Director: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sherri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, Malcolm McDowell
Watch 31 online in the UK: Shudder / Amazon Instant Video
Rob Zombie, perhaps the definition of a cinematic acquired taste, after trying to branch out of his Southern-fried gore with Lords of Salem, returns to sweaty, swearing-filled territory with 31. While not without merit by any means, the film does seem to suggest that the creeping dread and discombobulating atmosphere of Salem was perhaps a blip.
Clowns, a 70s soundtrack and Sheri Moon Zombie all make appearances again for a tale of some friends being thrown into a game where they must survive a night, while being chased by a variety of circus freaks, including a Latino dwarf with a Nazi obsession and a combo team called Sex-Head & Death-Head. Zombie is not so much going back to his directorial well here, so much as filling up a petrol tank with the well’s water and guzzling it all down.
For a man who made two films featuring Michael Myers, it is a surprise that 31 features perhaps his best antagonist yet. Richard Brake’s Doom-Head is chilling because he’s not a supernatural force and doesn’t just launch into violence straight away, instead indulging in monologues that may be a touch sub-Tarantino, but are delivered with a sadistic glint in the eye that lingers in the mind. He’s a more successful villain than the aforementioned Nazi-loving Dwarf, for sure.
The victims – there is little point calling them anything else – are your usual mix of Zombie characters, who offer little in the way of liveability, although it is refreshing that Zombie goes for characters a good couple of decades older than the usual teenage horror fodder – Sheri Moon Zombie is not nearly as shrill as she often has been. When the time comes for her to spill blood, she embodies the increasing mania of her character well. Malcolm McDowell also shows his face and dresses up as the Ringmaster of the clowns, getting his teeth round some rather silly dialogue with his usual good grace.
The director also shows some skill in pacing. Despite spending 15 minutes getting to know the characters in a rather inane set-up, they are stuck in the game of death fairly early on and the film barely lets up. While settling into a structure of introducing a villain, having a fight, then introducing another, the changes in the characters and the different environments the action plays out in at least engage our interest long enough to sustain the film’s 100-minute runtime. It is a shame that the very end just seems to give up, aiming for ambiguity but feeling rather flat.
The result is a damn sight better than Zombie’s Halloween films, but it does show a filmmaker who seems rather comfortable within a certain boundary and unwilling to do much to step out of it. While certainly visceral and not without its plus points, 31 is a disappointment, especially after the really rather good Lords of Salem, which you should perhaps check out instead.
31 is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.
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