watered down. If this had been made by a studio, the leads would have likely been a group of fresh-faced, sexy teens. Instead, Zombieís cast real veteran actors, which allows them to distinguish their characters and build enough of a sense of camaraderie that once they start getting picked off youíre sorry as theyíre fun to watch.
Of the heroes, genre icon Meg Foster is the most interesting as the carnyís matriarch, followed by Jeff Daniel Phillips as the gangís handyman. Neither of them seems like a traditional horror lead and both look like real people, making them interesting to watch in a film like this. Vets Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Kevin Jackson also lend the film a unique presence, while Sheri Moon Zombie fits her part to a tee but makes her more than the sex bomb sheís initially presented as.
The villains are a colorful lot, and are led by Richard Brake, who gives a a really dynamic performance as the deadliest killer of the bunch. Itís obvious Brakeís character is the one Zombieís the most intrigued by, so he gets several ambitious scenes, with an opening monologue running several minutes.
As far as carnage goes, Zombieís thrown-in everything but the kitchen sink, with buckets (and buckets) of gore, chainsaw fights, decapitations and more. The production design and cinematography feels high-end for a modestly budget horror flick but Zombieís gotten a lot of bang for his buck. The only things that really donít work here are the shoe-horned in cameos by Malcolm McDowell and vets Jane Carr and Judy Geeson as the puppet masters for the killing. It would have been more interesting if this had been left ambiguous and feels like just another couple of names for the billing. The violence also gets a little too close to torture porn for my tastes at times, but again thatís what the audience for this probably wants.
Gore-hounds and horror fans will no doubt love every second of 31. Even more casual genre fans may get a kick out of Zombieís style and grand guignol approach. Itís a very solid piece of genre cinema and while Iíd still love to see him breakout of the genre heís been pigeonholed in, it canít be denied the man knows horror and what a whole lot of fans want.