Review: 31 (2016)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #735

Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 23, 2016 (Sundance)
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror/Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States, United Kingdom
Budget: $1,500,000
Box Office: $850,419
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Rob Zombie
Producers: Rob Zombie, Mike Elliott, Andy Gould, Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro, Eddie Vaisman, Craig Walendziak
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
Special Effects: Wayne Toth, Bart Mixon, Adrienne Lynn
Visual Effects: Eugene Armencha
Cinematography: David Daniel
Score: John 5
Editing: Glenn Garland
Studios: Bow + Arrow Entertainment, PalmStar Media, Protagonist Pictures, Spectacle Entertainment Group, Windy Hill Pictures, Distributor: Saban Films
Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Richard Brake, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr, Pancho Moler, Lew Temple, David Ury, E.G. Daily, Torsten Voges, Ginger Lynn, Tracey Walter, Daniel Roebuck, Devin Sidell, Kevin Jackson, Michael “Red Bone” Alcott, Esperanza America, Andrea Dora, Gabriel Pimentel

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Ernest Tubb “Walking The Floor Over You”

[2] Lynyrd Skynyrd “Free Bird”

[3] The Mamas and the Papas “California Dreamin”

[4] James Gang “Walk Away”

[5] Julius Fucik “The Entry Of Gladiators, Op. 68, Triumph March”

[6] Kitty Wells “We Buried Her Beneath The Willow”

[7] Aerosmith “Dream On”

Folk can have seriously short memories. When legendary rock star icon, Rob Zombie, announced that he was looking to venture into filmmaking, horror aficionados were in rapture the world over. It just seemed like a logical progression, after all, he was born and raised on horror and much of his music reflected that lifelong infatuation, so it appeared to be a match made in heaven.

His debut House of 1000 Corpses turned heads and it was clear from the offset that this dude had some serious game. However, certain quarters bemoaned its lack of actual violence as though it was his duty to us all to shock and appall first and foremost. Zombie loves a splash of deep red like the next man but his intention wasn’t just to gross audiences out, he was evidently trying to make a genuine statement through his art.

Having grown up in the seventies, it was clear where his inspiration derived and his follow-up, The Devils Rejects, consolidated his position as horror’s very own equivalent of Quentin Tarantino. This time the jury wasn’t out and the love just kept on coming as the film was quickly hailed as a bona fide classic and its director regarded a genius. Some placed him on a pedestal while others were just biding their time to knock him straight back off it. Right now, he was considered hot shit, but the honeymoon period was soon to be over and the knives already sharpening in anticipation.

Now came the acid test. You see, it takes a filmmaker with brass balls to tackle a behemoth of Halloween stature and, considering the franchise had been dead in the water for some time, Zombie saw no reason not to offer his own take on John Carpenter’s timeless classic. A noticeable divide was now beginning to show as folk either praised his efforts in telling his own tale or accused him of cinematic blasphemy for tampering with what they considered untouchable. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. His critics were now crawling out of the woodwork and taking pops at Zombie from behind their poisonous pens and, when he returned to Haddonfield a second time two years later, the bubble well and truly burst.

So by the time he returned from the drawing board with The Lords of Salem in 2013, it really didn’t stand a chance. Far better than it ever given credit for, his third original motion picture fell largely on deaf ears and even loyal followers were now starting to question his ability, searching for chinks in his armor that weren’t even there. For the record, I thought it rocked pretty hard and the image of his wife and perpetual leading lady, Sheri Moon-Zombie, straddling a goat and riding that shit bronco style is just one of the striking images that will remain forever etched in my memory. Was he losing his touch? Hell no, he was only just getting started.

His latest movie 31 was partially crowd-funded, fueling speculation that studios no longer wished to go near his product with a 10-foot barge pole. Made for a modest $1.5m, it made barely half of that back at the box office and the general consensus was somewhat unsurprisingly that it was yet another nail in his already airtight cinematic coffin.

