A Sundance Film Festival Review
Rob Zombie’s newest horror film, “31,” confirms the director has a flare for carnage and a good eye for interesting set pieces, a slightly improving sense of emotion and an unwillingness to transcend the thing that inspires him – 70’s horror cinema.
“31” is a mixed bag of the familiar and new. Starting out with a premise heavily recalling “The Most Dangerous Game,” we follow a group of carnies on their way to a gig who get abducted and taken, instead, to a bizarre industrial hunting ground where – wait for it – THEY are the prey!
There are three twisted “hosts” who explain the rules of the game and introduce an ever-increasingly bizarre addition of killers into the hunt. Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr manage to create genuinely eerie characters. They look on the as the game unfolds, sometimes seeming that it is all being played out or the sake of personal politics among this demented trio of gamblers. They don’t care about the human suffering they cause, they only care about the one-upmanship of each other. Zombie wisely does not let us into this world very deeply, creating the effect of “The Wizard of Oz.” We do not really want to know the truth behind this curtain, it will only disturb us further.
The carnies are portrayed by Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Kevin Jackson and Jeff Daniel Phillips. They are uniformly strong but they all have to deal with a script that does not give them much to do… other than run and hide and suffer. Sherri Moon Zombie’s Charly is the most uneven character, unfortunately. As the lead, her transition from cowering target to willing combatant is a little clunky, her performance being part of that transition problem and part of it being the script.
The strengths of “31” rest in its execution. Zombie makes some very wise directorial choices here. The most emotional death occurs early and it helps add weight to the entire situation of those remaining. (Especially since the script does not seem to want to flesh out the characters very well.) Casting Meg Foster as the older, road-weary leader of the troop is a particularly strong choice. Her face is one that radiates experience and wisdom. To see her struggle with the unraveling of her world is terrifyingly believable and the sadness that comes from witnessing her realization she cannot protect anyone is a particularly harsh moment. Also working to the film’s advantage is that no single character plays a typical victim. Yes, we have some cliches along the way, but these people are willing to fight for each other and themselves, even if there are some pretty stupid decisions made here and there, such as following the villains wherever they seem to lead. (Also, they miss a couple of obvious things even someone who has never been kidnapped and made to fight for their life before would probably catch. Particularly, the predictable recreation of a moment from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”)
At times, Zombie makes the choice to cut away from the violence and gore rather than dwell on it. Wise move. It increases the emotional intensity in a couple of specific scenes. Our imagination can do quite well on its own and Zombie obviously knows that. However, he is not afraid of tossing the blood around and there are injuries inflicted that are incredibly visceral and shockingly brutal. Die-hard Zombie fans who want this from him will not be disappointed, for sure. The film is set in 1976 and feels like a grim horror film from that decade, but this is not as successful at pulling the tone off as his earlier “The Devil’s Rejects.”
Stylistically, the world of the game is an industrial nightmare with weird variations along the way. The colors range from vibrant to bleak reflecting the shift in villains as the story progresses. Zombie plays with freezes frames and wipe transitions to get us from sequence to sequence. Overall, it works fairly well and is consistent but at a few moments, I wished the film could have lingered a bit on the emotion of a situation rather than hurrying us along. Actually, notice that I am dwelling on the craft of the film rather than the emotion it stirs. That is significant.
Since the folks here work the carny circuit, I was personally hoping for more of a freak show/circus vibe to come through but instead we only get glimpses of such. A sequence involving two chainsaw swinging villains stands out for being one of these areas where the craziness of the action is equalled by the craziness of the visuals. That sequence is one of the highlights of the film because of the intensity of two fight scenes occurring simultaneously, the tension is impressive. The injuries alone in that sequence, I would bet, are part of the issue this has had with getting an R rating.
The villains are a parade of twisted assassins, each displaying an ever-increasing tend toward the bizarre. It’s like The Island of Misfit Toys dropped acid and decided to form an assassin’s club. Standouts include the weirdness of a dwarf Nazi spewing insults and fondling various knives, the above mentioned chainsaw loving circus rejects and the final killer brought in to do clean up… Doom-Head. (Well-portrayed by Richard Brake.)
Each killer gets their own chunk of screen time, each displays a unique slant on just who they seem to think they are and how they prefer to inflict pain. Is this at all fun? Well… sometimes. We have seen this sort of thing before, if there is charm here it comes from the uniqueness of these characters.
As a film, Zombie paints a completely hopeless atmosphere. Almost immediately you get the feeling that no one is going to make it out of this game alive. Indeed, when the end is reached and you think Zombie might pull back and give a momentary stab at a happy ending, he hits us with final scene where all that we thought was over may not be truly done. It is a finely crafted final scene, but it is not a resolution some film goers might like.
There are obvious film references and influences on display in “31.” As you watch it, you cannot help but think of “The Texas Chainsaw Masscare,” “The Funhouse” or “Saw.” At times, the film seems to lose its own identity because it feels so much like something you have seen before. Some will say this is a failure and a step backward for Rob Zombie as a film director. Even though I cannot claim I truly like “31,” I can respect it for achieving what it does. If you give yourself over to it and can imagine yourself in the shoes of its unfortunate protagonists, you will probably enjoy the ride.
“31” is a familiar road, but sometimes a familiar road is still a road you might enjoy traveling.
Check out Rob Zombie’s website where you can find interviews and additional information concerning the film “31.”