Sundance Film Festival
Director: Rob Zombie
There was something oddly comforting about my experience with Rob Zombie’s psychobilly horror film. After so many of my film choices this year took me into territory that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for, 31 was exactly what I was hoping it would be—a heavily stylized jaunt into Rob Zombie’s carnival of carnage. The film takes us back to Zombie’s strange universe of muttonchops and halter tops that we saw in films like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects and Lords of Salem. Sure, it’s a place that Zombie has taken us before, but his penchant for mixing greasepaint and gore has allowed him time to experiment with his trademark formula this time around.
Our protagonists are a group of tight-knit carnies traveling through some dusty nowhere in Middle America on Halloween, circa 1976. The cramped Winnebago and tight close-ups of the characters were highly reminiscent of the first few moments of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there is a noted difference in that our heroes are not boneheaded, oversexed teenagers. One thing that made this film stand out from others in the genre is that the group of friends have just as much mileage on them as their old Winnebago, and it’s precisely that mileage that makes their fight for survival so interesting.
That fight begins when masked assailants trap them and force them to participate in a sick game called 31. The rules, as explained by Father Murder (a powder-faced Malcolm McDowell in full renaissance regalia), are for the captives to survive for twelve hours in a warehouse filled with psychopaths. The group members are separated, given a rudimentary weapon and forced into a kill-or-be-killed slaughterfest.
While 31 doesn’t waste a whole lot of time building tension, simply watching these characters navigate through the condemned hellscape that Zombie has envisioned is enough to draw the audience in. Admittedly, the cast of psychos is made up of characters that one might expect in a Rob Zombie film. There’s Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a neo-Nazi dwarf armed with silver daggers, Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), two chainsaw-wielding brothers, and the stone cold professional Doom-Head (Richard Brake) who embodies the chaos of Father Murder’s competition.
It would be easy to envision this film with the aforementioned boneheaded, oversexed teenagers as protagonists, but there’s something more interesting about the good guys in this film. They’re the type of people that society has kicked to the curb, but that’s what makes them dangerous when they’re backed into a corner by a troupe of murderers. I’d bet on a group of carnies surviving this situation over a group of teenagers any day of the week. This creates a true sense of competition and survival—rather than just wait and see which teen does something stupid and gets killed, we can expect these heroes to actively do something about their plight.
As the game unfolds, it’s interesting to see how each protagonist fares under the circumstances. Zombie gives the bulk of the ass-kicking to Venus (Meg Foster) and Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) who manage to lead what’s left of their group through the competition. While Moon Zombie has typically played a supporting character in her husband’s films thus far, her turn as the film’s lead is surprisingly effective. She channels the newfound killer instinct of her character with a controlled intensity, and she always looks good covered in blood.
Despite the fact that the film’s story and overall aesthetic aren’t a far departure from the material that Zombie has previously created, it’s clear that 31 gave him a chance to push the limits of film editing and lighting. Grainy freeze frames are used to capture a character’s final moments, and there is a particularly disorienting (in a good way) scene that sets the harlequin-painted Sex-Head (Elizabeth Daily) against an aggressively flashing strobe, causing her face to appear even after the visual discomfort causes you to close your eyes.
It’s nothing necessarily groundbreaking for Rob Zombie, but 31 is full of twisted characters, horrific environments and a few other nasty surprises. Fans of Zombie’s previous work will definitely want to check this one out.