31. 2016. Directed & Written by Rob Zombie.
Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Malcolm McDowell, Jane Carr, Judy Geeson, Richard Brake, Pancho Moler, David Ury, Lew Temple, Torsten Voges, & E.G. Daily.
Bow and Arrow Entertainment/PalmStar Media/Protagonist Pictures.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
I’ll defend Rob Zombie to the day I die. You can say you don’t like him, you don’t dig his brand of horror; that’s totally fine. To each their own. You can’t say objectively that everything he does is bad. Because that simply isn’t true.
31 is a markedly different piece of horror from Mr. Zombie. It’s so clearly in his style, from the way he directs to how he writes his characters. At the same time, this is even more savage than his previous efforts with scarier characters, and we’re not given too much explanation so as to ruin the effect of his various maniacs. There is the recognisable Zombie directing, the old school 1970s-type freeze frames and his unique brand of dialogue. He’s just decided to take it up a notch.
The game at the heart of Murderworld – where Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Serpent (Jane Carr) and Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) bring their victims – is truly terrifying. Not something we haven’t seen before. Zombie makes the gimmick worth it. This isn’t some kind of Saw building setup with booby traps. No, Father and the Sisters have gathered together the worst of the worst killers, assembled their massive warehouse like a carnival of rooms and let those murderous clowns loose to play. Along with Zombie’s dare to be disturbing these clowns are something to behold.
Totally dig the opening scene with Doom-Head (Richard Brake). He’s capable of channelling sinister energy, which comes out nicely here. The way Zombie has everything open, before we discover the pastor sitting on the other side of the shot awhile later, it’s as if Doom-Head is speaking right to us, the viewer. He tells us a tale before the kill. Of course he’s talking to the pastor. But it’s a neat way to get things going. Compounded by the fact it’s shot in black-and-white, there’s something jarring. Essentially, it’s the prologue to Zombie’s tale of horrific madness. A no-nonsense immersion into the stark terror for which Zombie so clearly aims. We come back to Doom-Head later, as he’s the ultimate main villain of the film. When we do, Brake goes into full awe mode, as he quotes Casablanca, Che Guevara, as well as has ferocious sex while watching Nosferatu, among plenty of other insanity; and it works. He’s a showstopper. Watching him put on the makeup is a transformation of acting and editing. Brake pumps himself up in terrifying form screaming “I‘m not crazy I‘m in control” then punching himself in the nose a ton. Meanwhile, the cuts leading up to his little chant flash around, skipping, like a schizophrenic fit, and then Brake’s face turns from a smile to a frown; the blood runs cold watching him become a vision of disorder.
The crazy clowns are each pretty gnarly! Sick-Head (Pancho Moler) surprised me. I feel like there was too much time spent on his character. Otherwise, he’s nasty. From the Nazi-Hitler fixation to the fact he’s a tiny man, it hits that shocking spot just right. The ones who disturbed me most were the pairings: brothers Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury) wielding chainsaws, threatening sexual violence, looking like the sort of child molester clowns we all feared as children; then there’s Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and Sex-Head (E.G. Daily), a walking Freudian horror nightmare. Out of the two pairs, Sex and Death are the most bloodcurdling. Their size is off-putting, Death looming so tall and Sex so tiny. Death is physically intimidating and really strange-looking; Sex is tiny, violent, cute in a way that doesn’t make me feel good, and scary as fuck. While I do think Doom-Head steals the show because of Brake’s startling performance, the rest of the gang are equally well written by Zombie to give them all their own frightening elements.
Zombie’s always guilty of a few writing mistakes. Mostly, he often doesn’t trim some of the fat. Like Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) when she gives us the cliche “You wanna know what‘s going on inside my head; I‘ll tell you what‘s going on inside my head” before, yes, telling us exactly what’s on her mind. More than that I also find the character of Panda Thomas (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) poorly written. Could be that Hilton-Jacobs’ performance is super forced and annoying, too. Not sure which is the worst part of it. Either way, Panda isn’t as interesting as some of the others.
There’s lots of gritty, stylish directing on the part of Zombie, though. For all the slack in his writing he makes the whole film visually interesting. Whether it’s sticking to that ’70s practical effects driven horror and old school editing (those awesome swipe transitions at certain points make the movie feel like a comic book), or stylised sequences such as the showdown with Sex and Death, Zombie finds a way to bring something more than turning the camera on and letting the blood flow. He promised his most brutal film yet. I’ve seen some reviews out there who don’t think he’s accomplished that. I disagree. He’s definitely done disturbing before. Although, never before has his disturbing material reached such an adrenaline-fuelled, frenzied height of ferocity. In the best horror loving sense, it’s beyond fun.
There’ll be constant detractors of Zombie because they just don’t like him, for whatever reason. There are legitimate horror fans who can’t get into his style. I respect all opinions, long as you can back them up. But for me, 31 is a blast. Some of my favourite horror is the more cerebral sort, the kind you can get lost in and think about constantly. In high regard I also hold the horror which purely scares me, to the bone. Doesn’t have to be an elaborate, twisty story to make me feel creeped out. Brake, among the other Heads, does enough to get to me, let alone some of the general blood an gore tossed in. SPOILER ALERT AHEAD: the ending does it for me, when we see Father Murder and the Sisters change back to their normal lives, and yet Doom-Head can’t let go. Yeah, the others are clearly sick, but how Doom can’t change back without finishing the game, you see how utterly lost in the delusion he’s become. A simple, horrifying conclusion.
I feel there are things Zombie could’ve easily changed, made better. A couple performances aren’t what they ought to be. Once more, Brake saves the day, as do Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Meg Foster (of whom I’ve always been a big fan). But Brake, he is the supervillain of the Heads, the violently crazy clowns of Murderworld. He gives me an actual fright, in the quieter, more subtle moments. There’s a pulsating electronic score at times, not the typical Zombie stuff (with help from John 5), which helps with much needed tension. The camera is chaotic, and also there are beautifully framed shots that linger: later when Doom-Head chokes Charly, their eyes are intercut in closeups, mirrored again right before the final shot. I do think Zombie, amongst all the viciousness, keeps improving as a filmmaker in a lot of different ways.
At the end of the day Zombie sets out to do what he wanted: to get fucked up, disturbing and nasty. He wants to get under your skin. Maybe if you think there’s too much violence, he did his job. Maybe if you feel the Heads are all too much, he did his job. And perhaps if you don’t feel like there’s enough violence, like Zombie didn’t deliver on the dripping blood and sloppy gore, then I don’t know if we were watching the same film.