Movies are now, or for the most part, delivered digitally. I remember working at a movie theater back when they still shipped 35mm prints to theaters that required being threaded through a series of spindles with accuracy and precision. Modern movies are delivered over a series of fiber-optic cables or in encrypted hard drives, made up of nothing more than zeros and ones—sectors of data on a hard drive that can be erased with a few clicks of a mouse. It’s an ethereal cluster of information that barely even exists.
Rob Zombie is an interesting filmmaker in the same way that car wrecks are an interesting spectator sport. Zombie has made a number of hard-core horror films that have gained a cult following in spite of being generally terrible. There are those who will sing the praises of “The Devil’s Rejects” or “Lords of Salem” as gritty and terrifying; however, I attest that Rob Zombie might be the worst horror director consistently working today.
On paper his horror films should be right up my alley. Take “31”: the story of a bunch of carnies kidnapped by a cult of murderous aristocratic weirdos in a game of survival that pits them against savage clowns. Like a jar full of blackberry preserves farmed by meth-fueled schizophrenics, this kind of crazy madness sounds like jam. However, the execution is sorely lacking.
The basic plot is like a mish-mash-mix’em up of “The Running Man” and “Saw.” Our 1970’s-era carnies are trapped in a bunker with various horrors displayed from room to room, hunted down by a variety of different clowns, each of whom possess a weapon, a bad attitude and language so salty it would make an old sailor’s eyes water. I first was encouraged by the cast of relative unknowns. Horror films are always more fun when they feature a cast of newbies. It’s much harder to peg who’s going to live or die when your ensemble is an unrecognizable collection of meat bags waiting to be slaughtered. Speaking of slaughtered, this movie features a shit-ton of it. “31” is a bloody affair—I mean garbage bags of gore. Unfortunately, it’s all rather wasted.
The thing about Zombie’s movies is how disturbingly remorseless they are. His horror films so often feature unlikable characters, who are dealing with a gauntlet of tragic circumstances. I have no problem with violence. In fact, I’m quite the fan. I’ve been proudly supporting cinematic violence since I was old enough to sneak into an R-rated movie. But the violence has to have a point other than just a graphic display of blood and guts.
There are plenty of examples of when looney levels of violence work on film; “Evil Dead II” comes to mind or the wonderful “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—even Tarantino movies which often revel in bloody massacres. Over-the-top violence works when it services another element of the film. Fountains of blood and eruptions of entrails are fine as an element of a movie, but it’s meaningless when the entire film seems to be constructed around brutal violence for the sake of shock value—a phrase that seems to sum up Zombie’s output well.
The problems with “31” are as numerous as the gaping wounds worn by almost every character. Audiences will care about no one in this movie. The “heroes” are one-dimensional, unlikable, idiotic slabs. They are rough around the edges in a way that should be endearing, but none of them deliver a performance that is anything other than grating. Maybe Zombie was going for some kind of out-of-the-box experience. While I didn’t care for his movie, it did make me want to commit violence against my eyes and ears.
There are a few salvageable moments. There’s a pretty entertaining opening monologue. I actually was inspired by the first 10 minutes or so that introduced us to a crazy-ass clown with a penchant for pain. And the opening 1970s sequence made me think we were going to get a nice homage to the glory days of horror films. Unfortunately, much like his music, Rob Zombie has a singular sound that lacks variety. There’s zero nuance or even the shallowest depth to get audiences to invest. I don’t need the world’s most amazing characters in a film about killer clowns, but I need something. Take the far more creatively successful thriller, “Don’t Breathe,” which gives us characters with stakes. Their lives and deaths mean something because we get to know the unfortunate circumstances of their lives that motivate them.
It sucks when filmmakers don’t realize the draw of horror films aren’t just the scares or blood but the terror created by life-and-death circumstances involving characters audiences want to see survive. I didn’t care about anything in “31” other than how much longer it would last, which wasn’t soon enough. Blech.