Thursday, 22 September 2016

31 review

As a massive fan of Rob Zombie's cinematic output, I was so psyched to see that he was releasing a back-to-basics grind-house horror this year! It hits UK cinemas on the 23rd... and has showings across October. Hit the jump for my review (if you dare).

First things first: yeah, I changed my font. Cause fuck TNR.

A particularly atmospheric scene early in the action.
Rob Zombie is a filmmaker I've consistently admired somewhat against the grain. His 2003 feature 'House of 1000 Corpses' is a film that's damn near close to five star level for me - yet somehow it's a lowly one star from most publications. The sequel to that particular romp, 'The Devil's Rejects', saw the same twisted family from the first turned into antiheroes for a hard-rock trip into darkness; received better critically, but still not great considering it's an incredible film with an exhilarating climax. Hell, I even enjoyed 'The Haunted World of El Superbeasto' and both of the 'Halloween' remakes - again, both critically decimated at time of release. But his 2013 release, 'The Lords of Salem' may just be a masterpiece. Featuring his muse, as always, Sheri Moon Zombie'Lords' was the kind of movie that could be talked about for decades afterwards. An abundance of enigmatic images, beautiful colours, and hallucinatory symmetry provided an LSD overdose for the brain - and a powerfully scary picture. For some reason, however, it only has a lowly 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not only was the critical reaction just as subdued as usual, but Zombie's fans reacted pretty badly at his attempt at avant-garde film-making. Therefore, with '31' (a lower budget production that was actually crowdfunded), he's returned back to his exploitation roots: creating a film that was threatened with an NC-17 rating on several occasions due to its content. What we have here then, I guess, is the R-rated cut down version (18 in the UK) - with the anticipation that an uncut edition could appear on DVD soon-ish.

OG grindhouse vibes...
'31' follows a group of carnies, rolling around in their RV touring a 'Girlie Show' - yeah. 'Charly' (Sheri Moon Zombie) proves to be the main character once again: becoming a strange and sassy scream-queen as the film goes along. She's backed up by 'Venus' (Meg Foster), 'Panda' (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), 'Levon' (Kevin Jackson), and 'Roscoe' (Jeff Daniel Phillips) as fellow travelers. We begin with a prologue, shot in beautiful monochrome, and starring Richard Brake as the phenomenal 'Doom-Head' (more on that later). He delivers a straight-up Tarantino monologue to our faces, before eviscerating some poor priest who's strapped to a chair. Ouch. It's then on to our motley crew who, whilst travelling across backwater America on Halloween night (yeah that explains the movie title), encounter some suspicious and sumptuously lit scarecrows blocking their path: a scene straight out of Bowie's triumphant 'Blackstar' video. In what appears to be a reference to Zombie's original 2003 effort, they're quickly revealed to be more than just scarecrows, and the carnies are kidnapped.

Zombie makes frequent use of effective lighting, as seen here
with the strobe sequence.
These scenes prove particularly effective in setting the tone and the style of the film: Brake's appearance creates a substantial atmosphere of foreboding
 pressure, and then the immediate
 portrayal of sex and titillation from the carnies formulate that particular Zombie essence of scuzzy 70s sexploitation. Interestingly, now could be the point to mention that '31' is primarily driven by a mature female duo, and the only sex scene in the movie comes from two plus-size black actors. Neither of these things are played for laughs or kicks - they're completely genuine and honest. In an age where everyone's complaining about the lack of these things, Zombie lays them on without a trace of irony or the try-hard SJW Oscar-baiting of most 'equal opportunities' movies. It's also so far so good on the visual front as well - with Zombie making effective usage of the freeze-frames that he's so well known for, and some great slow-motion. The footage looks truly aged - rather than Tarantino pastiche fake scratches - and adds a layer of authenticity to the productions.

Sheri Moon Zombie as 'Charly'.
Not wanting to waste any time getting to the bloodletting, the gang awake, tied to some apparatus, in a 'Lords of Salem'-esque bourgeois palace (not to dissimilar from the top-floor party in Wheatley's 'High Rise'). And who's there to greet them but the sinister 'Father Murder' (hilariously listed as 'Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder' on Wikipedia) played with vibrant aplomb by acting legend Malcolm McDowell. The rules of his twisted game? Survive for 12 hours in a home-made horror maze populated by sadistic clowns and assorted freaks. The prize? Life. Indeed, he and his white-powdered friends place heavy odds on the death of each character in a rather sinister fashion not too dissimilar to 'The Running Man'. From here on in it's exactly what you'd expect: a rip roaring hour of chasing and murder, with the carnies fighting to stay alive against some truly colourful characters.

