31 is not only one of the bloodiest and nastiest schlockfest of recent memory, it’s also one of the least original and least likeable. It plays as if writer/director Rob Zombie was trying to rework his own House of 1000 Corpses – which is kind of funny when you think about it, since Corpses, his directorial debut, was itself little more than a reworking of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All these films are founded on the same idea, namely a group of people on a road trip dying ugly, violent deaths at the hands of psychopathic weirdos. Narrowing it down to Corpses and 31, both films are set in the ‘70s, take place on Halloween, and involve characters covered in scary clown greasepaint.
Now we narrow it down even further to just 31. Perhaps the film could have worked as some kind of twisted homage if (1) Corpses had never existed and (2) Zombie had tried just a little harder with his dialogue and character development. I’m not saying that the film needed to be complicated or insightful. It’s just that, when I go into a horror movie, I have an expectation of being scared, which can only happen if I’m given a halfway plausible plot and characters that at least somewhat resemble actual human beings. 31 doesn’t deliver in either regard; every character, both “good” and “evil,” is just a mouthpiece for Zombie’s profanity-laced, sexually explicit words, and they’re in a situation that can only exist in a screenplay.
You should recognize said situation by now. A group of carnies, led by none other than Zombie’s wife and constant star Sheri Moon Zombie, drive through a desolate part of the country on Halloween and are promptly attacked and kidnapped by thugs, who dump them in a conveniently abandoned processing station of unknown purpose that’s all pipes, hatches, and vents. With the constant presence of steam, graffiti-covered walls, filthy floors, rusty iron bars, and busted valves that do nothing but drip water everywhere, it would be the envy of every creator of haunted maze attractions, especially the ones you have to sign waivers for.
Anyway, these carnies are at the mercy of three elderly Brits, forced into a game in which the goal is to survive for the next twelve hours. The game is, of course, called 31, which I guess is a reference to the fact that Halloween falls on the thirty-first of October. Anyway, these Brits (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, and Jane Carr) are inexplicably dressed like the French aristocracy of the eighteenth-century, complete with curly white wigs, powdered white faces, red lips, and exaggerated beauty marks; having made wagers amongst themselves, they have assigned numbers to the carnies, and they will use an intercom system to not only give an hourly countdown to them but also to calculate the odds of each of them surviving.
The carnies are pitted against a series of psychotic killers, all of which reveal yet again Zombie’s propensity for freakish theatricality. There’s the Spanish-speaking dwarf made to look like a Nazi, the potty-mouthed clown brothers who wield chainsaws, the German-speaking tall man wearing a tutu, and his Harley Quinn-esque sidekick with the black X’s over her nipples. Needless to say, there will be plenty of bloodshed and brutality on both sides. And there will be disgusting sights, including the bloody naked woman whose body is covered by a deflated sex blowup doll, and the moment when the carnies realize that the dinner they’re eating comes from a less-than-appetizing source. Much of the action, if I can even use that word, is obscured by Zombie’s reliance on the Queasy Cam, which I thought was reserved only for found-footage mockumentaries.
There’s one other psychotic. This would be the aptly-named Doom-Head (Richard Brake), the only character of any interest. It’s not because of his swear-infused dialogue that’s peppered with nonsensical fatalistic ramblings, but because Zombie bothered to make him look genuinely frightening, with his flaking white face, his piercing stare, and his insane Joker-like smile, which he often widens to reveal crooked, blood-smeared teeth. The film’s most effective scene is the opening, shot in black and white, the camera serving as the POV of a bound priest begging for his life; Doom-Head, shirtless and bloody, approaches and makes a speech looking directly at the priest, which is to say directly at us. It was, to say the very least, unnerving.
Shouldn’t the rest of the film have been that way? The problem with 31, apart from an almost total lack of originality, is that it isn’t a horror movie in the proper sense. Real horror plays off of our most basic fears and exposes genuine vulnerabilities. There’s an element of truth in it. That’s not the case here. This is an exploitation movie, made with no greater intention than to be as shocking and repulsive as possible. I acknowledge that that will be appealing for certain audiences, but I won’t say that I understand the appeal. The demand should be for scares, not for unpleasantness created merely for the sake of being unpleasant. Aren’t we supposed to be better than this?