Directed by Rob Zombie
Style. Panache. Balls-out, unadulterated showmanship. There’s something to be said for a distinct filmmaking aesthetic. A unique quality of unparalleled, incomparable expression with a singular vision.
In comparison, throw a rock, and you’ll hit a film from the last few years that was competently made, with good actors and a decent script, but you will not have the first clue whose mind birthed its contents. Their worlds, while not uniform, possess an element of banality. Of sameness. Of simplicity in texture. Of a universe you can see right outside your window. Something familiar.
But on the other side, the grimier side, the rough and tumble side, you have the stylist. The artist of hallucinatory individuality, without peer or acolyte. A filmmaker whose oeuvre bleeds, gushes through the seams over every single frame of their work. You could never confuse their films for that of another, their content so tangibly unique. And unfortunately, these artists are considered less commercial, more avant garde or experimental, searching for boundaries to push, buttons to press, preconceptions to obliterate.
One such filmmaker is Mr. Rob Zombie, and his latest offering — the gore-soaked, clown-possessed, chainsaw-blaring 31 — is the embodiment of his signature bloody drenched style with the volume turned to 11.
I saw this film at Sundance, more than a few months ago, and yet, its effect has seeped into my subconscious like cigarette smoke into a forgotten bedroom. The film is the most unapologetic of Zombie’s filmography. Without care for basic tropes of the film narrative, 31 is an uncompromisingly brutal film in the most gorehound-pleasing of fashions. At the screening my friends and I were cheering over the carnage, laughing, howling, squinting through our fingers, and smiling clown-like as we walked from the theater. In a festival chock-full of films with “meaning,” for lack of a better word, films of greater cultural significance, films with “something to say,” 31 was the baseball bat to the skull that we all needed by the end, a blunt force trauma of unadulterated, adrenaline-siphoned, blood-pumping momentum. This film takes no time to stop. No time to breathe. Not unlike the homicidal clowns staffing the film’s impressive rogues’ gallery, it just keeps coming… with a smile on its face… and a knife in its hand.
The film, which is basically Rob Zombie’s hallucinatory take on The Hunger Games, follows a group of carnies taken hostage on Halloween night who are forced to fight for their lives in a psychotic, winner-take-all game called 31, where demented clowns are sent forth in waves to kill without mercy. Not since House of 1000 Corpses have we seen Zombie embrace his psychotropically-inclined visual style more effectively. As he ventured toward more standard narrative fare through the early 2000’s, from The Devil’s Rejects to The Lords of Salem, hints of this aesthetic, born from his music video days, would be sprinkled throughout to a more moderate and portioned effect. But behind the lens of 31 you can sense a few years of pent-up artistic frustration, as Zombie seems to be chucking every jagged-edged, neon-drenched, clown-faced idea for slaughtering human beings in the most entertainingly gruesome manner imaginable into a blender and pressing “START.”
The cast, featuring many familiar faces from Zombie’s filmography such as Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Meg Foster, operates as bloody marionettes to the filmmaker’s carnal manipulations to impressive effect as each of them hacks and slashes their way through wave after wave of grease-painted freaks.
Speaking of grease-painted freaks, the one performance of particular memorability is Richard Brake as Doom-Head, the homicidal clown that would make Pennywise check under his bed. In a film largely constructed toward visual acrobatics, the opening five-minute monologue by Brake, spoken in a single black and white take directly to the camera, might not only be the most iconic sequence of this film, it might also be one of the most spellbinding displays of directorial and writing prowess Zombie has displayed in his entire feature filmmaking career.
Horror films are versatile creatures. Sometimes they can be more poignant than the best drama. They can make us question ourselves, our ideals, our philosophies, the demons raging ever so subtly behind the facade of our subconscious. And then there’s THIS film. A slasher movie with style. An excuse to unleash our most basic desires as horror fans to embrace the art of the bloody, righteous slaughter for the sake of our own appeasement. 31 is an interesting beast. Unique amongst Zombie’s filmography, there’s a meta quality to its proceedings which only occurred to me very recently. The characters of the film are not given much depth. They are pawns, not only in the game itself, but in the hands of Zombie, the true game master of 31.
As the participants, bloodied and beaten, wander further down the hell-like rabbit hole of Zombie’s creation, one begins to question who is watching the game 31. We’re shown no studio audience, no televised element. Throughout the entirety of the film, the only people who see what happens in the game are us. And we love it. I think that is the subversive brilliance of this film. To create a passivity between the film and the audience, a barrier shielding empathetic connection, as if the game were designed for us in an effort to satiate our greedy, unapologetic thirst for blood. Not unlike the game masters of the film, Zombie knows what we want and will gladly appease our carnal cravings.
31 is a carnival of horrors with Zombie as the ringmaster, a circus where the clowns run amok and the blood runs red, a master stylist operating at the height of his game who has created a hellscape of violent, grease-stained wonderment that will undoubtedly have horror fans cheering for years to come.
31 is screening exclusively through Fathom Events on September 1 before opening nationwide October 21.