Suffering Through “31”

So, I mentioned in my review of Devil’s Rejects (found here) that Rob Zombie seems to be in the business of making uniquely unlikable films. His work carries with it a grimy, thick, smear of brutality and meanness. There’s something compelling about sincerely pursuing basic unpleasantness as an aesthetic, and Rob Zombie has sunk his teeth into that “something” until his chin is wet and red. Since his debut with House of 1,000 Corpses, Zombie has carved a niche in the flesh of horror cinema with a dull hunting knife, and his newest film, 31, fits that niche perfectly. It’s bloody, it’s rude, and it’s almost too Rob Zombie for me.

Almost.

The film follows a group of fiercely unlikable carnival workers as they van across the American southwest. Their van breaks down and the gang of carnies are kidnapped and subjected to a trio of aristocrats and their sadistic game (the titular “31”). The game involves surviving Halloween night in a giant condemned campground as various murderous clowns chase them down. That’s it. That’s the bare skeleton of a story and Rob Zombie treats the hyper-troped and cliche’d combination of Slasher and Survival-game genres like musical notes and arranges and varies them into a shoddy rock-anthem of gore, unpleasantness, and repugnance. This is an ugly movie, made by the ugly numbers.

The film does have its problems, and all of them are inherent to Rob Zombie’s film work. It never becomes clear, at any moment, who the audience is meant to root for. Zombie has built, in this film, a world without protagonists, a world without any sort of moral spectrum. The carnival workers are rude, dirty, and seem to put earnest effort into alienating the audience. Even actors I usually like do their best work to be the worst they’ve ever been on film. Sheri Moon Zombie, the Helena Bonham-Carter of the horror world, as Charly in 31, seems to be somehow less likeable than she was in Devil’s Rejects and she doesn’t even force a family of folk singers to slap each other to appease her sadism in this one! Jeff Daniel Phillips, as Roscoe Pepper, channels a young Tombstone era Powers Boothe only with a rank gorilla mask, a disregard for people’s personal space, and a fondness for telling the women of the film to “shut the fuck up.”

Most disappointingly, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, the man who singlehandedly elevated Sublime from a mere medical horror film to the dynamic work of racial and sociopolitical allegory that it is, slums his way through 31 as the cowardly, Cajun carny, Panda Thomas. Panda. Thomas. We have a dour parade of filthy jokes, misogyny, and bizarre sexual innuendo within the first fifteen minutes, and these men and women are meant to be the film’s heroes.

The villains, the gang of aristocrats and greasepainted psychopaths pit against this “lovable” bunch of misfits, somehow manage to outdo the Firefly clan of Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects and most of the slashers in recent memory. The aristocrats who coordinate the events of 31 garb themselves in absurd parodies of Scarlet Pimpernel-era French clothing, paint their faces bone-white with powder, and add large beauty marks to their cheeks. Their leader, Father Murder, is played by Malcolm McDowell in his most repugnant role since Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. His role swiftly devolves into devilish mustache twirling and shouting. He is accompanied by Jane Carr and Judy Geeson, playing Sister Serpent and Sister Dragon, respectively. For no clear reason, these aristocrats grow bored of their usual Wolf of Wall Street-esque vices and arrange these murder games and assemble a menagerie of deranged killers to participate for pay.

These killers are, I suppose, the centerpiece of Zombie’s picture. And the screen strains with Zombie’s efforts to create iconic and action figure-able murderers you can root for. These include a Mexican, Nazi, little person named Sick Head (evidently Rob Zombie was playing quite a bit of Cards Against Humanity whilst writing the script), a pair of unspeakably foul mouthed chainsaw wielding hillbilly brothers, Schitzo Head and Psycho Head, a giant German and his diminutive lover, Sex Head and Death Head, and, finally, Doom Head.

I’m going to be honest with you, Doom Head is the reason for that “Almost” at the start of this review. All of this diatribe could well be a lament for the film itself and a praise-song for the character of Doom Head and the actor behind him, Richard Brake. The cold open of 31 involves a stirring Doom Head monologue and the brutal ax murder of a pastor. Then we cut to the carnies. Perhaps that is the magic of 31, if 31 has any magic to speak of. We find ourselves searching for a protagonist because we find ourselves waiting for Doom Head from cold open to his reappearance. We are bored of Sick, Psycho, Schitzo, Sex, and Death Head(s), because we are waiting for the aristocrats to rouse Doom Head from his Nosferatu induced, rapturous sex frenzy (it’s real, watch the movie) and go to town on our heroes.

Richard Brake somehow, without the gimmicks of 31‘s other murderers, becomes its most charismatic and engaging character. His subtle way of using his mouth, his eyes, and the constantly shifting tides of the dark ocean of his voice become more frightening that chainsaws and Nazi memorabilia. Doom Head paints his warrior persona with greasepaint (though, as he warns us in the cold open “he ain’t no fuckin’ clown) and his own blood. Richard Brake spends 31 teaching a masterclass on how to be scary and awesome in the same moment, calling to mind Jason and Freddy and Chucky but standing apart from all of them, lanky and proud and wielding two switchblades.

It’s a shame that Doom Head as a character and Richard Brake as a performer are stuffed into as undeserving and revolting a movie as 31. The entire film, with that notable exception feels like a reluctant return to form for Rob Zombie after the more-or-less- thwarted ambitions of Lords of Salem are left behind him. Zombie is back with a stream-of-consciousness manifesto of foul language, exploitative violence, sexual deviancy, sporadic MTV-style camera work, and hard rock soundtracking. That’s the truest disappointment of the film, and of Rob Zombie in general. This feels like House of 1,000 Corpses again, only fourteen years later. It’s more of the same, and more of the same unrealized, diamond-in-the-rough potential is left to rot, like body parts, in a place Rob Zombie didn’t dare to venture.

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