Sundance Film Review: ’31’

31 Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

An RV-full of carnys are forced into a deadly Halloween 'game' in Rob Zombie's latest horror pastiche.

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.

Sundance Film Review: '31'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 24, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.


An Alchemy (in U.S.) release of an Alchemy presentation in association with Spookhouse International of a Bow and Arrow Entertainment and Spectacle Entertainment production. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Andy Gould, Rob Zombie, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Mike Elliott, Eddie Vaisman.


Directed, written by Rob Zombie. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), David Daniel; editor, Glenn Garland; music, John 5, Zombie; production designer, Rodrigo Cabral; costume designer, Carrie Grace; set decorator, Siobhan O'Brien; set designer, Kevin Houlihan; sound, Steve Morrow, John Bauman; supervising sound editor, Steven Iba; re-recording mixer, Chris David;  special makeup effects, Wayne Toth; stunt coordinator, Stephen Dunlevy; assistant director, Gabriel Williams; casting, Nicole Arbusto.


Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Richard Brake, Jane Carr, Daniel Roebuck, Pancho Moler, Lew Temple, Lew Temple, David Ury, Torsten Voges, Judy Geeson, Malcolm McDowell, Tracey Walker, Elizabeth Daily, Esperanza America, Michael Alcott, Andrea Dora. (English, Spanish dialogue)

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 12

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. tl14 says:

    Ritchard brake is scary brilliant as doomhead. Imagining a character like this as a real person in the real world left a sickly terrified feeling in my stomach. That feeling is the reason we enjoy zombies films. Critics bitch that the main characters under development but to me and many other fans the bad guys the main character in a horror movie. We’re not there to feel good when the girl being chased by the monster finally turns and fights the monster and wins. No we’re there the be terrified that the monster even exist in the first place and Zombie has done that at least for me with doomhead hes left a feeling in my stomach i wont shake for a while

  2. Robb says:

    Oh, what a surprise. Not a single solid argument or rebuttal–save for Jessica–from any of these hyper-defensive, butthurt Zombie fanbois as to why the reviewer is off base and why 31 is “fantastic” as opposed to the servicable, wholly unexceptional genre pastiche it is. Just an endless torrent of ad hominem sewage runoff. But then that’s not surprising, given that, despite Zombie having proven himself as a genuinely capable genre craftsman with style and interesting ideas to spare, his core fanbase is largely comprised of some of the dumbest goons to walk the earth.

  3. rickey says:

    Hi I am an edgy “journalist” that has superior knowledge of likeable movies. I say you should hate this film because it doesn’t follow the current trend of possession & super scary ghost hauntings. Who wants to see people try to survive a night of terror caused by psycho clowns when you can watch furniture move by itself?

  4. Emanuel says:

    Fucking dumb stupid slave, lesser human…just kill youreself.
    Im so tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiired, fucking humans and there thoughts.

  5. Laura says:

    I love Rob Zombies movies. And I think this new one is going to be great. If you already don’t appreciate what he’s made, then I don’t think you have any business writing an article about it.

  6. Emanon says:

    This review wasn’t written by someone who knew a single thing about horror films. Opening line crapping on ALL his movies? Have you seen any horror films?

  7. Jessica says:

    I think one of the main reasons I enjoy Rob Zombie’s films is in fact, the absurdity and the “lame” dialogue, that hark back to that era in horror he loves so much. Horror can be quite a niche genre, and those who love it are devoted to it. We recognize the horror references through his casting, the dialogue, the story lines and the settings. At a time full of remakes and sequels, presenting a tried and true method in the horror genre and successfully so, in my opinion, made this film a nice, insane, breath of fresh air.

  8. I think I got cancer from reading this.

  9. for being a film critic, who NO ONE knows, your write up is full of the same mucka muck thats been throw out there by some of the least interesting “critics” i have come across in my 50 years on this planet. you need to separate your self from the rest of the shit that seem they know a good film. what a shame your review will have ZERO effect to those that love there horror in a real and raw situation, or to anyone. so get back to you waiter job, which you suck at as well, and leave it up to the people who spend there money to be entertained. and when you toss a salad jelly is usually what’s around your lips.try chocolate sometime

  10. Edward Chupak says:

    Your opening thesis that Rob hasn’t made a good horror movie saved me from having to read the rest of your review. You’re a joke. Variety – FIRE THIS CLOWN!!!

More Film News from Variety