Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: 31

by Patrick Bromley
Every good streak must come to an end.

As someone who has been a fan and sometimes apologist for every single one of Rob Zombie's movies -- yes, including both his Halloween films -- it brings me no joy to be left cold by his latest effort 31. Partially crowdfunded and given what appears to have been a one-night theatrical release (through Fathom events) before appearing on VOD, 31 is the movie that Zombie's critics have always accused him of making: scuzzy, violent, unimaginative and concerned primarily with aesthetics -- whether or not things look cool -- instead of having something to say. It's what you might expect a Rob Zombie movie to be if he had never made another movie, much less some of the most interesting and distinctive horror films of the last 10-15 years.

Halloween, 1976: A gang of traveling carnies that includes Sherri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Kevin Jackson, are ambushed and kidnapped and forced to play a game of "31" in which they are chased through a huge maze by a series of psychos trying to kill them. If they can stay alive for 12 hours, they are told they will be set free. And......that's it.
So 31 sets up a game in which regular people are hunted and killed by overly-costumed psychos. It's a white trash Running Man, except that The Running Man had stuff to say about media and culture and violence as entertainment. Zombie has the game of 31 (as a game, it's not very interesting; the rules are "people murder you") played out for the entertainment of some aristocrats, but once again we know nothing about them. They exist just so that Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson can wear a lot of makeup, but it's different makeup than the filth worn by everyone else because I guess variety? Again, this is a movie concerned with art direction and production design first. It might have helped matters if there was some point that Zombie was trying to make with the game -- or even if the pointlessness of the violence was the point. That's not really the case. The world he creates is about as well developed as his characters, which is to say it's thinly sketched at best.

Thin characters would be ok, too, if Zombie didn't seem so intent on leaning on them to carry what is essentially only a premise, not a plot. More than once in the movie we get flashes of who these people were before being forced to play 31 and it seems like Zombie is reaching for tragedy but it's just not there. We don't know them. We don't know them before they are kidnapped by psychos. We don't really get to know them in the course of the game. It might be sad when they die because it's sad when people die, but because 31 is so intent on reveling in brutality and violence for the entertainment of the viewer, it's almost impossible for the intended pathos to land. It's not like Zombie is incapable of making this balance work; he's already made a slasher movie that's both unrelentingly brutal and horribly sad with Halloween II. He's capable. But 31 just feels like an echo of earlier, better work.

That's really true across the board, and that might be what disappoints me most about 31. The movie is not all the different in conception or execution than his debut movie, House of 1000 Corpses. But that was 15 years and five movies ago. When Zombie first came on the scene, the genre was still in its post-Scream teen slasher and early J-horror phase. Corpses came out of nowhere and felt like a dangerous throwback to '70s exploitation and a love letter to the kinds of insane horror my man Tobe Hooper used to make. The Devil's Rejects built on that debut in a massive way and suggested that Zombie was a filmmaker capable not just of standing out but of making truly great films. Now it's 2016 and the genre has come so far in the years since and Zombie's own voice so distinctive that he's practically a subgenre unto himself. Seeing him backslide and coast on what we already know he's capable of doing in 31 is a real bummer, particularly after seeing him push himself into new territory with The Lords of Salem.
I come not to completely bury 31, though, because there's quite a bit in it that I like. While the characters are nonexistent on the page, the performances of Sherri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips and (especially) Meg Foster are all very good; they sell the desperation and the shift from being frightened victims to kickass killers totally convincingly. The movie is worth seeing just for the performance of Richard Brake (who previously worked with Zombie as the ill-fated paramedic in the opening of Halloween II) as "Doom Head," the most dangerous of the killers in Murder World -- the scariest of a scary bunch. Though he mostly bookends the film, opening it with a fantastic monologue and then returning about 2/3 of the way through, he's so good that he legitimizes even the bad choices. Sure, he's mostly playing the Bill Moseley character from Devil's Rejects, but his work is so scary and powerful that he manages to completely own the movie.

