Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Sadistic Graphic Violence, Bizarre Sexuality/Nudity, Pervasive Disturbing Images and some Strong Language
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Written by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr, Elizabeth Daily, Torsten Voges, Lew Temple, David Ury, Richard Brake, Meg Foster, Ginger Lynn & Sheri Moon Zombie
Rob Zombie is a polarizing figure in the horror genre. Some people love his 70’s grindhouse style and ridiculous amounts of excess, while others think that he’s a hack who should just keep to music. I fall on the former side of this. Aside from his two HALLOWEEN installments, I haven’t actively disliked anything that Zombie has done as a filmmaker. I thought HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES was wildly weird entertainment and DEVIL’S REJECTS remains my favorite film of his thus far. I even dug the hell out of LORDS OF SALEM (which was far more restrained and atmospherically different from anything Zombie had previously attempted). 31 is Rob Zombie’s version of THE RUNNING MAN and it’s a mixed bag. There are definitely shining moments in this film, but the rest of it seems half-assed and shoddily put together.
It’s Halloween and a van of carnies are traveling to their next gig. Everything seems to be going smoothly until they find themselves abducted by a group of masked psychos. These five carnies have been snatched up by three insane aristocrats who are hosting their annual game of madness and bloodshed. The game is called “31” and the kidnapped carnies are its latest players. Locked in an underground hellhole, the desperate group find themselves trapped in a life-or-death fight against a gang of murderous clowns.
The plot for 31 is simple and to-the-point. However, one might argue that it’s a little too simple as we don’t get adequate time to develop the characters. It’s not like Rob Zombie immediately throws these carnies into the bloody game of clown carnage. No, instead he treats us to a painfully awkward van scene that’s made entirely of these profanity-spewing rednecks telling dirty jokes to one another…and then throws them into the bloody game of clown carnage. That’s the most development we get for these protagonists. I wasn’t expecting brilliant writing, but it would certainly help if I cared about the victims competing in this violent game. Instead of knowing who these characters are, all I know is that they’re foul-mouthed carnies who like sex, smoke pot, and are only here to die. They also make frustratingly clichéd decisions, such as splitting up and not checking to see whether the knife-wielding lunatic they knocked over the head with a bat is dead or not.
Zombie has never quite had the talent for writing solid good guys to root for and usually shines when it comes to his villains. I was expecting somewhat of the same here, especially seeing that “31” contains six psycho clowns and three insane rich folks betting on the madness. The bad guys here are a bit of a mixed bag too, much like the rest of the movie. While Malcolm McDowell certainly has a strong screen presence as Father Murder, his storyline is left unresolved by the wayside. The clowns themselves are mostly entertaining to watch, with two exceptions.
This movie could have excised Sick-Head (a Nazi-obsessed Mexican midget) and Death-Head (a bland German guy in a tutu) and been all the better for it. Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head (armed with chainsaws) both get the perfect amount of screen time, while Sex-Head deserved a few extra scenes (she seemed to have the most unique personality of the bunch). Meanwhile, Richard Brake (who previously played the ambulance driver in Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II) absolutely shines as Doom-Head. Every time that Brake’s well-spoken Doom-Head is on the screen, 31 soars to a great level of filmmaking. Brake’s scenes also showcase how awesome 31 could have been, if this intense level of twisted cat-and-mouse had been maintained for the entire running time.
The set design for 31 should be praised as the hellish underground labyrinth makes for an interesting location. There is also plenty of grime and gore to spare. However, a big complaint comes in Zombie’s totally unnecessary use of shaky-cam and quick editing. There are a handful of potentially great scenes that are compromised by the camera shaking every which way or flashing a strobe light directly onto the screen. One key moment in particular (involving chainsaws and severed body parts) is rendered damn near incomprehensible due to frenetic camera work and a frustrating amount of quick editing. If this is the NC-17 version, I want to know what the hell they cut to get an R rating.
Rob Zombie’s usual quirks also come into play with an overuse of profanity (“fuck” is uttered at least once every minute) and juvenile sex jokes that he clearly thought were a riot (did we really need a dream sequence to hear the difference between whores and onions?). What’s extremely frustrating is that 31 had such promise and the heights of this movie show how great it might have been with a few more rewrites. I wish that I cared about the characters. I wish that the action was shot competently so that I could properly see the decapitations and gory NC-17 level mayhem. I also wish that the story had resolved itself and didn’t leave so many loose ends up in the air (possibly for a sequel). Finally, I wish that I could hold this movie in the company of DEVIL’S REJECTS, LORDS OF SALEM, or even HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES. Much like its grimy labyrinthine battleground setting, 31 is a bloody mess.