Written by John Squires
After the Fathom Events “sneak preview” screening of 31, Rob Zombie appeared on screen for a pre-filmed Q&A session. When asked what movies inspired him to make the film we just watched, Zombie relayed a story that was quite telling. In short, he had been developing a non-horror project that just wasn’t working out, and during a phone conversation with a friend, he noted that he could come up with any random, dumb horror idea off the top of his head and make that movie instead. And here we are. Rob Zombie’s 31; a random idea that Zombie quickly came up with on the phone one night.
Oh boy does it show.
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, the 1976-set 31 centers on the members of a traveling carnival who are kidnapped one night by a group of masked maniacs. It’s Halloween night, and their captors are playing an annual game of life-and-death that puts the gang up against a series of increasingly sadistic clowns. If they wish to survive, the friends will have to stick together and fight for their lives.
For a guy whose music has remained relatively one-note throughout the years, Rob Zombie has proven himself to be a fairly versatile filmmaker. The leap from the cartoonish House of 1000 Corpses to the Western-like epic that is The Devil’s Rejects was huge, and in the wake of his much-maligned stay in Haddonfield, The Lords of Salem saw Zombie stepping outside any box he had put himself in. But with 31, Zombie not only puts himself back in the box, but takes such a huge step backwards that it’s hard not to wonder what happened to the visionary who once seemed intent on, well, trying.
One thing you cannot take away from 31 is that it’s most definitely a Rob Zombie movie, and though it’s hard not to admire a filmmaker whose work is so completely his own, the problem with 31 is that it feels, to a nauseating extent, like a filmmaker going through the motions and just plain not caring. Zombie’s laziest and safest film to date, 31 abandons most of the goodwill he has built up as a filmmaker over the years, playing out not quite like a pastiche of his greatest hits, but rather a Frankenstein-like patchwork of Zombie’s worst artistic qualities. Dialogue, techniques, and even entire scenes are lifted wholesale from Zombie’s past work; but this time around, the charm is strangely absent from the proceedings.
A plotless mess that’s home to no shortage of Zombie’s trademark sleaziness but not much else, 31 is, I hate to say it, the work of a filmmaker pandering to the lowest common denominator and grabbing the lowest hanging fruit from every single tree he passes by. While Zombie is certainly known for creating memorable and truly iconic villains, even the bad guys here feel completely uninspired; I can almost guarantee the only one you’ll remember upon leaving the theater is Doom-Head, played by a scene-stealing Richard Brake. The film is at its best whenever Brake is on screen, and to his credit, Zombie seems well aware of that; the entire opening scene sees Brake delivering a chilling monologue.
Among the film’s many problems is the camerawork, which is shakier than the shakiest found footage film you’ve ever seen; and 31 is not, in case you were wondering, a handheld horror flick. Whenever anything happens – and when I say “anything,” I mean someone getting killed… not much else ever really happens – Zombie shakes the camera to the point that you can barely tell what’s happening, which oddly makes the film way less brutal than you may expect it to be. Even when the blood does fly, and you can actually make out what’s going on, there’s never much creativity to the gruesomeness or the manner in which the dull characters are dispatched. It’s all just too limp and forgettable for its own good.
As someone who’s been defending Rob Zombie since he started writing about movies, it pains me to not be able to defend 31. It pains me even more to feel, in my heart, that his greatest work as a filmmaker may be behind him. Because when a filmmaker jumps the shark, it tends to look a whole lot like 31.
Let’s just forget this ever happened.