And as much as I may be frustrated by Zombie's preoccupation with aesthetics over anything else in 31, I also have to admit that it often looks great. Working for the first time with cinematographer David Daniel (who also shot Leprechaun: Back to the Hood), Zombie creates a number of striking, beautiful images even amidst layers of dirt, blood and greasepaint, none of which have been in short supply in his work. That more or less goes to shit during every action sequence because the camera is in too close and shaking throughout most of them, rendering them incomprehensible. The first chase sequence, featuring Pancho Moler, a little person dressed as Hitler (because a little person dressed as Hitler is, like, totally fucked up, right?), is a total drag -- poorly staged and endlessly long, devoid of any tension or investment. Things improve mid-movie with a dinner sequence that's insanely twisted and the appearance of a couple chainsaws; 31 is best when it's at its batshit craziest. That momentum, too, is destroyed with a sex scene that represents every single one of Rob Zombie's worst instincts. There are too many moments like that in 31.
I've had a handful of conversations about 31 with fellow horror fans this weekend, several of whom loved it for being insane and uncompromising and very much like the trashy exploitation movies that inspired Zombie's entire career. I can't fault those opinions even if I don't share them. This, to me, feels like Rob Zombie posturing -- making a movie full of red meat for his fans but strangely impersonal at the same time. It's a weird mix: the movie is identifiably a Rob Zombie movie in every single way to the point of being self-parody, but at the same time seems like a movie made by someone impersonating Rob Zombie. If this is, as he has publicly stated, his last horror movie, I'm bummed that he didn't go out on a higher note. At the same time, maybe it's for the best. 31 feels like the work of a horror director who has run out of things to say. Except "fuck," of course.

13 comments:

  1. "as a game, it's not very interesting; the rules are "people murder you"

    That was about the funniest thing I've read all day. Yeah, this movie was awful. Barely a movie cause nothing happens except people getting killed and dumb, dumb, dumb childish jokes that made me cringe every time a character opened their mouth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wasn't the only rule to stay alive for 12 hours? I guess I won't spoil it, but there is one character who makes it by the 12 hour mark, and the rules of the game state that if you survive the 12 hour time span, you're free to go.

      Delete
  2. I would say 31 was a disappointment, but that would suggest I had anything but low expectations for it. I love every previous Zombie film, especially Lords, but 31 is without question a lousy movie, and exactly what it looked like it was going to be. I think it's hilarious that anyone would suggest this movie is anything like vintage exploitation, because it fits so perfectly in with the broad post-Saw trend of "let's play a game" themed horror movies, and the same boring, tasteless aesthetic they all hew to. When I saw the Hitler dwarf wearing a bunny head, I knew there was no hope for the rest of the movie. Self-parody, indeed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. The irony of Lil Chilean Hitler was amusing given the Nazi reputation for tolerance of anything less than genetic perfection. Not quite Gosling in the Believer, but you could do worse.

      Delete
    3. There have been "let's play a game" exploitation films before Saw popularized it, E.S.A.D.D..

      Delete
  3. Still totally want to see it. I just started with Rob Z and have been enjoying his stuff. I just have Halloween I and II left.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I feel very conflicted about this. On the surface, even beneath the surface it was a huge disappointment. There were some really good performances in this, Brake in particular, going full-Mosely as mentioned. The only thing more pointless than the actual game was the wagering accompanying it. Odds were being constantly revised, time-wasting wagers being made between bettors that carried zero consequence for any of the characters. It felt half baked and disjointed (McDowell and his aristocratic crew are pretty much in a different movie), yet I still feel compelled to revisit it. The rational part of me knows that it wasn't very good, but the optimist in me hopes that my opinion was poisoned by disappointment (despite 31 being widely panned by anyone with an Internet connection).
    I found myself drifting off during the less engaging parts of 31 and pondering the logistics of this operation. It's a pretty elaborate setup to menace a group of carnies. Do the Murderworld goons work on an on-call basis, submitting time sheets? Are they volunteers? The hunters at least seem to get paid (Shall I make the cheque out to Psycho-head? Is that hyphenated?). Do they have a maintenance department for when their automatic gates malfunction?
    If this is Zombie's last horror film, it will be a shame. The Devil's Rejects is a very high water mark and there is no one that casts (holy smokes Dottie) or creates scuzzy immersive worlds like he does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If WB should jettison Jared Leto from the DCEU, Richard Brake would be my choice to replace him as the Joker. That's how much I liked Richard Brake in 31.

      I never saw the wagering having zero consequences for the characters. The game masters were betting on who they thought would survive and they thought wouldn't survive, based on how these pawns performed in the game. And there was a clearcut survivor -- and a clearcut winner in the betting pool.

      Yes, the Murderworld crew DO work on an on-call basis.

      I doubt the killers get cheques cut for their services. But if they do, could these be a conglomerate based outside the country? Or would it be simpler for all those involved to get a portion of the winnings in the betting pool?

      I thought at one point that the killers on call for Murderworld were parolees that the game masters have kept an eye on and then employ.

