31 (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

31 (2016)

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A cheerful crew of traveling carnies becomes fodder for a deadly game overseen by murderous clowns and southern aristocrats.  The carnies have 12 hours to survive or become a dead decoration for the metallic corridors that may be their tomb.  Rob Zombie wrote the screenplay for and directs 31, and stars Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, and Richard Brake.

I can thank Rob Zombie's movies for ridding me of some of my snobbery.  Some - not all - as now his movies have become so niche in the overall cultural hierarchy of cinema that my love of his work has become a weird form of specific snobbery all on its own.  When I sat down to watch Zombie's 2007 reimagining of 1979's Halloween I left furious at what I felt were unnecessary changes.  That's because I wanted his Halloween to be more faithful to the original and I missed the point of what a reimagining entails.  I returned to Zombie's Halloween and 2009's Halloween II with fresh eyes and found a great appreciation for his treatment of PTSD.

There's little doubt 2007's Andrew would have a lot of negative things to say about Zombie's latest film 31, but that Andrew was an idiot in many ways.  31 may not have the creeping dread of Halloween II or The Lords of Salem, but that's because 31 isn't a horror film.  Zombie's work is more in debt to the cheapie grindhouse circuit of the late '60s and early '70s with the overexposed film stock to boot.  He's never been shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve but when the results are this much fun I don't care.

You'll know pretty quickly if 31 is your kind of movie and I was sold 100% by the time this terrified priest was bathed in the blood of a murdering clown in harsh black and white.

As digital filming techniques have made the process of cinematic creation more streamlined it seems we won't get the rough look that punctuated the grindhouse aesthetic.  That doesn't mean Zombie isn't going to try like hell to recreate it.  The opening 20 minutes or so of 31 switches from grainy super 8 images overexposed to look like the desert, a gripping monologue delivered by the psychopathic Doom-Head (Richard Brake) in stark black and white, and an intimate handheld style as we settle into the doomed crew of carnies that'll be hunted soon.  The visual transitions aren't as jarring as they were in Zombie's first feature film, House of 1,000 Corpses, because there are strong personalities anchoring each visual slice of 31.

Those strong personalities give 31 a feeling of desperation when they're locked into a game of survival by a bunch of southern powdered-wig rich folks who fancy themselves aristocrats.  Brake is a terrifying presence, beating himself to ensure he stays in control of his hunger for victims and sex to stave off the oblivion he's sure he'll face once he's dead.  Zombie perfectly sets the stakes by having Brake deliver the opening shallow focus black and white monologue straight into the camera.  It'll be awhile before Doom-Head and Brake's performance are back in the game but Zombie kept me interested with a glancing look at the poor south versus the rich south.

The carnies, including Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs - as Charly, Roscoe, and Panda, respectively -  are a charming bunch.  They're making the best out of their low cash flow and have an intimate bond with each other so strong that they feel comfortable interrupting the sex going on in the back of their RV.  Nudity isn't inherently exploitative and Zombie films the two naked bodies with the detachment of an amused friend.  Race and gender lines still exist but aren't a source of conflict because they're all poor as hell together.

The rich south gets its perfect representation in a scenery-chewing performance by Malcolm McDowell as the hilariously named Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder.  The antebellum era of the south took more than a few cues from England's Victorian era which Zombie recreates with garish intensity.  All the fancy lights and carefully prepared candles bring harsh lens flare into the screen while McDowell smacks his lips at the opportunity to let loose an all-white cabal of murderous clowns on the hapless multi-ethnic crew of carnies.  For those familiar with the way rich southern whites looked down on anyone who dare commit the sin of miscegenation, the rich southerners willingness to rip apart white and black Americans alike is painful in its accuracy.

This may not look like the aristocratic south but it sure as hell feels like it.

My favorite performance comes from Meg Foster whose intense stare and confident expression with her body make her character, Venus, a standout.  I was wondering where she's been all these years only to find out she's been making movies since landing one of the starring roles in They Live.  My own ignorance of her career is another feather in Zombie's cap, who dives into the low-budget horror roster of performers to pull out absolute gems.  It's also to Zombie's credit that he doesn't write the women of 31 like passive participants to their own demise.  Venus is better than a "last girl," she's a survivor who has seen her fair share of evil and girds herself alongside Charly to give the darkness a good long stare down before trying to beat it back with a nail in a plank of wood.

For all the positives I can give Zombie's treatment of class in this thriller mindset and excellent performances like Foster's, it doesn't change that 31 is just a hell of a good time.  Not many thrillers come along that give me a faceoff against a Nazi-tattooed dwarf with all the lines in Spanish as Charly responds back with how much of a loco puta she is.  Images like that are so beyond "good" and "bad" taste I can only accept them as awesome or not - and 31 is most definitely awesome.

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31 (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Rob Zombie.
Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, and Richard Brake.

Posted by Andrew

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