31 (2016)

Rob Zombie seems to be quite a divisive personality. There are those who tend towards die-hard fandom, lapping up anything he touches and never wavering in their dedication. Then there are those who believe he’s a blight on the horror landscape, dumbing down the genre and ruining existing mythos with nihilistic abandon.

I’d put myself somewhere in the middle of that sliding scale. I like his musical output just fine and consider myself a fan of House Of 1000 Corpses, The Devils Rejects and The Lords Of Salem, but feel that his Halloween re-imaginings should have remained a concept and not been inflicted on an unsuspecting public. I always go into his work with an open mind and think of myself as fairly neutral though. As far as Zombie is concerned I’m Switzerland. Or I was, until I watched his latest offering.

31 (because it takes place on Halloween) follows a ragtag group of carnival workers who swear, spit and grunt their way through an unpleasant first act, setting themselves up as a bunch of people the average horror audience would justifiably hate. There wasn’t a single character I could align myself with, and while I know that’s not necessary to elicit empathy, in this case it certainly would have helped.

Once we’re introduced to this particular band of misfits, they’re quickly kidnapped and held in an undisclosed facility for the bizarrely convoluted entertainment of a ludicrously hammy Malcolm McDowell, who appears to be dressed as John Malkovich from Dangerous Liaisons. The “game” is that our heroes must survive 12 hours whilst being stalked through a labyrinthine prison by a gaggle of deeply unthreatening clowns with imaginative names like Sex-Head, Death-Head and Psycho-Head. All the while, the three spectators give them odds on suspected chances of survival.

I’d love to break down the core of what the rest of the film entails but the camerawork was so shaky, shoddy and unforgivably bad that it was often difficult to tell what was even happening. The close-ups, jittery death scenes and grindhouse-style filters made it unwatchable at times, and while I imagine the aim was to recall 70’s era schlock, it just fell flat for me.

A lot of column inches on a lot of blogs and websites have gone to great lengths to criticise Zombie for always seemingly insisting that his paramour Sheri Moon Zombie always takes the lead role in his projects so I won’t say much on the subject for fear of repetition. What I will say is that it’s either an egregiously bold or mind-bogglingly stupid idea to keep casting a woman who has gone on record several times to state that she never wanted to be an actress, and still doesn’t. If love is blind then in this case it appears to be deaf as well.

The whole cast actually seemed to be giving it their all though, and it’s always a pleasure to see Meg Foster as there are too few roles for women of a certain age in genre pieces. Malcolm McDowell was Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Daniel Phillips was a sleazy version of his character from The Lord Of Salem and Richard Brake monologued a lot at people in what I suspect was supposed to be a menacing way. The fault lies mostly with the weak script though, as the delivery was admirable given what they had to work with.

The most pervading and sickening aspect of the film for me were the seemingly constant threats of sexual violence throughout. “Put down your feminist pitchfork, you needlessly verbose, liberal leftie”, I hear some of you cry. On a more serious note though, I recognise that 31 is a throwback to a simpler time but I feel like film-makers should be utilising more imaginative shock tactics in place of an archaic, sexist trope in 2016. Nothing about 31 felt truly shocking and everything that was supposed to shock just felt cheap and immature.

Despite everything I’ve said thus far, it almost feels cruel to criticise the film too much. Rob Zombie famously crowdfunded the project and offered his fans genuinely badass perks and so as someone who didn’t contribute to the project I almost feel as though 31 isn’t for me from the word ‘go’. Maybe if I had more allegiance with the director I’d have been more forgiving or viewed it more favourably. Sadly though, it just didn’t do a lot for me, and isn’t a film I could recommend in good conscience. I’m sure Zombie achieved what he set out to do but unfortunately I can’t force myself to care.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

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