Wednesday, October 19, 2016

31 (2016) review


Sherri Moon Zombie (Charly), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Roscoe Pepper), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Panda Thomas), Meg Foster (Venus Virgo), Kevin Jackson (Levon Wally), Malcolm McDowell (Father Napoleon Horatio Silas Murder), Jane Carr (Sister Serpent), Judy Geeson (Sister Dragon), Richard Brake (Doom Head), Pancho Moler (Sick Head), David Ury (Schizo Head), Lew Temple (Psycho Head), Torsten Voges (Death Head), E.G. Daily (Sex Head), Michael "Red Bone" Alcott (Fat Randy), Esperanza America (Snoopy), Andrea Dora (Trixie), Tracey Walter (Lucky Leo), Ginger Lynn Allen (Cherry Bomb), Daniel Roebuck (Pastor Victor)

Directed by Rob Zombie

The Short Version: Rob Zombie's newest hillbilly freakshow finds an homogeneous group of Texas carnies captured by, of all things, European aristocrats doused in powder who force them to play a Halloween all-nighter called 31. The game requires they be chased by psychopathic clowns with chainsaws, axes and knives. If they survive 12 hours, they can go free. Viewers only have to survive 103 minutes of this garbage. Partially funded by his fans, the result is as hazardous as deep fried Twinkies but tastes nowhere near as good. Excruciating to watch, Rob Zombie's plotless nightmare is an endurance test of horrible storytelling and more atrocious dialog than you can squeeze into a clown car.

On Halloween night, a van-load of carnival workers are captured by a posse of insane clowns. They are taken to an abandoned factory where three British aristocrats gather once a year to play '31', a psychotic death game where participants are given 12 hours to survive the night while selected gladiatorial clowns hunt them down for sport.

Step right up for the lamest show on Earth. Rob Zombie's ultimate clown opus falls well short of its greasepaint-fueled aspirations. With just 1.5 million to play with, a grand, Big Top nightmare is unattainable; settling for five soulless, interchangeable characters being stalked inside an abandoned factory by a bunch of Europeans in the Southern United States(???). There's only one sequence that resembles a carnival motif; the rest of the time it's the same bland color palette of all your finer post-apocalyptic cheapies shot in and around rusted-out factories.

If the setting couldn't get any less enticing, Zombie is yet again clownin' around with his script; fillin' it full o' expletives, rousingly bad dialog, interminably juvenile sex talk, and the most unfunny jokes imaginable. Zombie has said in interviews he makes his characters real.... in what universe is this? Extremely mean-spirited, nasty and foul, the director fails once more to capitalize on his cruelty--it being undone by mercilessly over-the-top characters and the elementary school level dialog he gives them to speak.

Regarding the script, this is one of the most pointless of recent memory. There's absolutely zero redeeming qualities. Populated by a plethora of underwritten characters, the film is left with nothing but its blood and gore to sell itself... yet Zombie finds a way to make sadism boring. The kills are the Zombie standard--just stab a dozen or more times; or sever something after delivering the director's four-letter favorite. The goriest sequence (it involves a chainsaw) is a carbon copy of the same death from the underrated THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006); only in that film you can actually see what's happening. Speaking of what you can't see.....

Haters of shaky cam, prepare for photography that looks like the DP had his camera strapped to his back during a bar fight. The camera is constantly moving--zigzagging, turned to the side, or this awkward, jagged, zoom-in and zoom-out. You can't even appreciate Wayne Toth's FX because the cameraman thinks you can see it all better while he does jumping jacks. The action scenes fare the worst since you can't make out what the hell is happening.

There's one particularly good scene--a dinner scene--that riffs on a similar one from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Elsewhere, Zombie incorporates this eerie musical marionette display that recalls TOURIST TRAP (1978). Other nods are in the music; you'll hear a distinctly familiar cue of unsettling dissonance from SUSPIRIA (1977) and another from THE FOG (1980).

What little creativity of 31 begins and ends with its title--the significance being the last day in October. Set on October 31st, 1976, Zombie's fascination with the holiday never translates to the film's atmosphere. We hear 'Happy Halloween' several times but not once does the movie capture that autumnal flavor. The first 30 minutes defaults to Zombie's usual remake of Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) before mutating into SALO (1975) meets THE RUNNING MAN (1987) by way of HOSTEL (2005).

If you've seen his previous examples of Hillbilly Horror, you already know what to expect. 31 could easily be a quasi-sequel to his Firefly flicks. Even Zombie's HALLOWEEN abortions resemble REJECTS close cousins. After trying to display some diversity with the wearisome witch tale, LORDS OF SALEM (2012), the director regresses, returning to the safe-haven of his carnival oasis.

