Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Richard Brake, Meg Foster, Lawrence Wilton-Jacobs, Judy Geeson, Malcolm McDowell, Jane Carr, E.G. Daily.
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW)
Plot: It’s Halloween, 1976, and a group of skeevy carnies are driving their van through the desert. After encountering a sinister roadblock and a gang of masked kidnapper-murderers, they awaken to find themselves in 31, a sadistic kill-or-be-killed game that pits its victims against inventively gruesome psychopathic clowns with motifs like ‘Sick-Head’, ‘Sex-Head’ and more.
Like the majority of his work, Rob Zombie’s “31” is an unrelentingly brutal Impressionist white trash nightmare. Meant to be an adrenaline-fueled gorefest, it’s actually haunting and thought provoking once you process it. Maybe it shares themes with other films about death games and gladiatorial combat, but it’s spiritual parent is definitely “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
There’s been a lot of scholarship about Massacre and its symbolic, image-driven inversion of the American Dream. Deliberately or not, 31 serves up a whole bunch of similar nuance; I’m just not sure whether it’s about the U.S.A. in 1976 or in 2015. It’s a much thicker stew of Strange Americana than it seems: poverty, road trips, freedom, the carnival, missing persons, killer cults and economic anxiety.
Surprisingly, the movie’s biggest flaw is what makes it so interesting. Our heroes, the carnies, should be the characters that we invest in. We should be yelling at the screen, and tensing our muscles when they confront their killers. But I didn’t. The carnies are almost as cartoonish and alien as the psychopaths pursuing them.
They’re dirty through and through; a collection of stereotypes of the lower rungs of society. Their dialogue is incomprehensible, unnatural. Only an evident degree of empathy and caring (and greasepaint) separates them from their hunters, and the 31 game stretches that line significantly. The carnies certainly fit Zombie’s aesthetic – they’re a study in stark ugliness. Rarely are attractive people nude or in sex scenes in his movies. (Incidentally, I felt the same way about his Halloween remakes; if the Final Girl didn’t die at the killer’s hand, she was sure to die of a meth overdose. It was only a matter of time before her daily misery had to end. And perversely, I felt the opposite in The Devil’s Rejects – I cared about and felt for the Firefly family!).
The camera work during the most intense carnage scenes also didn’t help me connect with them. It was shaky and nauseating. There was a strobe light warning for epileptic viewers in one scene. ‘The Office’-style cuts and close ups (usually containing bad dialogue) take you out of the narrative and disorient you.
Perhaps all this was Zombie’s way to place the viewer in 31. Instead of experiencing it through a character you project on, does he want you to have a sickening sensory experience that rips you away from the comforts of your plush seat and popcorn?
And who’s running the 31 game? A bizarre ‘Hellfire Club’ pulls the strings to amuse themselves by a high-stakes wager of what they view as disposable lives. It’s a brilliant, almost high-brow twist that becomes something like political commentary. This club abuses the poor in a sick ritual. Even the killer clowns are their victims – the mentally ill are most vulnerable to exploitation.
Father Murder, Sister Dragon, Sister Serpent. These characters, portrayed by Caligula himself Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr, dress in powdered wigs, white greasepaint and rococo 17th century outfits. They observe the game, place their bets on a pentagram and comment in refined British accents. They’re served by masked naked women straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. What they set in motion is sadistic and satanic party of horrific excess, away from the eyes of the law and social norms. And when the game is done, they remove their powdered wigs and make-up to return to their upper class lives.
There’s a fascinating backstory and sequel to this piece of the puzzle and I hope Zombie is up for the challenge of telling it. Hellfire Clubs have roots in both literature, history and pop culture – hey Ben Franklin! – and the iconography in 31 is recognizable. Zombie took Pasolini’s revolting Salo, turned down the sex and amped up the gore. It fits squarely with The Hunger Games and that series’ rather more sedate take on Roman circuses and class struggle.
Performances: I like Sheri Moon Zombie. She’s a beautiful actress and I was impressed by her intense and brave work in The Lords of Salem. Unfortunately here, she was strictly a visual of pretty peroxide frizz, with dialogue both awfully written and badly delivered. Meg Foster is amazing; she can sell anything, even a raunchy fifty-something carnie hooker named Venus Virgo. It’s no wonder she remains another of Zombie’s muses. Jeff Daniel Phillips and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs are your likeable men’s men, but again their characters are nothing that grab you.
But there is a standout here who walked away with this film in his back pocket, and once 31 is widely released, he’ll be flooded in job offers: Richard Brake. He played the eloquent, terrifying and vicious Doom-Head, the best of the best of this collection of psycho clowns. I’ll need to go through his dialogue again just to be sure, but his opening monologue most likely expresses the nihilistic philosophy of 31. I promise the final image in the film before credits roll will burn right into your brain. See if you can keep it out of your nightmares.