If you’re a fan of modern horror then, for better or worse, you know Rob Zombie’s name. The heavy metal musician-turned-filmmaker has already made divisive films like The Devil’s Rejects (which is a modern classic) and Halloween (a subpar prequel and terrible reboot rolled up in one). Zombie’s latest piece of hillbilly horror, 31, feels like it was meant to be the culmination of everything that came before it, but is ultimately just a rehash of old scares that have been put to better use before.
The idea is a captivating one. Five carnival workers are kidnapped on Halloween night and forced to play the deadly game of 31. They will have to spend 12 hours in a maze-like warehouse, hunted by a series of homicidal clowns, while people place bets on who will survive. It’s almost the perfect setup to churn out violence and mayhem, and perhaps that what’s so disappointing about the film – It never quite lives up its own vicious potential.
For a film with such a solid hook, 31 stumbles over some of the most basic building blocks of storytelling, starting with its cast of characters. Rob Zombie has never been one to fill his movies with likable characters, but they usually have some kind of depth to them. Here, the characters are made out of tissue paper. The group of carnies is headed up by Sheri Moon Zombie (Lords of Salem), Zombie’s wife and a headliner in all his films, playing the role of Charly. She underwhelms as the survivor girl archetype, although whether this is her fault is unclear, she’s given precious little to work with, as are all the rest of the carnies. Zombie opens the film with home movies of the vagabonds that play under the opening credits, giving us just enough to know that these are good natured simpletons, but not enough to really merit sympathy when they get dispatched. At least those of them that end up playing the game. There are several other carnies at the beginning the film that simply disappear part way through, never to be spoken of again. Maybe these gaps are the result of edits made to achieve an R rating, but it ultimately comes off as sloppy filmmaking.
It shouldn’t really be surprising that Zombie spends such little time on his heroes, he’s always been more interested in his villains, and here he comes closer to delivering the goods. First, there are the aristocrats – Sister Dragon, Sister Serpent, and the ring leader – Father Murder, played by a lunatic Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) who all but eats the scenery. Done up in powdered wigs and Elizabethan get ups, they observe the game, and placing playful, nonsensical bets. They’re an interesting, if underbaked, part of the film. 31 is clearly an expensive endeavor, and Zombie isn’t really interested in the mechanics of how its run, but he should be, because it’s one of the most interesting and unexplored avenues of the film. Instead, Zombie focuses on the clowns, referred to as ‘Heads’.
Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, and the like populate the home team. They’re an interesting gaggle of psychopaths – undeniably dangerous, but also entirely killable. These aren’t monolithic killers like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, and the film is better for it. There’s something satisfying about a horror film in which the killers and victims are dispatched in equal number. Once the carnies make their way through several heads, the aristocrats call on their heavy hitter: Doom-Head. If there’s a reason to watch 31, it’s Doom-Head.
He’s the slender, masochistic embodiment of a psychopathic menace played with gusto by Richard Brake (Batman Begins). The film uses him sparsely but when it does, he commands the screen, delivering half-poetic dialog like, “You know what they say, kemosabe, in Hell, everybody loves popcorn.” It might be gobbledygook nonsense, but coming from the mouth of an axe-wielding maniac, it sounds like scripture.
Of course, all of this is really incidental. People buying a ticket to a Rob Zombie film aren’t paying for character development, they’re paying for carnage. And yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, 31 is not a viscerally effective film. There’s definitely carnage, captured by David Daniel’s frenetic shaky cam, but it all lacks any kind of consequence or creativity. There are a few moments of genuine shock, and it can be satisfying to see the tables get turned on the clowns, but there’s never anything that really brings you to the edge of your seat.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
31 should be Rob Zombie’s horror masterpiece. The film has a great hook, and the plot is pure pulpy madness. But Zombie never quite pulls the whole thing together. Perhaps it’s the limitations of budget, or perhaps Zombie’s directorial gas tank is running on empty. There’s nothing new here, nothing worth seeing, except perhaps Brake’s Doom-Head, a character that is deserving of a better movie. Against all odds, Zombie has turned in his first horror movie that’s almost entirely devoid of actual horror. 31 is a gross film, it’s not a scary one. And for a film about a maze filled with homicidal clowns, that’s kind of unacceptable.