Our review of 31 – Rob Zombie’s latest maniacal horror outing
Rob Zombie’s 31 was released on demand and in select theatres today. Below you will find our spoiler-heavy review of Rob Zombie’s latest maniacal horror outing.
Rob Zombie has helmed an exceptional career within the horror genre. From the completely brilliant The Devil’s Rejects to his incredibly satisfying version of Halloween, he’s a director who is revered intensely by his fans, but who else wise doesn’t seem to attain much recognition for the his slick and inspired contributions within a genre that is very difficult to prove original within.
If you ask his fans which of his films they favour the most, you’ll often hear The Devil’s Rejects touted as their heartfelt choice. This is because that was a rare feat of cinema in which Rob managed to create outstandingly cool murderers, craft a captivating southern world and create a family drama at the heart of all the horror. Two of the strengths that fans might refer to, when arguing the film’s qualities, would be Bill Moseley’s Otis and Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding. Both of these characters became seared into the memory of collective horror fans, etching themselves into the annals of horror history.
With 31 we get the impression that Rob has looked back reflectively on The Devil’s Rejects and realised that two of his strengths are: cool murderers like Otis and psycho clowns like Spaulding. Thankfully, instead of then trying to emulate these with tedious repetition, he has instead crafted something new and interesting that merges these two qualities. Meet Doom-Head, played by Richard Brake – a real miracle find of an actor who is just as brilliant at channeling cool derangement as Bill Moseley was with Otis.
This is no small thing; it’s not easy to portray a character who is horribly evil, yet also still extremely cool and likeable among horror fans. With Moseley Rob struck upon casting perfection and by some strange chance (or an exceptional ability to dig deep and find the best actors for the role), he’s accomplished it again. Brake is the heart and soul of 31 and makes the film pack the gut punch that it does. It’s one of those performances that won’t soon be forgotten and which haunts your cinephile predilections, tugging at you to rewatch it again and again.
Placing Brake aside for a moment, the film’s core cast is a group of travelling carnival workers who are kidnapped and forced to play this homicidal and twisted game titled ’31’. The group itself is brimming with small, unknown actors (apart from Sheri Moon Zombie), which is to the film’s credit. The group is well-rounded and distinctively painted, if a bit too silly at times (the “sucky sucky” mantra wasn’t required and felt out of place) in their bickering and their crass attitudes (Sheri’s character Charly grabbing at the gas attendant).
The narrative then wastes no time and quickly hurls our group into this Hellish dungeon to play the game that is run and narrated by a group of rich sadists (a sometimes wooden Malcolm McDowell and a handful of other similarly bland co-stars). The betting odds of each character’s survival chances are often outlined in the film, right down to each time those odds change. However, what’s not very clear at all for most of the film is who precisely is betting on the survivors. You never see any of the rich fat cats place a direct bet on any of the characters, which is a missed opportunity in our view. Any narrative about a murder game with high monetary stakes would benefits form showing moments where the audience get to see how the gamblers are placing their money.
During the game, we’re treated to one sick murderer after another, all of whom are paid immense sums to end the lives of our group in horrible ways. These range from dwarf Nazis who speak spanish, to chainsaw wielding brothers, to towering germans with tiny girlfriends (a familiar face in the form of Elizabeth Daily). All of these killers are fun to watch for the most part and are very pleasing to see die, but they all talk insane gibberish so frequently that sometimes this detracts from their scariness. We can see why they’re written in this manner though – it all serves to create a sharper contrast when Doom-Head steps back onto the scene, who has his own tendency to talk endlessly too, but his monologues are delivered in a far calmer manner and hold far more intellectual weight.
As the core group are picked off one by one, you’ll find that they do find the courage to fight back a great deal, both physically and verbally, which you don’t often see in horror films. Usually the flight reaction is the tool that many films use, but here you’ll see characters actually throwing smart comments back at the killers, even to the point of effectively undermining them in some instances.
One thing we did notice is that Venus – the wise, older woman of the group – ends up dealing the crucial blows that end the lives of each and every killer. At first we found this a little too unbelievable – that she would be so lucky and effective, so many times in a row. The intent behind this becomes apparent, however, as soon as Doom-Head walks back onto the scene. He ends Venus’ life immediately and easily, which again serves to highlight just how effective and brutal a killer he is.
The final act sees the final survivor prove to be – to no one’s surprise – Sheri Moon Zombie. As much as we love Sheri as an actress (her voice has a real nostalgic quality to it, after the amount of times we’ve seen The Devil’s Rejects), we’re a little tired of her being the forefront of everything that Rob does. Ultimately, the director’s inability to place his wife to the side now and then is his only real flaw. Saying that, however, we do agree that the end of the film is better served with her rather than without her.
Towards the end we see a puppet show that is immediately recognisable from the beginning of the film, which nicely symbolises how the whole group have been puppets from the start and that even the gas attendant was likely in on it from the outset. Charly then survives the game by a hair’s breadth of lucky timing, which reminded us a lot of The Purge films and how the siren can also prove to save the life of potential victims.
The film’s closing scenes, for us, are moments of beauty. Charly walks bloody and dejected down an open road. Doom-Head then arrives and the two face one another, ready to engage in combat, while Aerosmith’s Dream On plays elegantly in the background, before the film ends and the shot cuts to a post credits sequence with the (now-dead) group of carnival workers dancing on an old home video. For us this was very reminiscent of The Devil’s Rejects, when the family rush headlong into a gun battle with the police and the shot cuts to black. We don’t know the fate of the the family, or of Charly and Doom-Head here, but the deaths can be surmised and you can effectively create your own ending (unless 31 gets a sequel).
Make no mistake, 31 is roaring return to form for Rob Zombie and we’re proud to say that it ranks among his very best films (yet still firmly below The Devil’s Rejects). Brake provides one of those rare cinematic performances that digs its claws in and makes your cinephile heart beat hard and fast for a character who is just as cool and captivating as Bill Moseley’s Otis, or indeed as any within cinema. If Rob makes a sequel, we’ll be wholeheartedly in, but we get the feeling he might just leave this one alone, just like he did with The Devil’s Rejects. Either way, this is one Rob Zombie film that with satiate fans immensely.
Image credits: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, PalmStar Media, Protagonist Pictures, Spectacle Entertainment Group, Spookshow International, Windy Hill Pictures