I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Rob Zombie's 31
Oh dear, Mr. Zombie... this was an unfortunate offering. The elevator pitch for this movie probably sounded a whole lot better than what came out: “Okay, so it’ll be a circus carnival themed death game, hosted by Malcolm McDowell dressed as Marie Antoinette, where the victims are forced to face down various insane clown posses while trying to live through the night. Alright, this is my floor, good talk.” How could something with so many inherently creepy things (clowns, carnival aesthetics, Malcolm) turn out to be so flat, boring, and un-scary? Welcome to Rob Zombie's 31.
Before we get into the dissection, let’s get a better handle on the overall premise. A van-load of carnival performers in 1976 are abducted by what seems to be another group of carnival performers (or at the very least people who dress like it), and wake up in a warehouse/underground bunker. They are told via Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder (Malcolm McDowell, and I’m not kidding, that’s his name) on a loudspeaker that they are here for a game called “31” where they will be hunted by demented psycho-killers until morning. Meanwhile, the aristocrats observing the game – three old people dressed like Barry Lyndon extras – place bets on who dies next. If they manage to survive, they win. As of yet, no one’s managed to survive.
To start with a small disclaimer, I'll admit that I find Rob Zombie’s directorial work to be hit or miss. I really enjoyed House of A Thousand Corpses, was lukewarm on The Devil’s Rejects, and appreciated that The Lords of Salem had great atmosphere and a uniquely feminine quality to it but overall didn’t like it. Yet, I find myself watching more of his stuff than one might imagine because I have a feeling he and I like the same horror movies. A lot of his films have a distinctly seventies look and texture, even when they’re not actually placed in that time. In The Lords of Salem, he attempted to craft a slow-burn with a dense ambiance that reminded me of something like The Sentinel while The Devil’s Rejects was clearly inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and various road movies of the scratchy, dusty variety. I genuinely can’t place House of a Thousand Corpses quite as neatly. It was a movie I found fun, wild, freaky, and frightening. My hope when starting 31 was that I was going to get a similar experience or, failing that, an ambitious stumble like Lords of Salem.
Have you ever come across a piece of work – movie, book, album, play, photo series, anything – with immensely fertile territory that it completely squanders? That’s 31 in a nutshell. Forget that I have so many questions about the logistics of this game (the least of all being where this massive bunker-type place is, and how they manage to keep this fairly elaborate set up a secret), let’s focus on the batshit bananas characters introduced by the foppish overlord Malcolm McDowell. There is Sick-Head, a Spanish speaking little person Nazi. Huh, alright... then there’s Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head who seem to work together because of the synchronicity of their names. Synergy’s great for a efficiency. It’s also good because for the life of me I can’t remember which one was which. There’s Sex-Head and Death-Head, another pair with a more Freudian theme, neither of whom deliver on their names at all. Finally, there’s the ace in the hole: Doom-Head. He’s... well, it appears he’s just some guy who gets paid a lot of money to play this game and is kinda nuts but also kinda tired of working for these people so I’m not really sure. He’s the one “head” that we actually get to see parts of his life outside of 31 but he’s also supposed to be the most menacing.
Let’s run through some of the inherently frightening elements we’ve got in this mix. There’s the carnival and circus motif complete with clowns. Everyone’s skin crawls with that. Then there’s the claustrophobia aspect of being trapped and hunted, anxiety inducing stuff there. The concept of people using human lives as entertainment and callously calling out the odds for survival could have been chilling. Instead, all of it just feels silly. None of the “heads” seem particularly good at their jobs considering how fast they were killed by people who are not self-identified as murderers. Yet the aristocrats claim amongst each other that no one has ever survived 31. I, for one, find that hard to believe.
Everyone in the game, including the victims, are armed with various weapons. None of the “heads” have anything particularly interesting. There’s a chainsaw, knives, and axes but nothing that plays with the carnival theme. Like 2017’s The Belko Experiment, a movie revolving around slaughtering co-workers in a 9-5 office environment, the methods of murder are surprisingly dull. Both movies give us a set up that screams to be engaged with to the fullest and then just fizzles out to people shootin’ and stabbin’. Don’t put all your imagination into the settings, costumes, and names yet none into the killings. You know what we’re here for.
There was certainly a decent amount of gore in this movie but, save for one scene, it didn’t have much of a visceral impact. I prepared myself for the grungy, rusty, dark red blood splattered world of House or Rejects but realized about halfway through that the effect of the violent moments was fairly weak. Also, there were way too many casual rape references tossed around. This is a note to all male filmmakers, not just Rob Zombie: if too much of your plot or horror hinges on sexual assault, maybe rethink it. Not because it’s too abhorrent, which it is, but because over half of us whom you’re trying to scare with it exist in a world where we’re always threatened by it so honestly, it’s not as shocking as you think. It smacks of desperation and an attempt to be edgy but c'mon. We live in the real world where rapists caught red-handed, like Brock Turner, get less than six months in jail and celebrities like Bill Cosby has fans defending him despite over fifty women telling the same story for years. Some crazy-eyed drama club dropout threatening to make Sheri Moon Zombie his “fuck bag” is laughable. The rest of us know that rapists tend to not be quite so obvious, and that’s what makes it scary.
My heart goes out to Richard Brake as Doom-Head, a character that might have been scary or even mildly interesting in a better movie. He delivers a few monologues that probably read terribly on paper but he manages to make them alternate between darkly comic and unhinged. There’s a few hints that he is a man who is tired and almost bored by the job but then finds himself snapping to attention at the scent of blood. The last shot of the movie, one that recalls Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is Doom-Head and Sheri Moon Zombie’s Charly facing each other on a sunbleached stretch of rural road. They’re both bloodied, and with a slow, manic grin, Doom-Head flips out two switchblades, offering one to Charly before the cut to black. My interpretation of his character was that he is a psychotic person who enjoys killing but doesn’t really want to do it with all the trappings. His monologue that opens the film has an almost mocking tone when he mentions “grease paint” and “clowns” as if he finds all of this as silly as I did but hell, at least he gets to do what he loves!
Aside from the wasted motifs, bland gore, and not scary villains, there’s another issue that I cannot stay silent on. Mr. Zombie, for the love of god, please let other people help you with dialogue! At first, I just thought you were terrible at writing female characters since there are a few women in this movie that talk with a narcotized, sexualized fawning that makes Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits look downright sober. Then when I heard the strange interactions between, well, everyone, I realized that Mr. Zombie is maybe not sure how people talk and can’t even come up with captivating scripted conversations either. I don’t need all dialogue to sound real. Trust me, I’m a theater kid. I have an intense love for language that nobody in the history of the world would say naturally but is beautiful and lyrical or biting and barbed. This movie had none of that, and this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this problem.
If this was truly just some gory, torture porn flick (my initial thought which explains my steeling myself before diving in), I probably wouldn’t have written this piece. I would have watched the movie and been like, “alright, that was gross. Why do I always do this to myself? I’m gonna watch Bob’s Burgers till I feel right again.” If this was a gripping, well-executed piece of nastiness, I would have written something about how Rob Zombie can make a good movie when he wants to. Sadly, this was just a bloody, boring mess. Everyone involved deserved better, and ya know what? I’m including Mr. Zombie in that sentiment.