PLOT: On Halloween night in 1976, five traveling carnies are abducted by a trio of rich sadists who force them to play a game called 31, in which they must survive 12 hours of being hunted by crazed psychopaths dressed as clowns.
REVIEW: Anyone who had hoped that, at this point, Zombie might've figured out how to actually make a movie that doesn't resemble a combination of backwoods carnival and gaudy music video will be quite disappointed by 31, an inept, amateurish, completely disposable piece of work that feels like it was made by someone making a parody of Rob Zombie movies. After six films it can now be firmly established Rob Zombie doesn't really know what makes an impactful horror movie tick. He knows how to splash blood and filth across the screen, sure, but the nuances and artfulness necessary to a truly effective thriller escape him almost completely. With the exception of THE LORDS OF SALEM, which somewhat reined back Zombie's worst impulses, he has constructed the same movie a handful of times now. Horror is just a blurry, trashy maelstrom in Rob Zombie's world; all subtlety and creativity need not apply.
Quick aside: During a featurette screened after the film (a special presentation by Fathom Events), Zombie admitted that the idea for 31 came to him quite randomly while he was on the phone with a colleague. Impulsively challenging himself to come up with a movie that he could get financed, 31 is literally the work of someone who thought, "Here's something I can get made, let's do it." Now, I'm sure there have been other movies made on a similar whim, but it speaks to what I think is Zombie's lack of insight into the genre. Stabbing and shrieking and obnoxious perversion are his most trusty ingredients. Must everything be so grimly chintzy? Is there only one approach to scenes of violence and death? Look, it's Zombie's right to do what he wants, I'm not going to demand he change his style or inclinations. But it's simply not working for me at all. (And I actually somewhat defended LORDS OF SALEM when it first came out, because it least it looked like Zombie was on board with trying something a little different. It wasn't exactly a good movie, but it wasn't the same old thing. But here he is, back to his old tricks.)
The conceit in 31 is that some rich weirdos who dress like they're French aristocrats kidnap people once a year and torture them for their pleasure. (The movie is set on Halloween but it actually has nothing to do with the holiday.) Their marks this time are a band of traveling carnies (or whoever they are), made up of Charley (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). Who are these people? What are they actually doing? Where are they going? Zombie barely even touches upon these questions; they're just a band of dolts who we as an audience identify as protagonists so we know who to "root" for when the shit hits the fan. It's always been clear the Zombie has little or no sympathy for the victims of his horror shows; he's the kind of dude who relates to the bad guy (which is why we got the utterly ridiculous Michael Myers backstory in his horrible HALLOWEEN remake or the f*ck-off ending of THE DEVIL'S REJECTS), but his total refusal to make this group personable in any way proves that Zombie has zero interest in giving us flesh and blood characters. He can't wait to get to his bevy of sideshow freaks; and once our group is abducted on a stretch of isolated road (in a sequence that is so frantic I legitimately couldn't tell what was going on) they're abruptly thrust into a nightmarish game in which the three rich pricks (led by Malcolm McDowell) force them to wander about an abandoned warehouse while a series of murderous clowns hunt them with chainsaws and other sharp instruments of death. It's THE RUNNING MAN set in a gas station bathroom.
Simple premise, fine. DON'T BREATHE, to use a very recent example, proves you don't need a complicated plot to make a solid horror movie. In fact, some of most effective horror movies use their simple premises as springboards to showcase bravura filmmaking. But Zombie has no neat ideas up his sleeve, no surprises in store, no creative flourishes to enhance the threadbare story. 31 plays out even less imaginatively than its bare-bones plot would suggest. One sequence after another involves our dumb heroes hiding in a room for a minute and then being set upon by crass, shouting maniacs. Shoddily choreographed fights ensue, someone dies, repeat. (Sometimes Zombie will use a freeze-frame to close out a scene, with middling results.) It would be one thing if the villains were interesting, but they all talk and act pretty much alike (the main exception is a Spanish dwarf dressed like a Nazi - wow, pretty crazy, huh?) and they all expire in uninteresting ways. The good guys never earn our sympathy because they don't have personalities of their own, so we genuinely don't give a shit what happens to them.
All of Zombie's easily identifiable flaws as a filmmaker are on display, early and often. Unappealing, foul-mouthed characters who generally sound like they never made it past the 5th grade? Check. Frenzied action sequences that mistake maniacal camera movement for excitement? Check. A complete lack of suspense or scares but an overwhelming amount of squishy stabbings, drool and spittle? Check. Zombie has no handle on how to mount tension in a sequence; he bludgeons you with noise and nastiness and the effect is nothing short of boring. I can't even describe how poorly executed the fight scenes in this movie are. All close-ups and nausea-inducing shaky cam and "what the f*ck is happening right now"? You want to scream, "Zoom out, for the love of God!" at least a dozen times during this movie.
The main villain, Doom-Head (Richard Brake), is the best example of how far Zombie still has to go when it comes to crafting a character. When we meet him, in the movie's first and most interesting scene, he greets us (and his victim) with an oddly alluring dramatic flair, which is in direct opposition to his grotesque clown-from-hell visage. He has a long, passionate monologue for a frightened preacher, a nasty prologue before axing him down. It's a good performance, and we wonder, who is this twisted, disturbing creep? And even when the movie has gone well out of hand and entered eye-rolling territory, the specter of this character looms large, because we know we'll see him again. And, of course, we do. And how does the director reward us for our patience? He strips away every bit of intrigue and makes Doom-Head a predictable Rob Zombie character. Turns out Doom-Head is yet another filthy pervert who says "f*ck" a lot and bangs hookers. Why in the hell does Zombie repeatedly insist on making every one of his characters sound like an angry redneck? Does he think this is the "real" America? Or is he so completely one-note that he doesn't know how to write people any other way? Whatever the reason, it's depressing that the majority of Zombie's characters - heroes and villains alike - are moronic cartoons without a shred of wit or wisdom. (Even more baffling still: Zombie himself doesn't talk like this, he's actually quite an intelligent guy. What's with consistently making everyone so ignorant and unappealing?)
All of that said, if you've been a fervent fan of Zombie's movies up until this point, there's no reason 31 shouldn't appeal to you. (Especially if you helped with the crowd-funding.) For me, it was an endlessly frustrating, disheartening experience. Perhaps Zombie's got another LORDS OF SALEM in him, but I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't.
Oh yeah, the soundtrack is pretty good. That's one thing Zombie always gets right.