Friday, October 28, 2016

A Reel Review: 31

Stylistic and colorful director Rob Zombie is one of those filmmakers who makes movies for himself. All of his favorite things, from classic horror, rock n’ roll, and vintage art have a strong presence in his films; either acting as a backdrop or the driving force. Long-time fans of Zombie and horror eat it up, but the most casual viewer is often left out in the cold wondering what the big deal is. Looking at Zombie’s catalog of films, he seems to be at his best when he lets those casual viewers in, even if it’s just a peek into normalcy. Such is the task of 31.

On Halloween night in 1976, a group of carnival workers (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Kevin Jackson), are ambushed off the road and held prisoner in an old refinery by Father Napoleon Horatio Silas Murder (Malcolm McDowell), where they have 12 hours to escape before being murdered by a group of killers…including the master-killer Doom Head (Richard Blake).

Low in concept and simple in plot, 31 is only concerned with the five kidnappees surviving the night and getting out of the maze-like refinery alive. The film plays out like an old 1980’s side-scrolling video game where players venture from one deadly level to the next, having to take out or evade a “level boss” before moving on to the next boss.  With not much going in the way of story, the film is balanced out by the wild killers, ranging from a knife-wielding dwarf-Nazi (Pancho Moler ), two chain-saw wielding clowns (Lew Temple and David Ury), and a pair of sex workers (Torsten Voges and Elizabeth Daily). There’s a balance that Rob Zombie is working with here, as the batshit-crazy surroundings and zany characters (each murderer is a demented clown with a nickname to match) are balanced out by the simple story-goal of survival. For the most part it works, as the craziness is equal to the plot.

31 is first and foremost a horror film, and Zombie holds nothing back in reminding us of it. There’s bloodshed by the gallon as heads and limbs are lopped off and there’s more stabbing and hacking than in a slaughterhouse. Characters are put into situations which are grotesque, and the jokes and gags are equally gross. Horror fans have a lot to feast upon. But like most horror flicks, Zombie paints his characters very broadly, doing just enough to establish them before throwing them into the meat-grinder. There’s also too much of a rush going on; the characters are barely established before the killing begins and they have no time to react or go through any sort of an arc.

Zombie does present one hell of an explosion of color. The sets are magnificent and would look right at home at an old carnival or an outlandish Halloween production. 31 is packed with film references that cinema geeks will love (the group that kidnaps the workers are dressed like Black Bart’s men from A CHRISTMAS STORY), and the classic rock tracks are well-timed.

Acting is decent. Sheri Moon Zombie doesn’t have a lot to do as an actress with no real dramatic moments, but she, like the rest of the cast, have an extraordinary amount of physical torment to go through. Everyone handles their tasks well, but the show is stolen by Richard Blake, who puts in a startling and stunning performance as the master-killer Doom Head. He is creepy and unnerving, and his opening (black-and-white) scene in the prologue is breathtaking. Elizabeth Daily puts on a great Harley Quinn-ish performance, and her big scene under a strobe light has to be seen to be believed.

Like most horror movies, there is a lot to buy into, like how a group of crazies can be so organized…and why the game is even being played is only hinted at. There’s a feeling that a director’s cut of the film would improve those holes, but they are minor. Zombie has created a gruesome film here that works for fans of the splatter-fest but never for the casual viewer; but the casual viewer wouldn’t come within a mile of this anyway. It isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone, and that’s exactly how Rob Zombie wants it.


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