Malcolm McDowell, seemingly inspired by the GANDHI (1982) and SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) actor, Ben Kingsley's forays into trash cinema, is enjoying(?) a similar trajectory. To compare the two, Kingsley has only done a single Uwe Boll trainwreck, while McDowell has managed to star in, thus far, three of Rob Zombie's pratfall horrors. McDowell made a horrible Sam Loomis in the two HALLOWEEN do-overs; and evokes nothing as the powder-headed lord of some pompous order of devil-worshipers in 31. This isn't McDowell's fault, but Zombie's for writing such a worthless character for him to play and giving him nothing of substance to say.

Sheri Moon Zombie is once more a headliner in her husband's movie.... and, unlike her star turn in the sleep-inducing LORDS OF SALEM (2012), she doesn't feel like this movie's lead. She's in nearly every scene but you never "see" her. She, like most everybody else, has a personality equatable to the rusted metal of the film's primary setting. The pinnacle of her performance is dry-jacking Tracey Walters (CONAN THE DESTROYER [1984]), playing a caricature of a hick gas station attendant. Mrs. Zombie gets a lot of flack for her acting, but in this case, she's given nothing memorable to do nor anything to say worth remembering.

Richard Brake keeps his foot on the accelerator as Doom Head, the film's one character of substance.... but unfortunately, he gets drunk on the retarded dialog and Zombie excess, eventually crashing into a wall, becoming yet another casualty of this fruitless exercise. If Brake looks familiar, he was the doomed ambulance attendant in HALLOWEEN 2 (2009). If you recall, he spends a few minutes looking into the camera and inexplicably spouts 'FUCK' a couple dozen times after the driver rams into a cow crossing the road. As Doom Head, Brake's murderous jester is reminiscent of Bill Moseley's Otis from Zombie's previous freakshows but with shorter hair.

The other clowns are, for all their variance, as bland as everything else. Bearing names like Sick Head (a Spanish Nazi midget); Psycho Head (wielding a chainsaw that says 'Dick Head' on it); Schizo Head (the other half of the redneck chainsaw tag-team); Sex Head (a creepy, Harley Quinn type); Death Head (a German weirdo wearin' a tutu); some others are mentioned--blessed with such creative monikers as Bash Head and Rage Head--but never seen.

Meg Foster, having played a boring witch in LORDS OF SALEM, returns to Zombie Land for a much bigger role, but no less staying power. As Venus Virgo--the owner of the traveling carnival--Foster is no more distinguishable than anybody else in the cast. She's a tough character but Zombie does nothing to allow her to stand out. Cut like Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2 (1991) but looking like Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932), Foster does get to appear in the film's sole tense send-off. Foster is a fine actress. It's embarrassing watching her deliver Zombie's infantile dialog since so much of it is poisoned by unnecessary dollops of vaginal or phallic jargon.

Do you remember WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (1975-1979)? The former Sweathog, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, sums up 31 best with the line, "all I see is a bunch of nothin'". Lawrence was Washington on the cult TV show, but is nearly unrecognizable playing a Jamaican carny. He does fine playing his role, only again, he's given very little to do or say of any importance. It's not possible to root for, or care about, people who are written as stick figures.

Unable to secure financing from the usual methods, Zombie went the crowdfunding route. What's interesting about this is that Mr. Zombie claims he's making a political statement with his movie--about the 'Haves and the Have Nots'. The absurdity of this is that, while taking his successful career as a musician into consideration, his net worth of 40 million dollars eclipses the average income of the people he's begging money from. Granted, the amount of money from fans was only a portion of an already minuscule budget.

The first of two Crowdfunding campaigns began in July of 2014 with the re-launch in February of 2015. Eventually, Bow + Arrow Entertainment picked up the tab co-financing with another company called Protagonist Pictures. It's telling that regular citizens were needed to punch up the movie if studios didn't have enough faith to fully finance what is ostensibly a shoe-string budget. But hey, all the better to capture that 70s vibe... one thing Rob Zombie does do well; he can at least be counted on to capture the right look and atmosphere.

Originally, distribution of 31 was to be handled by indie company Alchemy, but financial problems caused the picture to be sold off to another indie outfit, Saban Films. Strangely, instead of a limited release, the film received a limited-limited release... in 400 theaters for one night only, on September 1st, 2016; or, you could see it on iTunes. The film is set for another limited run on October 20th... for one night, and one showing, only.

Writing a Rob Zombie review is as redundant as the film's themselves; and like his previous efforts, the director does manage some fleeting moments that shows a really good filmmaker just itching to wipe off the clown makeup and find himself. Sadly, it appears as long as Zombie is writing his movies, they're as doomed as the characters in 31... and the viewers watching it. 

Running time: 01:43:10.

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