Directed by: Rob Zombie. Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips. Runtime: 1h 42 min. Released: September 16, 2016.
On Letterboxd, I’m participating in a scavenger hunt there for the month of May where you make a list of 31 films by answering prompts to watch in the month of May. The link to the original host’s scavenger hunt with the prompts can be found here. My list can be found here, too.
I started my scavenger hunt by reviewing Rob Zombie’s film 31 for Prompt Number 19 which was to “watch a film where characters play a game, but it’s more than just a game.” In Rob Zombie’s film, five carnival workers are kidnapped and held hostage in an abandoned compound where they’re forced to participate in a violent game, the goal of which is to survive twelve hours against a gang of sadistic clowns.
I watched this film first so I could say I’ve now finished Zombie’s filmography. It’s almost happened by accident because he only has seven feature films, but for me, he’s a consistent filmmaker. That’s not a good thing – I’ve only liked one of his films and that was 2007’s Halloween. I didn’t like Halloween 2, I hate his Firefly trilogy (I tolerated The Devil’s Rejects the most), didn’t like Halloween 2 and just hate, hate, The Lords of Salem. Then there’s 31, which I hated as well.
The laziest thing about it might be the title itself, merely called 31 because it takes place on Halloween in 1976. Sure, he can’t call the film Halloween for obvious reasons, but at least try with the title. The game is also named 31 because it’s played annually on Halloween. The concept is why I wanted to watch this because I love battle royale kind-of films, and this felt like a horror battle royale. As a concept, the set-up is fine.
A trio of wealthy aristocrats, led by Malcolm McDowell, decked out in Victorian era costumes tell our heroes they’ll play a game called 31. They inform our heroes of their odds of survival, as if people are betting on the outcome but that’s barely addressed, where the women of the group are given 500 to 1 odds of survival and the men given 60 to 1 odds of survival, because that’s just how Rob Zombie sees the world.
For the most part I just didn’t care about how the main characters played the game because I didn’t like them. They’re a group of carnival workers traveling to their next city – I guess – but it’s not that well-developed and the five characters that survive to the game of 31 are generally boring or unlikable. I frankly found the only one of note to be Charly, played by Rob Zombie’s wife and muse, Sheri Moon Zombie. She can’t act, but she’s also never been given a strong character.
She gets some terrible dialogue, as does everyone else, and my biggest problem with Rob Zombie as a filmmaker is just the blatant sexism and how he sees women. I don’t like his view of the world or the worlds that he creates – Halloween was the most tolerable of all his films because it’s someone else’s character. Zombie’s characters don’t talk like real people and the way they interact with each other, even outside of the game, is gross because they’re horrible to each other. It’s expected in a Rob Zombie film and maybe I’m being too Canadian, but it’s just so off-putting.
As a concept, I think 31 is a good idea but Zombie’s style and dialogue kills it. I also like violence in film when there’s a purpose or it feels fun, and 31 is neither of those. In writing, I thought the staging of the film and pacing was solid as instead of a whole gang of clowns coming to overpower them, the five players face clowns in different stages. The first clown theatrically introduced to them is also the most annoying – it’s a clown called Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a Spanish little person dressed as Adolf Hitler. The dialogue he gets makes him more excruciatingly annoying than threatening.
His sequence is also where the film looks at its most– the colour palette is so flat and dull this might as well have been in black and white. It’s so lifeless and that’s how I generally feel while watching a Zombie film, just dead inside. The big bad of the film, called Doom-Head and played well by Richard Brake, is the main boss who has a perfect murder record because he’s a Terminator-esque killing machine. He’s obviously a horrible human being, but his third act portion would be more fun if we actually cared about any of the players.
I tolerated this film for 20 minutes when a pair of chainsaw-wielding clowns came out to play. Their scenes are somewhat fun and well-shot, despite the still consistently off-putting dialogue. It’s also a little fun when E.G. Daily shows up as we see a wild side of Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls. Unfortunately, in her moment to shine, it looks so ugly because a strobe-light sort-of effect above makes it so hard to see and makes it so irritating.
I honestly think Zombie’s horror writing in his action is solid, but it’s his visual style that consistently compromises it. His films are also ruined by someone opening their mouth because they so often just spout vitriol at one another. It’s maddening to watch this happen time after time, and I’m truly ecstatic to be done with his filmography because it was an ordeal.