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As a person, I love Rob Zombie.

As an artist, I appreciate his aesthetic.

As a director, Rob Zombie is a mixed bag trying to make an impact on the industry.

With his movies, I feel like a heroin addict chasing the dragon. It’s been more than 10 years since Rob Zombie’s best and only good movie, The Devil’s Rejects. I remember watching it in theaters when I was in high school, and I can’t tell you how many times I have watched it since. The Devil’s Rejects was fun, funny, and violent with a purpose. For the last decade, it feels like Rob Zombie has been trying to re-capture that magic. While Rob Zombie and John Carpenter have buried the hatchet regarding the recent “feud” regarding Zombie’s Halloween remakes, I agree with Carpenter’s sentiments—those movies were uninspired and unnecessary. I had no idea Rob Zombie’s Halloween II even existed.

After the success of The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie was a hired gun on those Halloween remakes. It failed miserably, but Zombie still has talent as a director. In order to make his fucked-up vision a reality, I believe it needs to be an original Rob Zombie creation. Lords of Salem had promise as a story written by Rob Zombie, but it was so dreadfully boring and bogged down with exposition.

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When I heard about the premise of 31, I admit to being excited. The only thing I knew was the very basic ideathat some sadistic clowns kidnap a group of people and play a game to kill them one-by-one. Simple enough to catch my attention. Unfortunately, Rob Zombie doesn’t capitalize on the promise of that premise because the set-up is convoluted and full of tired old horror cliches.

Essentially, this movie feels like The Purge: Circus Clowns. Throw in a bit of the campy nature of the “stalkers” from The Running Man, and then you have the end result of 31. There are elements here that could have and should have made this an entertaining gore show. It’s pure speculation, but I imagine Rob Zombie’s decision to crowdfund this project impacted the bottom-line and his ability to translate this vision to film. But maybe that’s just an excuse that I’m making for him.

By setting the movie in the mid-70’s, Rob Zombie immediately gives 31 the same exact vibe of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. That was not a wise decision, in my opinion. I understand if that was out of necessity to make the film cheaper, but it only comes across like Rob Zombie going to the ol’ familiar well yet again. I’ve had enough of this style—I wanted something new.

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My expectations for 31 weren’t unreasonable. Is an original horror movie too much to ask?

I have no explanation for the goofy self-imposed rules of the game that restrict the movie’s creativity. Case in point: the captured group of traveling carnies has to survive 12 hours in this compound against these killer clowns from nowhere. Do you know what movie franchise also has a 12-hour time frame of trying to survive a murder romp? The Purge! It’s the foundation of the whole franchise.

It’s a moronic decision that helps the audience continue to draw lines to other, better movies.

There’s also no reason for Malcolm McDowell to be in this movie other than the fact that he’s Malcolm McDowell. That’s enough of a reason most of the time. In 31, Malcolm McDowell (as Father Murder) is dressed up like a tranny with a powdered wig and makeup as if he is a British aristocrat. Along with Sister Serpent (played by Jane Carr) and Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson), the audience is led to believe that these three family members play the annual game of 31 where they employ sadistic clowns to murder the captives while they gamble on the odds and what happens.

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None of that makes any fucking sense, but I could have still forgiven 31 if the movie delivered its share of gruesome deaths and campy horror. Why couldn’t the set-up be simplified to a mysterious haunted house that pops up and opens the night before Halloween for a freak show of horrors? Since it’s Devil’s Night, the haunted house only invites 31 people and then they play their game.

A haunted house is fertile ground for weird, crazy shit to happen in a horror movie. Funhouse mirrors, strobing black lights, confusing mazes, and so many more opportunities to scare the audience. With the approach Rob Zombie actually employs, this movie comes across as a bad survival-horror video game. When the captured group of carnies wake up inside the game, they’re separated and each person is given some type of weapon—table leg, baseball bat, crowbar, and so on.

