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Sundance 2016: Rob Zombie Takes One Step Backward With 31

By  · Published on January 28th, 2016

Rob Zombie Takes One Step Backward With 31

Sundance 2016

Sundance 2016

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

Generally speaking you’re either a fan of Rob Zombie’s film-making or you’re not. I say generally because while his first four films (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween, Halloween II) are oppressive, generically-violent, shallow affairs his 2012 release, The Lords of Salem, actually showed visible improvement. It’s still basic in many ways, but Zombie put visible effort into the story and design resulting in an enjoyably creative step forward as a writer/director.

Unfortunately for those of us who favored that growth though, Zombie’s latest feature, 31, takes one step back.

Five carnies traveling between gigs (and separate from the rest of the troupe) run into trouble when a late night drive on a remote road ends at a trio of creepy scarecrows blocking the road. They’re quickly abducted only to awake in a compound designed for death-dealing and run by a trio of Louis XIV cos-players. The only path to freedom is to survive twelve hours as players in this carnage-filled game as a handful of bloodthirsty madmen (and one diminutive and deadly little lady). The odds are never in their favor.

At its core this is Zombie’s take on a direct-to-DVD staple – random people forced to fight for their lives in a contained area while wealthy onlookers watch and wager via pay-per-view – but aside from eliminating the audience and adding his own stylistic touches the film is ultimately nothing more than that core. Five go in, most don’t come out, the end.

Grisly deaths await most of the characters we meet, and thankfully Zombie doesn’t scrimp on the blood and gore. Heads are lopped off, bodies are impaled, and we even get a briefly entertaining chainsaw battle. The bloodletting is probably enough to appeal to fans, but the highlight – and what elevates it slightly above his first four films – is the style and creativity he puts into his villains. We get a little person with a Nazi fetish, a pair of hillbilly brothers, a giant and his tiny female sidekick, and miscellaneous thugs. They all stand apart from the usual psychos and if anything, resemble WWE wrestlers in their looks and names.

Richard Brake steals the film though as Doom-Head, the most vicious and well-read of the bad guys, and he serves as something of a bookend for it as well. He opens things with a monologue in B&W, immediately followed by a messy pummeling, and returns later to take on the survivors. Zombie’s love for him is clear resulting in perhaps a bit too much dialogue – Brake delivers it well, but the cruel intrigue of the character slowly bleeds out the longer he’s allowed to talk – but he remains the highlight.

The five protagonists are a mixed bag (sorry Sheri Moon Zombie) with the two highlights actor and character-wise being Jeff Daniel Phillips as Roscoe and Meg Foster as Venus Virgo. The pair bring an earthy gravitas to their roles to the point that you almost care – and that’s an unusual feeling for a Zombie film, and honestly it’s also just great seeing Foster’s eyes again. The other performances are tripped up by showmanship, bad accents, and a lack of charisma.

The film’s budget is low, but Zombie makes the most of it with his production design resulting in a maze-like enclosure that feels like a madhouse turned over to inmates with art degrees. The feel of the film, from the film-stock look of the opening to the costumes and such succeed in capturing his much beloved ’70s grindhouse feel without ever needing to add fake scratches.

More time and care could have been spent on the action sequences though as too often the editing and incessant close-ups drains scenes of energy and suspense. And the less said about the trio running the show the better. Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, and Jane Carr clearly had nothing better to do one afternoon, and their scenes can’t help but feel detached from the tale. They’re neither entertaining nor necessary, and the best things to come out it are several shots of naked servants who look like they just stepped off the Eyes Wide Shut set.

31 is Zombie’s mildly entertaining take on a stale and simple setup. You already know if it’s for you.

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.