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Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016) opens with a quote from Franz Kafka: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.”
Horror fans who didn’t appreciate Zombie’s non-traditional reboots of the Halloween saga might, at this juncture, believe that they have come to that very point of understanding; wishing to die rather than watch another one of the auteur’s art works.
But open-minded horror fans will definitely want to check out 31, an original Rob Zombie film set on October 31, 1976, so yes…Halloween.
Michael Myers isn’t in the film, but Zombie’s grungy, morally-nuanced, gore-heavy vision is on full display here. 31 is perverse, sick, grotesque, and -- like Zombie’s previous film work -- utterly absorbing.
The film’s narrative starts out with great promise, and then descends into a kind of white trash version of The Purge (2012), but the plot isn’t the reason to see the film.
Instead, 31 offers up one of the most menacing performances recently put to celluloid, Richard Brake’s “Doom Head.” It’s no shock that Doom Head opens and closes the film. Let’s just say that the actor fully commits to the colorful character: a smiling, grease-painted sociopath with a dead-cold stare.
Secondly, 31 is a breath of fresh air in terms of its approach to its protagonists. Here, we meet a bunch of hard-drinking, weed-smoking, sex-obsessed carnies who, come to think of it, aren’t bad people at all.
In fact, when push comes to shove, these twilight people all stick together, just as we would expect of people in the most closely knit of "traditional" families. Their heroism -- and sacrifices -- are a potent reminder that people shouldn’t be in the business of judging other people’s families.
The fact of the carnies’ connection to one another makes their (brutal) deaths all the more impactful. It is to Rob Zombie’s credit that he is one of the few horror film directors this year to set his sights beyond the confines of 2016 suburban affluence. Zombie gazes at people, instead, on the periphery of the culture.
There is value in those people too, and 31 sees that value, even while dispatching the carnies “straight to the pearly gates with a first class ticket.”
“In Hell, everybody loves popcorn.”
On Halloween day in 1976, a group of carnies on a bus -- Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Levon (Kevin Jackson), and Venus (Meg Foster) -- stop for gas in the middle of nowhere.
Not long after, as night falls, however, they come upon scarecrows blocking the highway. When they attempt to remove them from their path, they are set upon by costumed assailants.
When the carnies wake up, they have been captured and put into some kind of industrial basement or factory.
Their captor, Father Napoleon (Malcolm McDowell) informs them that they are about to play the game, 31. Specifically, they have to survive the night, as they are hunted by an assortment of sadistic killers. Napoleon also tells them their odds of surviving their upcoming 12 hour ordeal.
Some of the killers they face include: Sick Head (Pancho Moler), a Nazi dwarf/clown, chainsaw brothers Schizo Head (David Ury) and Psycho Head (Lew Temple), and the perverse couple Sex Head (E.C. Daily) and Death Head (Torsten Voges).
In turn, these killers try to pick off members of the group. The carnies, despite taking losses, stick together and fight back. In fact, they survive longer than any other previous group playing 31, a fact which freaks out Father Napoleon.
Accordingly, he sends Doom Head (Richard Brake) to kill them all before the dawn.
It is a job -- and a challenge -- that Doom Head relishes.
“Murder school is now in session.”
31 is filthy, foul and twisted blood-bath of a movie. Screen taboos such as cannibalism, Nazi-ism, and anal sex (!) get significant play on-screen, and they grant the film the edgy, subversive atmosphere one expects from Rob Zombie.
I will say this…it’s all disgusting, but a relief too. I am very fatigued with horror films wherein rich people confront ethnic terrors, only to defeat them by banding together. These films play it predictable and safe, and so offer no psychic terror. No slumber is terrorized.
31 is a bit predictable at points, I’ll admit, but it isn’t safe at all. Richard Brake’s Doom Head, a figure of deliberate, devoted malevolence takes away any sense of safety the audience might cultivate. He is vicious and terrifying, and sometimes a little funny too. He is not a character to be trifled with, or taken lately. And he ain't no "f@cking clown," either.
Instead, Doomhead is a remarkable “bogeyman” in the film, and every time he is on screen, 31 comes to life with a gleefully sinister air.
Why do I say that the film is predictable at points?
Well, once the carnies have been captured, the film settles down into a Running Man (1987) or The Purge (2012) type scenario.
As is the case in The Running Man, we meet a series of colorful murderers.
And as is the case in The Purge, the survivors must survive a long night, and a “horn” announces when the night is over, and all weapons must be put down. Also, the film recreates the central dynamic of that franchise: rich elites preying on the poor and socially disposable. Here, McDowell wears the wig and powder-make up of the historical French Aristocracy, a costume which marks him as one of today's effete and unchallenged elite.
Given Zombie’s ingenuity and originality in terms of style, it’s disappointing that the film’s story isn’t a little more original, or at least fresh in terms of these social dynamics.
There isn’t a heck of a lot of visual distinction, either, once the film settles down into the industrial basement. There are a lot of ceiling pipes and vent grates, and after a while it is all interchangeable.
One scene, set in the most disgusting public bathroom since Trainspotting (1996), provides the only relief…er…variety from this factory chic.
The early moments in the film are more effective, I submit. They showcase the carnies on their bus, basically running on empty in their lives. They tease one another, they talk trash, they screw and smoke, but -- as we see -- they have great affection for one another. Accordingly, the last moments in the film -- a kind of home movie of the group in better days -- is more affecting than you might expect it to be.
I appreciate that these characters don't have to be stereotypically "good" or law-abiding for us to invest in them, or empathize with him.
These moments feature a sleazy 1970s vibe, and there is some real atmosphere-building in the early sections too. The scene with the scarecrows dotting the road is authentically unnerving. You'll know the film is working, because you’ll find yourself screaming at the characters to get back in the bus, and turn around.
If you didn’t care about them, you wouldn’t feel compelled to do this.
Finally, Sheri Moon Zombie has taken a lot of guff from horror fans (again, see Zombie’s Halloween films). I think it’s fair to state that she’s terrific in this film, channeling Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), while also adding the level of “bad-assery” we have come to expect from our final girls in 2016.
I don’t know that 31 is a great horror film, or even a particularly good one.
But it is a singular one, and that distinction feels like a virtue worth lauding in the age of cookie-cutter, formulaic, empty-headed horror like The Darkness (2016). Even if some scenes fizzle out, this is a film of constant possibilities. Every moment is spine-tingling in terms of its danger.
If I had to describe Rob Zombie’s aesthetic and success in the horror film, I’d certainly quote a line from 31: “The dirtier you work, the luckier you get.”
I’ll count myself lucky that Rob Zombie added a little dirty personality to the horror film genre this year.