Rob Zombie truly loves horror movies. But he still hasn’t made a good one, and “31” is a perfect encapsulation of the reasons why: It’s a fanboy’s highlight reel of homages, without any of the credibility or context that made most of the films he’s inspired by so fine. Those who liked his first narrative features, “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” will probably enjoy his latest, which feels like a mash-up of the two (as well as numerous older films). But for others, this energetic exercise in forced badassery will be too silly and self-conscious to feel genuinely edgy, despite all the blood spilt and familiar taboos violated. (You know something’s wrong when your reaction to one character’s entrance is “Oh. A Nazi killer dwarf. That figures.”) As with Zombie’s prior efforts outside the “Halloween” reboots, this looks destined for a quick theatrical career (planned for summer by Alchemy), followed by wider access to genre buffs via home formats.
The protagonists here are an RV-full of potty-mouthed, grab-handy carnys driving to their next gig on Halloween in 1976. After a stop at a creepy gas station, they’re halted by a line of scarecrows blocking a dusty rural road. Soon several of the travelers are dead, and the others hauled forcibly to some sort of abandoned industrial compound where three aristos in Louis XIV powder and wigs (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr) inform them they are now playing the “game” of 31. Which is basically “The Most Dangerous Game” meets “Saw,” plus elements of Oliver Stone’s “Seizure,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and so on.
That leaves girly-show dancer Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), the much older Venus (Meg Foster), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) in a trap-laden maze where they are serially laid siege to by the aforementioned evil little person (Pancho Moler), three chainsaw-wielding clowns, and a couple of full-sized Aryan “master race” caricatures (Elizabeth Daily, Torsten Voges).
They have 12 hours to survive the onslaught, at which time they’ll be freed — though their bet-placing captors place very long odds on that happening. When it looks like it actually might (not for all, of course), the baddies’ secret weapon is summoned in the form of another cackling meanie in scary clown makeup: this one called Doom-Head (Richard Brake), whom we’ve already met in a prologue.
Rob Zombie is so likably intelligent in interviews, and such a good-humored showman in his musical career, that the crass, overripe yet undercooked nature of his screenplays comes as a continual disappointment. The ’70s movies he loves (the original “Chainsaw,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Last House on the Left,” etc.) worked largely because they established a “normal” world before letting malevolent crazies violate it, greatly heightening the eventual shock and terror. But Zombie’s films lunge so eagerly from zero to 11 that they skip everything in between. The “dark” characters and situations are so cartoonish from the get-go that there’s little chance of any suspense or atmosphere building; even the ample mayhem is too chaotically staged to have much visceral impact.
Likewise, the dialogue is so rotely expletive-riddled that tough words lose all impact, especially when we’re meant to take seriously lines as lame as “S–t’s goin’ DOWN!” or “Murder School is now in session!” (Lamer still, one suspects two characters briefly speak Spanish only so viewers can slap themselves on the back for knowing what “maricon” and “puta” mean.)
It’s a pity, because in other ways Zombie has the knack; his attention to pacing (if a tad too hectic), gothic lighting effects, impressive production design aspects on slim means, etc., should be the envy of many a less stylish recent horror aficionado/director. There’s also pleasure in his Tarantino-like casting of semi-forgotten old favorites, though only sinewy near-septuagenarian Foster manages to create a semblance of an actual person here. (Even Mrs. Zombie, quite fine in her husband’s otherwise weak “Halloween” and frustrating near-miss “Lords of Salem,” can’t do much with the material she’s given this time.)
Purportedly shot in 20 days, “31” looks and sounds good, with a soundtrack that expectedly mixes up yesteryear’s redneck favorites from Ernest Tubb to the James Gang and Aerosmith. Packaging is resourceful, though one could do without some of the repetitious, mannered uses of freeze-frames and slo-mo.