Knowing how disillusioned he has been over how his art is perceived, my fear is that he will decided to throw in the towel as already threatened and stop making horror movies for good. This would be an absolute travesty as we need filmmakers like him; those confident enough in their own ability not to compromise their style to suit the bigots. This film may not make him many new fans but, the most important thing is, that it will satisfy his existing fanbase. Let the games begin.

We start off with a preliminary round and are swiftly introduced to cantankerous clown, Doom-Head (Richard Brake). The clue is evidently in the nom de guerre here as Doom-Head’s chief trade is death-dealing and he’s about to get his sick on for his own personal amusement. That said, his unflinching address is very much tailored towards the spectator.

“You know what they say, kemosabe, in Hell, everybody loves popcorn”

Doom-Head wishes to let us in on who he is, what drives him to do the despicable things he does, and precisely what he is capable of. His lengthy monochrome monologue wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Tarantino flick and, by the time he wraps things up and gets on with the killing, we’re under absolutely no illusion what a sick little puppy dog he is.

Moving swiftly on, we are bundled into a RV loaded with carnival workers in transit. Our pilot Fat Randy (Michael “Red Bone” Alcott) is joined on this road trip by Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Venus (Meg Foster), and Snoopy (Esperanza America); with Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Trixie (Andrea Dora) making whoopee in the back.

It’s the day before Halloween and spirits are high, as are our travel companions as they engage in a round of toke and pass. Barely five minutes in and it feels as though we’ve known the group forever, such is Zombie’s ability to paint colorful characters. However, as soon as primary introductions are done and dusted, it’s time to tinker with the group dynamic some.

After being ambushed and whittled down some, the survivors are then led to an abandoned warehouse suitably dubbed Murderland, where they are expected to take part in a game of cat-and-mouse by the name of 31.

Tonight’s master of ceremonies will be the aristocratic Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder (Malcolm McDowell) and he will be accompanied by fellow libertines, Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr).

Dressed to the nines in Regency era get-up complete with powdered wigs and pouts, these well-to-do heathens appear to have taken Cosplay a little too seriously and the kind of blood sport they’re proposing is anything but dignified. To add a smattering of extra seasoning to the banquet laid on, side bets will be placed and each of the remaining carnies supplied with odds for survival.

Like rats in a maze, the contestants will be required to navigate said labyrinth while overcoming a number of cunningly placed obstacles. Standing in the way of their freedom (which they’re reassured will be granted, should they endure this 12-hour nightmare) are a quintet of terror operating under the collective mantle, the “Heads”. Five against five – this should be like taking candy from a baby right?

Well that depends on whether or not said ankle-biter is a Spanish-speaking, duel switchblade-wielding pint-sized Nazi midget wired only to maim and kill, in whatever order he sees fit. Sick-Head (Pancho Moler) is first on this evening’s roster and he wastes no time in acquainting himself with those he is tasked with destroying.

“Count yourselves lucky you got fucked by the best!”

Should they make it through this stern opening trial, then their reward will be a quick round of hide the chainsaw with brothers in arms, legs, and whatever other body part they can hack off for fun, Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury). There’s plenty phallic about the way they thrust their weapons and double trouble for any of the pawns who get close enough to smell their ball sweat.

Beyond The Everly Brothers on crack awaits the decidedly stiff challenge of tutu-wearing nonce boy, Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and his significant other, Harley Quinn knock-off and known lot lizard, Sex-Head (E.G. Daily).

Both creepy and kooky, they’re altogether loopy and quite clearly not present to perform a duet, at least not the kind that’ll be music to their victims’ ears.

One thing has become abundantly clear at this point – it’s gonna be a long-assed night – and the bad news just keeps on coming. You see, perched atop this trifle of trauma like a septic cherry is our old friend Doom-Head and that makes up what is actually a dirty half-dozen. We already know all too well the manner in which he slices his bacon and whatever little piggies are left in the abattoir by this point are about to be hog-tied and pig-fucked if he has any say in it, “Whitechapel-style” no less.

