Oh, Rob Zombie…why do your movies plague me so? I WANT to like them. I still get excited to see what you’ve got in the works. You have a clear vision, and a penchant for violence…so why is it so difficult? Is it me? Is it you? How can we come to terms with our troubled horror movie relationship?

That brings me to this review of Rob Zombie’s latest offering “31”, now in theaters and VOD. For the duration of this review, I will refer to Mr. Zombie as “RZ”, to save time and because hell… we’ve got a lot to talk about. This time around a group of traveling carnies run into a group of aristocratic misanthropes with a taste for blood. The opening scene of the film had me optimistic, but I’ll get to that later. The film takes place on Halloween in 1976 (where else? This is a RZ film), with a group of pot smoking, freewheeling, carnies headed to the next gig. Our group of carnies consists of a few of RZ’s mainstays like Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniels Phillips, and Meg Foster. It’s yet again another road movie about to go horribly wrong. We are met with the usual menagerie of foul-mouthed small town yokels, complete with missing teeth and barely recognizable accents. These backwoods hillbillies are a staple in all of RZ’s films, so why change the formula? They act as our harbingers of what’s to come, and usually they’re the “sanest” ones in the bunch.

While traveling at night our group of rag-tag carnies come across a spooky display of stick figures blocking the road, only to stop and investigate. Of course, you should never stop to investigate eerie stick figures while on a deserted stretch of road. But hey, it’s 1976, peace and love man. Almost like clock work, our heroes are abducted by men who look like prisoner clowns, and are delivered to a non-disclosed location resembling a sewage treatment plant. Upon their arrival, the carnies are met by a group of ne’er-do-wells dressed as old-timey French aristocrats led by Malcolm McDowell. The group is complete with white wigs, and powder coats on their faces. We know right away that this isn’t good.

Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) is the head of the namesake game, 31.
Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) is the head of the namesake game, 31.

It is here that we are told “the rules” of a game called 31, and that these people partake in it apparently every year. It’s basically the same idea as “The Running Man” on horror-infused steroids. If you haven’t seen “The Running Man”, shame on you and rectify this crime immediately! The gist is that our carnies will be released into the facility with a group of hunters (called “heads”) on their trail. The goal is simple…survive by any means necessary. This is actually when the film is at its most enjoyable. One by one our heroes are tracked down by all manner of RZ horrible-ness. Things like Nazi clown midgets, chainsaw wielding clown brothers, and weird S&M sickos with murder on the brain. It’s fiercely inappropriate, but hey this is RZ’s world, and we’re all just living in it.

Our heroes must fight back, and team up to outsmart “the heads”. In fact the best part of this film is a particularly deranged individual dubbed “Doom Head”, but his involvement in the film is sparse, and almost confusing at times. I’m not into spoilers, so I’ll leave any more plot points out and get into the critique. It’s really fun, and tense at times, even if it’s far-fetched and ridiculous. There are more than a few excellent gore gags, and the “dinner scene” actually had me very pleased with where we were headed. The body count begins to rise, and the crimson flows pretty freely, it’s the story that’s lacking. This is where things are about to get critical.

The trouble with “31”, is that it’s nothing new, and it’s what we’ve all come to know and expect from RZ. It’s the usual tropes, white trash, intensely foul language, carnies, road trips, rape, blood, and gore. If you’re cool with seeing the same RZ time and time again, enjoy. I will admit that “31” is BY FAR my favorite RZ film aside from “The Devil’s Rejects”. It’s fun, it’s gory, and it’s got a lot going for it. It just bogs itself down with RZ’s need to seem “edgy” or boundary pushing with his dialogue. The dialogue seems overly written, and becomes foul to the tune of being forced by the actors. It almost becomes desensitizing and nonsensical. At one point in the film, there appears to be a dream sequence added just to inject a few “jokes”. I’m not sure what the point is? Is it supposed to be comic relief, or is he just trying so damn hard to shock us? It’s just overly derivative of his work, and overly played out.

I’m starting to think it’s his story structure as a whole that’s my issue. I know what you’re thinking, why so critical of a schlocky horror film? Because there is so much potential with RZ’s films, and I genuinely want to like them. The opening scene of the film is terrific. It has “Doom Head” delivering a black and white monologue to one of his next victims. It’s beautifully shot, well lit, poignant, and creepy as hell. I was starting to think RZ had learned a few things along the way. Then, BAM, typical road movie shit and Doom Head is gone. It’s almost as if RZ has tried to remake “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in every one of his films. It’s just the same formula time and time again.

Next up is the game itself, which was cool. RZ builds up these side story-lines that promise us so much, rarely ever delivering on those promises. It becomes frustrating as an audience member, to want to see these gems come to light, only for them to become throwaway items. I am being intentionally vague as to not spoil any potential plot points. We’ll just say that there are a number of “dead ends”. Set-ups in regard to the origin of the game, the people behind it, the “Heads”, and so many other fertile story-telling arenas that were begging to be told. I’m OK with abstract plot-lines, but not when it seems that the filmmaker himself didn’t know where he was going with them. I literally turned to the person I watched “31” with and said “that better not be the fucking ending”. I’ll let you interpret what that means, but I hope this film doesn’t leave you cussing at friends too.

31-sundance-2016
Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Charly (Sherri Moon Zombie) try to survive 12 hours of 31.

I’ve heard rumors that a lot of 31 had to be left on the cutting room floor in order to get distribution. This is the same song and dance we’ve been hearing since his debut film “House of 1000 Corpses”. I am beginning to think that this is a gimmick in order to blame the films shortcomings on excessive edits. I’m not buying it. There are only so many “edits” that can a fix a story that was flawed to begin with. Maybe I’m wrong, and I would love to see if a director’s cut expands on any of my problem issues with the film.

If you are a fan of the universe RZ has created, by all means check out “31”. It’s fun, violent, and everything we’ve come to expect from him as a writer/director. If you’re tired of revisiting the universe RZ has created…don’t say I didn’t warn you. While it’s easily one of his best efforts, prepare for a lot of sighs and eye rolling. It’s the same road trip we’ve been on too many times before. That being said…ugh…What’s next Mr. Zombie?

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