For some time now I’ve held essentially the same opinion on Rob Zonbie, probably ever since the rock star turned filmmaker demonstrated that he was truly committed to pursuing directing as a new career path. That is, I think it’s beyond clear that he’s a genuine fan with a lot of knowledge of his preferred genre. He’s not making these exploitation film throwbacks ironically, he’s passionate about this material. I felt that he was finding his feet as a filmmaker and would soon deliver a future-classic horror movie.
True, his output has mostly ranged from middling to downright awful (his idiotic Halloween remake being the worst offender), but when left to his own devices, he produces films that, while not entirely successful, still possess many fascinating elements (Lords of Salem, the vastly superior director’s cut of Halloween II). However, as I watched his new movie 31, I have to wonder how much longer I can think this without Zombie actually delivering this supposed great movie?
31 is one of Zombie’s better efforts, and I really do have to give him credit where it’s due though. He has developed a vision and style that’s uniquely his. The washed out colour scheme, seventies setting, grungy yet colourful set design, lighting choices and focus on carnival imagery all contribute to this. I honestly feel that in the case of 31, you could freeze frame almost any moment from the film, present it to me out of context and ask me to guess the director and I could correctly identify Zombie as the answer. And I do mean that as a positive, even though my overall opinion on this movie is more of a mixed bag.
The plot of 31 is minimal, it follows a group of run down carnival workers (who include Zombie’s wife and regular star Sheri Moon Zombie) in 1976 as they travel through the desert. We get to know them a little before they stop at a typically disconcerting backwoods gas station and promptly find themselves captured. From there, they’re dumped into a warehouse filled with horror mazes by some powdered wig wearing overlords (including a mostly wasted Malcolm McDowell) who inform them that they are to play the game 31 – which basically entails surviving for 12 hours in the building while a series of murderous clowns are unleashed upon them. All the while the wigged folks cheerfully watch and place bets on who will survive.
It’s not an especially original idea, so the film is quite reliant on Zombie’s handling of it to keep things interesting, and he’s certainly not holding anything back. There are plenty of moments of gleeful provocation; the killer clowns (all named something-Head) are all different shades of vile. One of them is a Latino dwarf covered in Nazi paraphernalia who seems designed to both offend and confuse simultaneously. He’s soon followed by two chainsaw wielding maniacs who speak almost exclusively in threats of sexual assault and worse. Zombie gets a few memorable stalk and kill scenes in, but overall this section of the film feels like with more invention it could have been a lot stronger.
While there are some decent visuals and set design on display, the mazes don’t feel like there’s much to them. There aren’t really any puzzles or traps and such, the challenge facing the victims is mainly just a case of avoiding the murderous clowns or fighting them off. Zombie employs some unconventional freeze-then-pan editing techniques which are fun but it all risks becoming a little wearing as it goes on.
Fortunately,when the film looks to be petering out, it’s given a much-needed shot of energy by actor Richard Brake (Game of Thrones’ Night King). After being introduced in the film’s opening scene via a Tarantino-esque monologue to a soon-to-be murder victim, he informs us that, unlike the other killers, he “ain’t no fuckin’ clown”.
Brake’s show-stealing performance adds a far greater element of threat to the film, giving it a significantly better final act than it looked to be headed for. However, it’s not enough to really elevate the whole film too much, which concludes in a way I appreciated but I think many will find unsatisfactory. So maybe Rob Zombie isn’t ever going to make a horror classic, but at least he’s sticking to his guns and making films that are distinctly his own. That has to count for something.