“What I do? Unfortunately for you, I do real well!”

31 feels like the film that Zombie’s legion of followers have been positively chomping at the bit for; an affectionate slice of fan service that indulges as much sick fantasy as it possibly can in 102 breathless minutes.

More experimentalist than classicist, he uses both digital and celluloid formats to paint his vista, honoring every last one of his personal heroes while flat-refusing to simply phone in an homage. Even when he busts out the 16mm lens and zooms in to get down and dirty, the presentation is faultless and there’s a comic book flavor to the whole kit and caboodle, made all the more mouth-watering by the kaleidoscopic characters on exhibit.

It’s testament to all involved that it’s difficult to pick an outright winner but Brake’s performance as the unforgettable Doom-Head is the kind that may well influence Zombie’s next project. Like good ole Cap’n Spaulding before him, it’s fruitless attempting to take your eyes off him for a solitary second as his Medusa-like gaze simply won’t endorse such spendthrift behavior. Zombie takes every opportunity to frame him front and centre and, if his loose lips tell us one thing, then his dead stare sure as shit corroborates.

It’s also great to see Foster’s emerald peepers back where they belong and you wouldn’t know that McDowell only came in at the last minute to help Zombie out by his pitch-perfect delivery in a role custom-made for the man who brought us Alex DeLarge. Moon-Zombie is exquisite as always and, while one of the good guys here, her character echoes Baby Firefly in that behind those cute dimples lies a bad girl with sass to spare and devil-may-care.

Meanwhile, Phillips proves that his name ain’t Earl, regularly popping out from behind his lamb chops to dazzle us and not a solitary other tormented soul feels superfluous to requirements. Even fringe members such as drooling gas-attendant, Lucky Leo (a gloriously gamy Tracey Walter), feel like pawns in a wider game not played yet.

Ultimately, 31 could never quite measure up to the sublime majesty of Zombie at the height of his prowess and this is only to be expected given how intimate an affair it really is. That said, what it lacks in the caustic chic of House of 1000 Corpses, road-tripping eminence of The Devil’s Rejects, or Satan-soaked symbolism of The Lords of Salem, it more than makes up for in good old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears. In definitive deviant Doom-Head, we are presented one of the most memorable menace-mongers in modern cinema and every picosecond spent basking in his irradiated rays is candy-coated.

Predictably, 31 already has its detractors and I say “let them eat cake” as they’ll no doubt hum a different tune ten years from now. You see, they place far too much emphasis on near-sighted context, where this film positions itself in the here and the now, and overlook the fact that it’ll exist long after they’re gone. So he deals in characters somewhat lacking in moral fiber, get over it, I’d rather that than a bunch of do-gooding dickweeds with no spunk in their trunk any day of the calendar month, particularly the 31st of motherfucking October.

Those above Zombie’s culinary treats, you can stick your pissing caviar where the bait can’t lure it. Who needs poxy fish eggs when you can get your greasy paws on a nice, tasty super-sized burger with bonus relish? Just be sure save me a bite bitches or I’ll set Doom-Head on you and he’s always looking for fresh meat.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: One thing that Zombie isn’t given sufficient credit for is that he knows when to exercise restraint and, I’ve got to be honest, there are moments here when I cursed that very self-disciple. Make no mistake, folk die in 31 and in manners most grisly, but there are other ways to make an impact than to linger on the carnage before him. Instead, we feel each blow as it lands, wince at every last incision, and open our mouths that much wider as sanguine sprays all around us. As for “pecados de la carne” as our pocket freak Sick-head would so eloquently put it, well I’m with Lucky Leo on this one. Quick Sheri, while hubby’s back’s turned and the lion sleeps, cut off some slack and give us a quick flash of those fantabulous fronties for the road. 

Read House of 1000 Corpses Appraisal
Read The Devil’s Rejects Appraisal
Read The Lords of Salem Appraisal
Read Halloween (2007) Appraisal
Read Halloween II (2009) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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