When Rob Zombie followed up his Halloween movies with The Lords of Salem, his most unique directing effort. It marked the possibility that the director might be expanding and building on his style. Four years passed before Zombie got back in the director’s chair. And his next effort, a crowd-sourced project that streamed exclusively on Shudder sounded exactly like a Rob Zombie project. But the movie, 31 and its story of carnies abducted and stalked by killer clowns generated about the same results as most of the filmmaker’s previous work. Diehard fans probably loved it, general audiences hated it, and critics were lukewarm.
On Halloween in 1976, five carnival workers driving across the countryside are abducted by masked men. Later they wake up in an underground building where three older people dressed in Victorian-era aristocratic clothes announce that they have selected to play ’31’. The rules are simple. Over 12 hours, several trained killers dressed as clowns and referred to as ‘Heads’ will hunt them down across a labyrinth of rooms. They must run and fight to survive and losing means torture and death.
31 Finds Rob Zombie Treading Familiar Grindhouse Territory
At face value, 31 has just about everything you would expect and want from Rob Zombie. The movie takes place on Halloween in the mid-1970s and puts a macabre twist on Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game premise. That opening scene – shot in start black and white – is tense and stylish, never betraying the crowd-sourced funding. In addition, Zombie wastes little time getting to what you ‘paid’ to see. After brief introductions to our travelling ‘carnies’, 31 immediately plunges them into Zombie’s vision of Hell that will define the rest of the movie. Moreover, 31 delivers on Zombie’s usual brand of brutal, disturbing violence. Like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and the rest of his work, this is an uncompromsing horror movie that pushes the limits of an R-rating.
That opening scene – shot in start black and white – is tense and stylish, never betraying the crowd-sourced funding.
Unfortunately, 31 finds Rob Zombie regressing and indulging in some of his worst excesses. The metal madman focuses exclusively on shock horror, completely neglecting suspense and sustained tension. Consistent with his past movies, 31 is never really a scary movie – there are no jumps or white-knuckle moments. Instead, Zombie opts to double-down on disturbing imagery that suffers from a few recurring problems. Poor lighting and jerky editing obscures much of what happens on screen. Some of the ‘Heads’ vary in terms of their overall menace with ‘Sex-Head’ and ‘Death-Head’ coming off more comical than anything else. While there’s no doubt that it’s a disturbing movie, 31 is rarely a compelling one.
31 Finds a Cast of Zombie Regulars Alongside an Intense Performance from Richard Brake
Another common Rob Zombie problem surfaces in 31. On one hand, 31 shows off a fun ensemble cast of veteran character actors and Zombie regulars. Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects), Daniel Roebuck (Halloween II, The Munsters), E.G. Daily (The Devil’s Rejects), Tracey Walter (I Spit On Your Grave), and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Welcome Back, Kotter) join Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and Judy Geeson (To Sir, With Love). Not surprisingly, Sheri Moon-Zombie headlines alongside Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster (Levithan). While everyone is fine – with some performances ranging from straight to campy – none of the characters are all that fleshed out. Once again Zombie struggles to conjure up much in the way of empathy for his carnies.
As for the ‘Heads’, Richard Brake’s ‘Doom-Head’ opens and closes 31 on its highest notes.
Of course, most diehard Zombie fans are tuning in for the villains. For the most part, the gonzo premise is hit and miss. The three power brokers of 31 – played by McDowell, Geeson, and Jane Carr – are too cartoonish and camp to be menacing. As for the ‘Heads’, Richard Brake’s ‘Doom-Head’ opens and closes 31 on its highest notes. Without comparison, Brake (Barbarian, Offseason, Detention, Mandy) brings an intensity to the role that makes the character both genuinely frightening and intriguing. He’s easily the best part of the movie. Despite fun, over-the-top performances from some of the other ‘Heads’, Zombie’s insistence on constant vulgarity makes the other characters tiring.
31 Represented a Regression For Zombie as a Filmmaker
Rob Zombie and killer clowns! With such an off-the-wall premise, 31 should have been a gonzo film for hardcore fans. Instead it was a big step backwards for Zombie as a director. In addition to being a dark and ugly-looking film, 31 is crammed with all of Zombie’s worst excesses. Its characters are uniformly foul-mouthed, unlikable hicks. Brutal and mean-spirited violence replace tension and scares. In spite of Zombie’s usual flair for orchestrating carnage, even the violence in 31 falls short. Jerky camera work and poor lighting lose much of the action. Richard Brake, as Doom-Head, is the lone bright spot. His psychopathic killer is equal parts charismatic and menacing.