Love it or hate it, you have to respect the tenacity and stick-to-itiveness that metal mainstay Rob Zombie has applied to his sideline in horror filmmaking. His latest, 31, takes his grimy, sun dappled 70’s oeuvre and turns it on its “head” to the point that initiated audiences will find the move out of the director’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” inspired comfort zone to be a shock in and of itself. The results are as surprising as they are entertaining.
31 takes its van dwelling group of good natured circus performers (Zombie’s wife Sherri Moon and 70’s TV icon Lawrence Hilton Jacobs amongst their number) and plops them into a Running Man meets Saw inspired hellhole, a “game” curated by a powdered wig sporting Malcolm McDowell (having fun, as usual) and his team of Victorian rejects that subject weary travelers to a gauntlet where they must survive encounters with various “heads”, deranged thrill killers similar to the “stalkers” in The Running Man.
Aside from a few odd choices here and there, which can probably be chalked up to rabble rouser Zombie intentionally wanting to fuck with his audience (Why is the little person dressed like Hitler speaking Spanish?), 31 is a nasty and satisfying outing from the ageless shock rocker. True, there’s nothing particularly original about anything going on here, but with Horror being such a “done and seen it all” genre for dedicated fans, we can do a lot worse than having a highly educated and enthusiastic student of the game like Zombie remix and mash up various themes and tropes to create something new-ish.
The cast is game (McDowell is always a pleasure), the practical gore effects look great, there’s some genuine scares and shocks within the plotting of the cat and mouse enemy encounters, and it’s Zombie so you know the production design and music (this time composed by his current guitarist/ex-Marilyn Manson cohort John 5) are on point. Game of Thrones and Batman Begins actor Richard Brake is particularly effective as “final boss” type character Doom Head, making one hope that this will open up more opportunities for him in high profile roles, or at least ones where he isn’t nearly unrecognizable under prosthetics as he is as the Night King on GoT. Brake’s performance here feels like an extended audition for an especially savage version of The Joker, and it’s miles ahead of whatever it was exactly that Jared Leto was trying to pull.
Zombie has sort-of earned an eye rolling reputation amongst movie snob types for constant returns to his familiar grindhouse well and occasional misguided aspirations towards pretentiousness (Halloween 2 comes to mind), but 31 shows his growth both as both a competent storyteller and as a personality willing to not take himself too seriously and also subvert expectations regarding his work. Most critics wouldn’t necessarily call it “good” but for horror fans, it’s definitely a good time.