Speaking of characters, take Pancho Moller's 'Sick-Head': a Spanish-speaking Nazi dwarf, who wears SS uniform, has a fake mustache, and lives inside a garish shrine to the Fuhrer himself. What does Spanish have to do with it? A critic asked that at Sundance, and Zombie replied 'Hey, Pancho, why do you speak Spanish?'. The response was 'It's my first language': cue roars of laughter (Zombie always does well in interviews). Or take the chainsaw-wielding brothers 'Schizo-Head' (David Ury), and 'Psycho-Head' (Lew Temple); two wisecracking, sadistic, and intimidating characters who seriously know how to cut a hedge.... The prolonged scene in which they fight our heroes is incredibly intense and suspenseful: with spinning blades flying in all directions. 
Gloriously orchestrated mayhem.
Or take Elizabeth Daily and Torsten Voges's 'Sex' and 'Death' 'Heads', playing tribute to that most famous of horror marriages. Indeed, all of these characters are incredibly interesting and unique, but none more so than Richard Brake as 'Doom-Head'. His blood-splattered, sinister face embodies a kind of unhinged fear that parallels the joker at his best... But this is an R-rated movie, so there's a lot more room to move around in what can be portrayed onscreen. 'Doom-Head' reveals himself to be a man without compassion, joy, or emotion. What's more, he's incredibly proficient with his two switchblades - weapons of choice. It truly is a joy to watch Brake on screen here, an acting masterclass of the highest order.

A scene in the Aristocratic house, self censored by
Rob Zombie on Twitter.
Of course, these characters aren't the only things that 'Charly' and co. have to deal with... Oh, no. We have crazy environments, sex, cannibalism, torture, and all that other nice stuff.... All visualized with a level of panache that will make any aesthetics-geek proud. It's 'Spooky Island Castle' from Scooby Doo, combined with a heavy dosage of 'shrooms and then a whole load of blades sharper than that NC-17 rating. Kubrick, of course, is referenced in sufficiently enigmatic fashion (Eyes Wide Shut has been chosen wisely), and the candy-colours rather mirror those of 'Suspiria'. The exterior shots of the abandoned factory(?), and the deserted highways of rural America make for suitably retro viewing that'll please fans of old school classics such as 'The Hills have Eyes' and the 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. A strobed sequence proves particularly effective in concealing some of the over-the-top violence, whilst looking incredibly stylish about it (a la 'You're Next'). In the end, however, like many of the films it lovingly rips off, '31' becomes quite forced in its premise (you can probably tell that from the plot description); and the feel-good rock soundtrack to the nihilistic mayhem may not be to everyone's personal taste. All is redeemed by a perfectly nasty and gloomy conclusion - that once again may turn people off to extolling the virtues of this particular adventure. 

Richard Brake puts in a particularly masterful performance.
Is '31' a social allegory? Is that a silly question to ask? The answer to both is probably yes. The real question is most likely 'Did Rob Zombie envision '31' to be a social allegory?' To which the answer is probably no. I could be wrong, but it seems like the inclusion of the aristocratic villains fulfilled a specific visual purpose: badassery, rather than some comment on the ruling classes. But, if viewed under that particular lens, it's quite justifiably possible to see the betting party-goers as the heads of state and upper classes who play the lower classes against each other. In essence, the carnies and the clowns are in the same industry, on the same pay-grade, and ought to be fighting together; but they are pulled by strings far above them, dragging them into unnecessary conflict. At the end of the day, many die in the game of '31', but the aristocrats dust their makeup off, and carry on with their regular jobs the next day. 'Doom-Head' remarks that he "ain't no fuckin' clown"; the irony is that a group of people are paying to be entertained by him.

Ooooh.... creepy....
In conclusion, '31' is a great movie that's getting waaay too much shit from the mainstream press. Sure, it becomes a little forced at points; and it definitely isn't scary. But it never claims to be scary either. Instead, what we have is a funhouse of horrors where the animatronics are replaced by psycho clowns with chainsaws. It's fucking good, bloody, entertaining fun from an underrated director at the top of his game. Roll up, roll up, and take the ride....
'31' gets 4 stars!

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