Rated R for strong bloody horror violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use
Score: 2 out of 5
31 is exactly what you expect when you hear the words "a Rob Zombie film". Pretty much every one of the musician/filmmaker's trademarks is on full display: a retro '70s setting paired with a period classic rock soundtrack, characters both heroic and villainous who can charitably be described as "white trash", his wife Sheri Moon Zombie in a major role, and finally, very large servings of sex, violence, and profanity against the backdrop of an exploitation film aesthetic. It's clear from both listening to his music and watching his films that he is a huge fan of that vintage grindhouse style and definitely has his own voice and vision as an artist, and while I am a fan of his music, I wish I could say the same about his movies. As far as I'm concerned, Rob Zombie has only made one true standout film, The Devil's Rejects. Its predecessor House of 1000 Corpses was decent but felt like it was trying too hard, while his remake of Halloween missed what made the original film such a terrifying, enduring classic. I haven't seen The Lords of Salem, which apparently saw him step out of his comfort zone, but the polarized reaction to it (which, to be honest, makes me want to see it; I typically wind up liking horror films that are really divisive) clearly led him to return to his old stomping grounds for his latest feature film, 31. The result is basically "House of 1000 Corpses, but not as good", another effort that really wants to be the most shocking thing in the world, but ultimately adds up to very little in the end. The fact that I saw a heavily Bowdlerized, R-rated theatrical version instead of the original edit, one where the cuts to remove the most graphic scenes were visible from space, only made the matter worse.
The plot here is incidental. On Halloween night, 1976, a van full of traveling carnies is stopped on the road by a group of bandits, who kidnap the occupants and bring them to a remote location. There, the five captives who have been allowed to live learn from their captors, a group of aristocratically-dressed rich folks led by Malcolm McDowell as Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, that they will be taking part in a game called 31. The rules are simple: you will be hunted by psychopaths Running Man-style, and if you survive for twelve hours, you get to go free. So far, however, nobody has survived the game. What follows, after the obligatory twenty minutes of character development, is essentially an hour-plus of people fighting to survive in a dingy rat-trap of a maze while being chased by a neo-Nazi Latino little person, a pair of psycho clowns with chainsaws, a Harley Quinn-looking dominatrix and her huge, jacked-up love slave, and finally, a wicked-cultured, ashen-faced, knife-wielding assassin known only as Doom-Head.
This is a film that could've worked a lot better as a video game reminiscent of Manhunt, an old cult classic on PlayStation 2, as that is pretty much how it's structured, for better and for worse. In bits and pieces, this film works, with each "level", so to speak, having its own flow with a buildup to a rousing climax with the "boss". The problem is in how these nuggets of goodness are tied together. Between the first act and the anti-climatic ending that makes the whole thing seem pointless, there's really no plot whatsoever. The characters enter the maze, fight a new psycho, lose one of their own, move on to the next level, and repeat twice until the end. Said characters didn't do much to hold my attention, with one of the most interesting ones being killed off early. Sheri Moon Zombie's limits as an actress are pushed to their breaking point; she's good in flirty, sexy, borderline-villainous roles like Baby Firefly in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, but I didn't buy her as an ass-kicking horror heroine. She wasn't terrible, thankfully, but she seemed to be stuck in her old "femme fatale of the trailer park" persona. I might have preferred her co-star Meg Foster as the leading lady, as she felt far more confident in her role as the aging, seen-it-all carnival owner Venus. The big problem, though, went beyond the acting. Again, much like the psycho killers, these characters received no development that would make me care about them. The opening part of the film that was supposed to introduce us to them, their personalities, and their relationships instead had them all feeling interchangeable and generic, with little real depth. Likewise, we never got any sense of who the villains were beyond a bunch of super-wealthy fops dressed like King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, surrounded by naked young women who act as servants. The great Malcolm McDowell, despite carrying some clear presence on screen, is wasted in his part as the leader of the group, as we never figure out what purpose, if any, they have for kidnapping our protagonists, not even a simple "because they're perverted degenerates". They only show up in between each survival segment to act evil and stuff, then vanish while the other characters do their thing. The fact that it's just McDowell and two elderly women who are betting on who will make it through makes it seem like a private game just for them, but the scale of everything, with many people working for them, implies that there's something bigger going on. When I should've been feeling threatened by the villains, they just left me scratching my head instead.
I must stress that, while the story and characters in this film were basically nonexistent, this film did still work on a visual and visceral level. Even in a heavily censored form, this film still packed plenty of gore and twisted setups, with accidental cannibalism, a decapitation, a chainsaw to a woman's privates, a stabbing in the gut, a man's arm sliced open the long way (and that wound having to be painfully closed with just a makeshift tourniquet), and blood flying everywhere; I really want to see the unedited "Zombie Cut" (which apparently had to be edited multiple times to meet the MPAA's approval) just to see how fucked-up it gets. Rob Zombie's affection for a worn-down, lowlife aesthetic has also been honed for over a decade at this point, and I felt the rot and grime of this film's abandoned factory setting loud and clear. The psychos' visual design and actors playing them did a great job in establishing them as characters -- and make no mistake, they pretty much did all the work on that front, as with the exception of Doom-Head (who shows up in the opening, where he gets a chilling scene to call his own), they're each only on screen for about twenty minutes, give or take, between their introduction and their death. Rob may not be doing anything here that he hasn't done better in the past, but he's still made a film that will please the gorehounds out there.
The Bottom Line:
This is one that I only recommend for the diehard fans of Rob Zombie as a filmmaker. It feels like he's resting on a formula with this movie, and while it has a lot of cool moments, it never really comes together as a cohesive whole. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.