31 October 1976. A group of carnival workers are attacked and kidnapped in rural America. When they awake, they find themselves trapped inside a vast maze and forced to play a deadly game: survive 12 hours at the hands of a group of deranged and murderous clowns, and they will win their freedom.
Noted heavy metal musician Rob Zombie has been gradually expanding his secondary career as a writer and director of low-budget horror films. He wears his grindhouse influences proudly on his sleeve; this has earned him both widespread dismissal from critics and an enthused hardcore fanbase of screen horror fans. I have a strong suspicion which audience he values the most. 31 is a deliberately bleak and gory string of life-or-death encounters with grotesque killers. There is plenty of violence, an awful lot of blood, and a nihilistic edge that is going to severely limit its target audience.
Generally there are three questions you need to ask of a movie: what is the director attempting to make, does the director succeed in that goal, and is the finished film any good? The answers to the first two questions are pretty straightforward. Zombie has aimed to make a violent splatter film and has absolutely succeeded in doing so. As for the third question, I am inclined to argue that he actually has.
On a technical level – shot composition, mise-en-scene, editing – Rob Zombie’s movies seem to be constantly improving. He is perfecting his craft, and on that level alone 31 would seem to be his strongest film yet.
It is also a film blessed with more than a few strong performances. The two standouts are Meg Foster and Richard Brake. Foster plays Venus, one of the hapless prisoners fighting to survive. It’s a striking performance because it defies genre norms: we expect to see teenagers running for their lives before picking up a chainsaw and taking matters into their own hands, but we never seem to see a 68-year-old do the same. Foster remains one of the more underrated performers of cult and low-budget cinema.
Richard Brake plays “Doomhead”, one of the six killer clowns dispatched to murder the victims. He opens the film with a superbly delivered monologue, and his performance – both coarse and weirdly baroque – is the highlight of the entire film. Good slasher films like this rise or fall on the basis of their villain, and as the ultimate stalker of the piece Brake excels. He is absolutely superb.
If there is a place where the film falters, it is in its story. This is something of a surprise, because earlier Zombie pictures like House of 1,000 Corpses and The Lords of Salem were less technically proficient but much more imaginative. In this case there is a real sense of having seen and done everything before, whether in the Rockstar videogame Manhunt, or Lionsgate’s Saw franchise. There are some bright glimmers of creativity going on here – for one thing the entire game is masterminded by Malcolm McDowell in a regency costume and powdered wig – but the overall sense is one of excess familiarity. It leaves 31 feeling like a piece of shock horror entertainment rather than anything more significant. To be honest, that’s okay.