Something Wicked This Way Comes…but gets diverted through mediocre town.
Rob Zombie’s directorial efforts are a mixed bag; when ‘House of 1,000 corpses,’ splattered its way into movie theatres, people knew that he was able to smear blood and gratuitous violence across the screen like an overzealous and deranged squeegee worker, but after six films now it can be firmly established that Zombie lacks the technical nuances that make an effective thriller/horror film. With the exception of ‘Lords of Salem,’ which saw a restrained Zombie take on a more tentative approach to the genre, ’31,’ is just a blurry, whirlwind of everything that has gone before.
The premise of ’31,’ is pretty much the same as his directorial debut, ‘House of 1,000 Corpses,’ unsuspecting motorists are captured in a backwater hick town/village/garage station and have to escape from an abandoned warehouse filled with sadistic murderers. In this case, it’s ‘Killer Clowns,’ and rich sadomasochists who dress like they’re French aristocrats. The aristocrats are led by Malcolm McDowell, who does his best to provide some semblance of plot exposition, but really just ends up quoting odds to the audience like a movie version of John McCririck. They kidnap people once a year (on Halloween, hence the ‘31’ title presumably,) and torture them…for pleasure. I guess. It’s never really established what bets are being placed, or what impact this has beyond the veil of the torture den.
This won’t matter anyway, because you’ll care very little for the band of victims – in this case they’re travelling carnies, although they only seem to have enough equipment to set up a lemonade stand; made up of Charley (‘Every Other Rob Zombie film,’ Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (‘They Live,’ Meg Foster), Roscoe (Think 70’s Hyperactive Dave Grohl – Jeff Daniel Phillips), Levon (Is that a Jamaican accent? Kevin Jackson) and Panda (too bland for a suitable quip, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). After a small (and poorly acted) intro with these characters in their RV, they merely become fodder for Zombie’s preferred stars, the Killer Clowns. Redneck Clowns armed with chainsaws, Nazi dwarf Latino clowns, Nosferatu-wannabe clowns, tutu wearing clowns, they’re all here.
Every character refers to every female character as a ‘bitch’ and at some point, probably during my third zone-out when I was wondering what I was going to have for tea that evening, I wondered why they didn’t just title the movie as ‘I’m gonna fuck you, bitch,’ because that’s the type of vocabulary on offer here. Sheri Moon Zombie has always been a spiky issue for Zombie fans with those who love her and those who hate Zombie’s need to put her in his movies, like Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter, but in ’31,’ it’s arguably her best performance in a Zombie movie. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though; her character arc is light years away from a movie heroine like Ellen Ripley in the ‘Alien,’ series, and you could argue that her transformation into a predator hell-bent on survival is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a step up from other performances.
No, It’s really Richard Brake (Doom-Head) that steals the show. His performance is incredible and genuinely terrifying. The opening of the movie sees Brake walk up to the camera and deliver a five-minute monologue that is completely captivating. He waxes lyrical about a decapitated cockroach, a soliloquy for a preacher, we discover, that he’s about to kill. “I should apologize in advance for not sharpening this thing,” he says, before producing an axe and ultimately swinging it into the preacher’s guts. Out of all the characters, his was the one I wanted to know more about. It’s just a shame that ending was left on a ‘meant to be ambiguous as to what will happen,’ but really didn’t deliver.
All of Zombie’s recognisable flaws as a filmmaker are on display in ’31’: frenzied action sequences that make you want to vomit due to motion sickness, a complete lack of suspense, oddly placed comic-book panning to the next scene, bludgeoning your skull to noise and nastiness – poorly executed fight scenes (and one moment that relies heavily on strobe lighting that will end with your juddering body on the floor, drooling at the mouth due to an epileptic fit) it almost seems that Zombie found out in post production that most scenes weren’t working and added these ‘elements’ in to create additional tension. Whatever the reasoning, it failed to work.
There is an appeal to the grindhouse type of cinema that Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarintino attempted to reinvigorate with ‘Planet Terror,’ and ‘Death Proof’; and if there’s any underlying theme working throughout ’31,’ I guess it would be that ultimately it’s a play on class systems, the clowns and the victims being the lower spectrum of working class, pitted to fight one another to the death in an abandoned warehouse, whereas the pompous aristocrats go back to their rich lives unburdened. In a year where we see a lot of anger towards political parties culminating to boiling point, it can be easy to juxtapose Zombie’s Redneck clowns and victims to the every day Joe living to earn a penny while the 1%ers laugh on merrily at the rats trying to find nibbles below them. ’31,’ is a movie from outside the studio system that came together because like-minded supporters all helped to fund it. Chainsaw wielding rednecks may not change the world, but it resonates all the more for the way the world seems to be turning into them.
All of that said, if you’re an avid fan of Zombie’s movies up until this point, there’s no reason ’31,’ shouldn’t appeal to you. For me, as soon as I finished watching it, I really had an urge to watch ‘The Running Man,’ – I wonder why?
Like Doom Head’s Axe, this film should apologise for not being sharpened.
Movie Review by Anthony Self