      Delete
  5. 31, although on first viewing is clearly my least favorite movie directed by Rob Zombie, was clearly one of the best viewing experiences I had for a Rob Zombie picture in a theater since House of 1000 Corpses. Fathom Events and Rob put together what I think was a great grindhouse package: two music videos set the tone, the movie followed, and then Rob came on screen to explain his intent with a Q & A and a thirty minute chunk of behind the scenes documentary footage. If this were the New Bev, the movie might have been followed by Rob Zombie in person for Q & A. That night’s Fathom Events program was the closest thing for me of actually having a New Bev experience without being at the New Bev.

    Of all the chase sequences, my favorites were Pancho Moler’s and Richard Brake’s. Yes, there's lack of tension in Pancho Moler’s chase sequence -- and possibly more sequences -- and I think that was exactly Rob’s point: Fuck tension, just bop the audience over the head.

    It's easy to look at 31 and say it's ripping off The Running Man. Rob even says as much during his Q & A. He cites The Most Dangerous Game as his premiere influence. I would go further. I'd heard the Running Man comparisons before I saw the film, and while I was watching it, Running Man did come to mind, but not as my guess for a direct influence. My thought was: this isn't ripping off Running Man, it's ripping off the Running Man ripoffs. This has more in common with Lucio Fulci and Joe D’Amato films, like The New Gladiators or 2020 Texas Gladiators, than The Running Man.

    31 may be last on my list of favorite Rob Zombie movies, but I still haven't been able to stop thinking about the movie since I saw it. The whole cast of carnies remind me of the arrogant group of teens you'd find in your standard slasher movie; those kids the killer makes an example of. None of them take the carnival life seriously. It's no wonder that their pursuers are dressed like clowns -- it's retribution for not respecting their calling. They bear some comparison with the Banjo & Sullivan group in The Devil's Rejects. When Otis piles Lew Temple and Geoffrey Lewis into the Banjo & Sullivan tour van to procure his buried cache of guns, he finds out they're not the true blue southerners they purport to be. Their musical tastes reveal them as the poseurs they really are, and Otis dispatches them for the poseurs they really are. There's a caste system in 31, between the carnies (who dress their van with confederate flags, probably for show) and EG Daily, who wears a tank top emblazoned with an American flag, only the shirt doesn't warn anyone to “Burn this flag” like Otis’s shirt in House of 1000 Corpses; and between the British game masters and everyone else in the movie. Are the British game masters even American citizens? And if they are, was becoming citizens merely an excuse to play the game? The game is what these gamblers do when they're bored, and the movie is what Rob Zombie does when **he's** bored. And annoyed.

    This movie is a one-off and I treat it as a one-off. It's Rob wanting to make one movie, encountering difficulty, and making another movie, down and dirty, to brush away the cobwebs and just do something while he waits for that other movie to happen; a cinematic receptacle for all of his frustrations over Broad Street Bullies. That's fine. I'm not prepared to discount Rob just yet. Ask me again how I feel if and when we get more movies like this from Rob in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You mention the dinner scene... 1) Kind of stolen from a certain musical, wasn't it? 2) Was there really time for dinner to be prepared?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Rob Zombie said he was done making horror films after "The Lords of Salem" as well. He just couldn't get funding to make anything else, so he threw this idea out to a producer who immediately stated, "Yes!!!! Let's do that!!!!" and now we have "31".

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just watched it. Thought it was okay to good. Not terrible, better than the Halloweens, but nowhere close to House, TDR, or LoS. It has really good moments and some really bad ones too.

    What didn't work:
    -Any of the main protagonists who are playing the game - his worst characters yet. Even in Halloween films his protagonists were colorful and fully realized, with the exception of Laurie Strode in H2. Their introductions sucked, despite having ok dialogue, but then it was all screams and "fuck you's."
    -the playing of the "game" itself. Boring, dumb, horribly edited, shaky cam nonsense, it just felt like a big ol' mess that you wanted to see lead to something else that was, well that was not that.
    -any of the "heads" except one obviously

    What DID work.
    -Richard Brake. What a terrifying performance. He elevated the film singularly to something else entirely when he was on screen - ESPECIALLY in the end, in the light. It was like you were watching a different film, one that was actually being directed competently, unlike the game beforehand.
    -the ending scene, set to offset music. The only time in the film when you're asking "okay what's going to happen?" Tension high.
    -the Ken Russell-like Malcolm McDowell and company angle. The costumes, the elaborate set, the nasty Britishness, the nudity.

    ReplyDelete