If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what is it considered to be when artists imitate themselves? Because that is precisely what Rob Zombie has done with his latest film, 31, which is arguably his most stagnant film to date. It is a lifeless experiment, and having cherry picked elements from all of his previous films, he has ultimately constructed a Frankenstein’s monster with its frayed stitching in plain sight for all to see.
The premise has a group of five carnival workers travelling across country on Halloween in 1976. They are set upon and kidnapped, and taken to a run-down industrial compound where they are introduced to three elderly people dressed as Romanticism-era aristocrats. The three elders explain the titular game, whereby the five “contestants” must survive 12 hours in a labyrinth with murderous clowns. With the clock ticking, they are subjected to a night of depravity and butchery.
It is a familiar premise that, when done right, can certainly appease the appetite of a horror fan. It is, however, so formulaic that new tricks need to be pulled out of a hat in order for this type of sub-genre to actually work. Sadly, there are no such tricks here and 31 is essentially a compilation of Zombie’s past hits.
His name has become a point of contention among horror fans and his work feeds division. He burst onto the scene with his impressive and long-awaited debut House Of 1000 Corpses and followed it up with the exceptional exploitation sequel The Devil’s Rejects. However, things took a turn for the worse when he helmed the appalling (many argue disrespectful) Halloween remake and its abomination of a sequel. Many fans jumped ship and this humble reviewer was all but done with him by this point. Those Halloween films were unforgivable in my mind and it would take a miracle for him to make amends. That miracle almost happened by way of Lords Of Salem, which proved to be a provocative and nightmarish journey into madness. He almost won me back… Almost!
In this writer’s humble opinion, there is no question that Zombie can be a gifted visceral artist, and one only needs eyes to recognise his particular flare for the strange and macabre. His dexterity for the quirky and grotesque has qualified him as an auteur of sorts, and yet for all of the merit in being an accomplished stylist, he has proven to be a deeply incompetent storyteller. What he determines to be scary is, rather, flaccid and spiritless. He delights in filthy environments populated by rednecks and psychopaths, yet he is unable to infuse genuine suspense into his situations. The characters might be having a whole lot of fun, but Zombie never considers whether or not the audience is. The frivolity that made the Firefly clan so entertaining in his first two films has been replaced with ugly nihilism and pretentious dialogue in 31, showing little regard for the value of entertainment.
The script is a shoddy mess, and the characters – particularly the lead antagonist – are given relentlessly awful dialogue. A contrived black-and-white opening sequence, which prefaces a later event, has been lifted straight out of Quentin Tarantino’s handbook and almost every other scene can be identified on a guide-map to Zombie’s own cinematic universe. His characters lack any depth and charisma, and the cast bring nothing positive to the table. Sheri Moon Zombie is, simply put, not a good actress and once again offers a level of awfulness that only a devoted husband could love.
Rob Zombie promotes himself as a purveyor of horror, and yet with entries into the genre such as 31 and his Halloween excrement, it is becoming quite clear that he misunderstands how it works. He is so preoccupied with creating visceral tapestries that he neglects to establish any sort of foundation or substance in his work whatsoever.