“31” (Sundance Movie Review)


If one were to just compare Rob Zombie’s 31, a world premiere at the current Sundance Film Festival, to other films in the “grindhouse” genre, there is no doubt it would hold its own. It is violent and campy, with the requisite sex, blood, profanity and gore. But ultimately, it feels rushed and leaves one with the sense of an unfinished idea.

Combining elements of BATTLE ROYALE and THE RUNNING MAN, the stage for 31 is simply set: Five carnies (including one played by Sheri Moon Zombie) are abducted and forced to enter a survival game. Conceptualizing his scenario from the statistic that Halloween (i.e. October 31) is the day that the most people go missing, Zombie creates a “Murder World” where three bewigged British fops (the leader played by Malcolm McDowell) take mortality bets on the five captured circus folk as they are chased around an industrial labyrinth. Those doing the chasing are a series of pseudoarchetypal evil clowns.

To be fair, the clowns are a fun bunch. Led by Richard Brake as Doom-Head (more on him in a bit), there are also Sex-Head, Death-Head, Schizo-Head, Psycho-Head and Sick-Head. Why the “Head” monikers? It’s never fully explained. There is a lot here that is never fully explained.

31REVNow, it must be reported that the Sundance crowd applauded whenever a devil clown died. And yes, there are moments of interest. But there could have been more, and the proof is in the opening monologue. Doom-Head has a specific way of talking that leaves hopes very high after his introductory speech. He grapples with reason, with twisted self-awareness, turning a phrase as if he has just eaten a poet’s heart. But after his intro, all the dialogue goes coarse and clichéd as the rest of the film slips into the banal. Where there is promise, there is expectation, but Zombie just seems to get lost in the gimmickry—lost in his own labyrinth.

Another example lies in the cinematography. The guerrilla shooting style of 31 has its moments, and occasionally adds to the tension, but overall it becomes annoying, as the eye has trouble following the scenes. This may have been on purpose, to add a chaotic sense to the action, but the result is the audience rubbing their eyes out of strain.

Our hamsters in the maze (the five carnies) don’t really serve a purpose either, other than to be killed in cool ways. Yes, that is the point, and the acting is solid at times, but with a little bit more effort put into the script, what comes off as just crass and corny could have been crass and funny. There are times when the lines seem to die as soon as they leave the victims’ mouths, and the characterizations become confusing: one moment they’re screaming in fear, and the next they’re sharing funny stories about good times and fond memories. This may be the grindhouse way, but it comes across as awkward.

There’s a bevy of unanswered questions as well. Who are those three evil fops? Why are they betting? Why does the little clown like Hitler so much? How the hell did the marionette show end up in that crappy house? Some of these questions are in jest, but if it weren’t for the film’s moments of promise, there wouldn’t be that feeling of being cheated in the end. The overall sensation 31 leaves you with is that it wasn’t taken seriously—that it was done on a whim, rather than with a passion.

If the point of 31 was to create a homage to low-rent, gratuitous cinema, you can’t argue it succeeds, and fans of Zombie’s traditional grit and gore will find those sensibilities unfulfilled. But those who want a little more brains and heart spliced in between slices and chops will walk away—perhaps as intended—feeling a little bit dirty.


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About the author
Trent Wilkie
Trent Wilkie is a writer/journalist/performer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada who has written for everything from CBC Radio (THE IRRELEVANT SHOW) to Canadian Emergency News to Adbusters to the Edmonton Sun and Exclaim magazine. He's a member of Mostly Water Theatre, a sketch comedy troupe that has performed in several Edmonton International Fringe Festivals, and also runs a daddy blog called The UnDad because his wife allows him to swear in it. As well, he is an experienced canoe guide; having paddled all over Canada, he considers the deep dark woods a therapy that only comes at the cost of comfort. When taking time off from trying not to be bored, Trent likes to relax while watching horror movies and attempting to write the perfect three-chord song.
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