×

Sundance Film Review: ’31’

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

With:
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)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3835080/

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.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: '31'

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

Production: 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.

Crew: 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.

With: 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)

More Film

  • San-Sebastian

    San Sebastian, Zurich to Take Up SXSW, Tribeca Titles at Newly Created Film Markets

    The San Sebastian and Zurich film festivals have teamed to launch new film markets that will cater to the gaps created by the cancellation of SXSW and the postponement of Tribeca due to the coronavirus pandemic. The programming of both fall festivals will feature titles originally scheduled for spring fests SXSW and Tribeca. The markets [...]

  • Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety

    Japan's Toei Closes Tokyo Studio After Coronavirus Infection

    Toei closed its Tokyo studio Tuesday after actor Reo Komiya was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The star of the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager,” a sci-fi/action show broadcast on the TV Asahi network, seventeen-year-old Komiya tested positive for the virus while shooting new episodes at the studio. His condition is not known at the present time. A [...]

  • Aqute Media Takes North America on

    Aqute Media Takes North America on Helen Reddy Biopic 'I Am Woman'

    London-based sales agent WestEnd Films has closed a North American deal with Jeff Sackman and Berry Meyerowitz’s company Aqute Media for “I Am Woman,” the biopic about Australian singer Helen Reddy. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the opening film of the Special Presentations section. The film also recently [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    Sheffield Doc/Fest Rejigs With Fall Programming, Virtual Forums in Lieu of Festival

    The Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching forums, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market are to take place virtually in June, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the June festival is being replaced by a series of programs that will take place on weekends through the fall. The planned programming will include film screenings, talks, panels, [...]

  • Southland Tales

    Streamer Mubi Partners With Prada Foundation on 'Perfect Failures' Film Series

    Specialist streaming service Mubi has teamed up with fashion label Prada’s Fondazione Prada foundation on “Perfect Failures,” a curated selection of movies deemed to have been “widely misunderstood” upon their release. The joint project will launch on both the Mubi platform and the Fondazione Prada’s website on April 5 with U.S. director Richard Kelly’s 2006 flop [...]

  • Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in

    'Morbius,' 'Ghostbusters' Sequel and More Sony Movies Pushed Back to 2021

    Sony Pictures has pushed back many of its major tentpoles — including “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Uncharted” and “Peter Rabbit 2” — to next year, the studio announced on Monday. Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” has moved from July 10, 2020, to March 5, 2021; Jared Leto’s “Morbius” has been pushed back from July 31, 2020, to [...]

  • Anne Hathaway to Star in 'French

    Film News Roundup: Anne Hathaway Stars in 'French Children Don't Throw Food'

    In today’s film news roundup, Anne Hathaway will portray an American journalist in Paris, blockbuster director Michael Bay signs with Sony Pictures, and “Extra Ordinary” and “The Etruscan Smile” are added to arthouse streaming services. CASTING Anne Hathaway is starring in the movie “French Children Don’t Throw Food,” based on Pamela Druckerman’s autobiographical book, “Bringing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content