On the hollow talents and juvenile provocations of horror cinema's most desperate poseur
31 Saban Films
Director: Rob Zombie
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Malcolm McDowell, Jane Carr, Elizabeth Daily and Richard Brake
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
You can tell that Rob Zombie is a totally dark and totally twisted filmmaker right about at the point in 31 when a little person shows up dressed in Nazi regalia - in clown makeup, sporting a Hitler 'stache - and proceeds to murder people while draped in swastikas. I mean, can you even imagine? Nazis! Oh, Rob Zombie. What will you think of next.
So yeah, this is that kind of movie. Clearly the work of a one-of-a-kind artist who really knows how to shock audiences. I certainly hope all the edgy 11-year-olds for whom this film was created enjoy themselves. I really do.
What nearly everyone else not named Rob Zombie discovered a long time ago is that using Nazi iconography as an affectation is utterly boring. It's easy, it's desperate, and it displays a staggering lack of imagination. It's the single most obvious adornment you can add to a movie, especially a horror movie. But Zombie, henceforth Godwin's Director, goes for it all the way, in the process revealing just how facile his art is. It's not that you can't use such loaded imagery well, or shouldn't try. (Three brilliant uses, off the top of my head: the thinly veiled Nazis in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel; the scathingly pointed appearance of an inopportune swastika on a formal dinner table in Roy Andersson's You, the Living; and the Nazi uniforms as an act of neighborly sabotage in Adam McKay's Step Brothers.) But it can't just sit there like a cheap provocation - like something meant to be self-evident in its scandalous audacity. Zombie and fellow Nazi-reference enthusiast Kevin Smith should join forces and make the world's most desperately faux-irreverent movie. Those two deserve each other.
In the forced manner in which his characters in 31 act, speak, even dress - and in the way he transforms horror tropes into quasi-abstract images - Zombie strives toward a sort of raw, decadent nihilism. But while his efforts are rather vivid, he still comes across like a kid who just discovered swearing and dirty jokes. The kid who would go to school and draw Satanic symbols and dead bodies all over his notebook just to shock his teachers and prove how twisted and rebellious he was. In fact, this movie practically is that notebook, with its roughly sketched characters (who seem designed by someone whose only understanding of people is through horror movies) and random acts of bloodshed, peppered with pentagrams and swastikas and, yes, symbols of the Illuminati (because why not).
Even leaving all that aside, 31 is already a horror movie set on Halloween and featuring killer clowns - so it's not exactly starting from a place of blazing originality. His carnie antiheroes are archetypal by design - cramped together in a van, riding from town to town with little to do but screw each other and get high - and Zombie appears to find a certain debauched nobility in the self-determined freedom of these trashy vagabonds. And then he proceeds to give them a rude awakening when they're abducted and transported to an industrial, maze-like factory somewhere on the outskirts of some anonymous town, and forced to be participants in a little game of murder. It's an annual Halloween tradition, we discover, overseen by a group of wealthy sadists donning 18th Century duds, complete with powdered wigs (which is as close to wit as this film ever gets). The master of ceremonies is played by Malcolm McDowell (obviously). After an elaborate introduction, he and his conspirators set about unleashing one costumed killer at a time to take our carnie friends out one by one. Survivors are not expected.
The rules aren't all directly stated, but one-death-at-a-time seems to be somewhat implicit. Which gives the group time to strategize and work together and only occasionally mourn the death of one of their own. Chief among these is Charly, a sardonically flirtatious Final Girl with bombshell-blond locks, who has the misfortune of having to wield weapons and run from prowling murderers in a lion-print halter top and painted-on jeans. She's not dressed for the occasion, is what I'm saying. Charly is played by Sheri Moon Zombie, whose idea of intense acting is to aggressively jut out her lower jaw throughout every line of dialogue. (She's a much more natural presence in the early, pre-abduction scenes, all devil-may-care attitude and freewheeling sexual energy.)
What plays out is reminiscent of The Running Man, with each dispatched killer (or killer duo, in some cases) embodying a specific style or gimmick. There's no opera singer shooting lightning bolts this time (this movie wouldn't dare give us anything so idiosyncratic), but there is the aforementioned Mini-Hitler, a pair of fraternal clowns, and a loving couple who go by the names Sex and Death. Throw in a bit of The Purge-level pseudo-class satire and self-serious gore (cannibalism, et al) designed to shock and disturb but which can only possibly shock and disturb those who've no experience with horror. (The best directors of extreme violence are the playful ones, and Zombie doesn't really know how to play. He only wants to revel.)
But while his ideas and attitudes are infantile, his influences are not - and never have been. His cinematic vocabulary has always been more sophisticated and interesting than his movies have deserved. That dichotomy was most pronounced in his previous effort, The Lords of Salem, whose final 20 minutes was a grand mosaic of borrowed but vividly deployed aesthetics and impulses. (Pity about the rest of the movie.) He has quite an eye (even 31, as awful as it is, looks terrific shot to shot), so you start to think he should have just been a photographer instead of a filmmaker, staging cinematically fluent horror tableaus to his heart's content. As a photographer, his work might still be overtly derivative, but at least we wouldn't have to indulge him as he pretended to know how to tell a story.
In 31, his influences are once again clear, but the marks they leave are only the self-serving kind. The film's superstar killer, Doom-head (Richard Brake), likes to have harsh, aggressive sex to the visual rhythms of Murnau's Nosferatu - and models his own style of dress after Count Orlok, complete with a slim-fitting dark frock coat that gives him the air of nobility as he stalks his victims through this anonymous industrial wasteland. Brake's performance is the best and most committed of the lot. The movie opens with a rather boringly self-satisfied villain monologue that Brake alone salvages, his unblinking eyes doing the heavy lifting Zombie's words could never accomplish. But perhaps the reason Doom-head is the most fully realized figure in the film is that he is basically Zombie's avatar. As 31 gets more and more meaningless in its thought and action, you begin to realize that Rob Zombie, as a filmmaker, is little more than a cheap sadist. He kills and intimidates and maims and disfigures simply because he enjoys doing so. That's barely enough reason to make a film, let alone for that film to be taken seriously.