Rob Zombie begins his sixth feature film by somewhat breaking the fourth wall with a monologue of almost poetic sadism. Hired killer “Doom-Head” (Richard Brake) spits acid words in closeup, to invigorating effect. This inaugural scene, with its tight closeups and deliberate cadence, is a truly engrossing intro to a horror film.
Zombie, who takes much of his horror stylings from the likes of Tobe Hooper, delves deeper into the raw maw of this inspiration’s brutal realism with 31. The backroads Americana. The rambling van of freewheelers. The promise of chainsaws. 31 wants to be a reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
To this end, the film has a down-home spirit to it. Our van full of carnies jive talk, wax perverse, and make fine use of marijuana-based humor. The camera moves with a similar spirit in these early scenes, taking it easy as the characters do. This all accounted for, the spirit is no substitute for charm, which is mostly absent in the crew of carnies.
The inciting incident, while well staged and accompanied by a clever use of sound cues, is rendered haphazard and without tension due to its abruptness and use of freeze frames. Following this, we get the expected premise realized: a game of murder; as gory a game of murder as Zombie can conjure.
The movie’s game of 31 is The Purge meets The Hunger Games meets Hostel. An interesting combination: certainly. An effective one: yeah, kind of. Gore hounds and torture porn fanatics rejoice. You have found your next sadistic fix. The cinema of the film is fully realized. The pitch black humor is gleefully savage. The mise-en-scene could not be more rife with grit and grime.
Cinematographically, the film is far greater in moments leading up to action than it is in action itself. Action sequences are marred by excessive motion and disorientation. This said, many idle shots are intriguing; given the film they are contained within, they are unexpected.
The acting from the eccentric cast of characters is noticeably lacking. Aside from most of the dialogue being incomprehensible, everything about the acting feels over-executed. Not to discredit her too much, but there is a reason why Sheri Moon Zombie only appears in her husband’s films. And even Malcolm McDowell loses some prestige with this turn. With the lack of acting prowess, it is not hard to watch the band of victims fall prey to bloodsport. It just isn’t as entertaining, either.
The film loses much of its traction in this regard. It is hard to have a compelling narrative when the villains have more charisma than the heroes. Perhaps this villain fetishizing is Zombie’s downfall, but horror is a genre known for blurring the line of where the audience pledges their allegiance in terms of a killer-victim dichotomy. Masked killers are who we really remember from the slasher canon. Perhaps, then, Zombie is right to align us with the killers. Still, this alone does not make for an engaging tale.
The only saving grace in the cast is Brake, whose turn is as brutal as the narrative demands and as menacing as is required for a satisfying antagonist. If there is any semblance of a Leatherface or Hannibal Lector to be found here, it is in Brake’s performance. He makes even the lamest of one-liners passable.
31 is grating, baseless, and perverse. But this is where it excels the most. Rob Zombie fans are a niche of a niche of a niche, and Zombie is playing a tune right to their ears with 31. And his passion on-screen is evident. Ignoring some cinematographic choices, the film is shot with care and craft. He brings an energy behind the camera that cannot be found as easily in the cast who are in front of it.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)