Despite dedicating a significant portion of the movie on these carnies, I had no emotional investment in any of them. Kevin Jackson played Levon, Meg Foster played Venus, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs played Panda, Jeff Daniel Phillips played Roscoe, and Sheri Moon Zombie played Charly. Many will have an issue with Sheri Moon’s casting, but she is a serviceable actress in a horror movie.

roscoe-and-charly

In 31, she’s miscast as the main character, but I had several more important issues with this movie. Personally, I find it hard to blame Rob Zombie for wanting to put his wife in everything. However, an easy potential improvement would’ve been to make her play the character of Venus.

While the acting left a lot to be desired, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’s portrayal of Panda was probably the biggest offense. The Jamaican accent that Hilton-Jacobs utilizes is horrendous. It’s a worthy entry in the Pantheon of Shitty Movie Accents. I wanted Panda dead as soon as I heard that accent.

Among the captured carnies, Jeff Daniel Phillips is the most likeable character—no surprise since he’s also the best actor out of the bunch. Roscoe was deserving of a substantially larger role, but the actor did an impressive job with the material. Count his relegation as another missed opportunity.

In comparison to the charisma-free victims, the clowns infuse some amusement at various points. In 31, these clowns are called The Heads: Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, Sex-Head, and Doom-Head. Stupid names aside, the clowns are differing degrees of fun.

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For a bizarre reason, the first clown to enter the game is Sick-Head (played admirably by Pancho Moler), who is a midget dressed up like a tiny little Hispanic Hitler clown—complete with a giant swastika on his chest. Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head are chainsaw-wielding clown brothers. Death and Sex feel like a dumb tacked-on BDSM duo, but I was dumbfounded to discover that the voice of Tommy Pickles from Rugrats (Elizabeth Daily) played Sex-Head. This could be seen as an insult, but I just assumed it was an old, washed-up porn star when I heard her childish voice.

Without question, Richard Brake was the shining beacon of joy as Doom-Head. I was always creeped out whenever his ugly mug graced the screen. There’s a scene where Doom-Head is fucking a whore from behind while watching Nosferatu. I don’t think Richard Brake has an ounce of fat on him so he looks like a skeleton with skin tightly stretched over the bones. His silhouette is haunting.

Doom-Head delivers an intense, menacing monologue to open the movie. That introduction was the most memorable part of the movie, but 31 failed to capitalize on that momentum. The action doesn’t pick back up until the audience is re-introduced to Doom-Head much later. After watching this performance, I want to travel to the alternate universe where Richard Brake is playing The Joker.

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I wanted to love this movie. After watching 31, it was hard to find aspects to even like—let alone love. Although this was a massive disappointment and wasted opportunity, I’m still trying to mine the movie for positives. It hurts me to say such bad things about one of my favorite entertainers.

If you only look at the editing and transitions, 31 seems like a severe regression as a movie for Rob Zombie. I know he’s a capable director, but those freeze frames and fades were the hallmarks of an amateur filmmaker. Baffling decisions were abound in this movie.

But yet, Rob Zombie still had an ace up his sleeve. We’re talking about a movie that focuses on sadistic killer clowns that doesn’t use Rob Zombie’s best clown. Where the fuck was Captain Spaulding?

Even if you keep literally everything else the same, including Captain Spaulding could have increased the overall rating of the movie by 2 stars for me. I demand more Sid Haig in my life. Since 31 chronologically took place before the settings of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, it was possible to make this a prequel of sorts to show what Captain Spaulding was up to before connecting with the Firefly Family. Captain Spaulding would’ve wiped his ass with both of groups of these sorry sacks of shit (carnies and clowns) before eating bucket of fried chicken and tutti-fuckin-fruity ice cream.

“What’s the matter, kid?

Don’t ya like clowns? Why? Don’t we make ya laugh? Aren’t we fuckin’ funny? You best come up with an answer. Cuz I’m gonna come back here and check on you and your momma, and if you ain’t got a reason why you hate clowns, I’m gonna kill your whole fucking family.” — Captain Spaulding

Despite being disappointed with the way 31 turned out, I’m not ready to give up chasing the dragon yet. The Devil’s Rejects represents the best of contemporary horror movies while 31 is an example of the genre’s worst offerings. I’m willing to give Rob Zombie movies one more chance.

If another fatally flawed film is exposed, then I’ll have to cut him off forever.

stutter

1.5 out of 5 stars

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