Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her friends travel the byways of America’s Midwest with their travelling amusement park, making a living by entertaining the locals wherever they set up camp. Unfortunately – after being ambushed by a gang of inbreds – they are taken to a bizarre industrial complex, where they become pawns in the vicious annual survival tournament called 31, overseen by a mysterious trio of sadistic voyeurs (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane carr) who they hear but never see. The rules are simple – all they must do is survive twelve hours against an array of weird and wonderful killers who lurk around every corner. Let the games begin!
There is no denying Rob Zombie is a true cinematic auteur, known for the complete control of all aspects of his films. That however, does not necessarily make his work good. His films are, to all intents, torture porn, and his new one 31 (2016) is a classic illustration of such material. Unfortunately though, it is not a particularly worthy example of the genre. Other entries in this niche area of filmmaking – such as those from the Saw and Hostel franchises – are in no way pleasant cinematic experiences to sit through. Even so those notorious films at least have some semblance of storyline or reasoning (however tenuous) to excuse the bloodshed which forms their basis.
31 on the other hand has no such saving graces, as there really is nothing to explain or excuse the orgy of violence which plays out on screen. Here the origins of the supposed ‘game’ which the unfortunate Charly and her friends find themselves part of is left to your imagination, the truth behind the annual 31 event and the identity of its perverted perpetrators never being fully explained.
The presence of some of the film’s cast, all of whom throw themselves gleefully into this melee of madness, is to be expected: no Rob Zombie movie is seemingly complete without an appearance by his real life wife Sheri Moon Zombie. However one has to question why, at this stage in their careers, respected British stars like McDowell and Geeson see fit to lower themselves to involvement with such questionable material as this. In their defence neither McDowell’s Father Murder or his cohort Sister Dragon played by Geeson have any direct involvement with the nastiness on screen. The duo simply tell their death dealing minions what to do next, though this could actually be interpreted as worse. Even this though does not excuse them for appearing in what will surely leave an indelible bloodstain on their otherwise impressive thespian resumes.
The film looks stunning. McDowell and Geeson – along with their comrade-in-arms Sister Serpent (Carr) – steal the show, looking every bit like characters from the court of the Sun King at Versailles – which is fitting considering the autocratic way in which they condemn their hapless victims to death. However countless elements such as a forgotten filling station – manned by a redneck, gummy mouthed grandad – where the travellers make a brief pit-stop before taking a permanent break further down the road, have all been seen before. Even the dusty American backroads along which Charly and her band of performers – who apparently run some form of travelling circus-cum-funfair, though this is never fully enlarged upon – travel, and the abandoned warehouse facility where the film’s main mayhem plays out provide very little in the way of originality.
Zombie has now reached the status in horror circles where his films are accepted, virtually without question, as works of genius and something to be praised – not unlike the offerings of that other enfant terrible director Quentin Tarantino. However look beneath the surface and what you actually find is little more than a collection of twisted, sadistic imagery which has little merit or value, even within the desensitised world of seen-it-all, shock cinema.
Cleaver Patterson (@Cleaver68 / @ScreenAndGone)