Disclaimer 1: I helped fund the movie via the crowd sourced effort put out by Zombie a year ago. I will get a Blu-ray when it is released and received a poster and some other trinkets with a clown face on them. I don't think this skewed my opinion, but it bares a mention in terms of full disclosure.
Disclaimer 2: I am a Rob Zombie fan. I enjoy his music. I enjoy this writing and his artwork. I have loved each of his previous movies (thus the desire to offer a small amount to assist in the funding 31). I am more than capable of hating a movie of his, but that's not what happened here today.
Let's talk about the movie. 31 is about a group of traveling performers who are making their way to the next gig on Halloween when they stumble upon and are kidnapped by a group of folks dressed up like extras from a mid-90's Madonna music video and a gaggle of grease painted, anti-gladiators to play a game. That game is survive the night. Make it 12 hours without perishing while being stalked by nontraditional clowns with assorted weapons, and you win your life. Does the group make it? What are the odds (don't worry, Malcolm McDowell will let you know)? That's about all I want to tell you without spoiling the show, and this will be a spoiler free review.
I'm going to run this one down by bullet points, so I don't spend the time trying to be flowery with my language.
Story: It's The Running Man or really The Most Dangerous Game as Rob Zombie tells you in the Q&A after the film. I still prefer to think of it as The Running Man with each of the clowns representing the champions like Sub Zero or Dynamo or Fireball from the Bachman/Stephen King adaptation featuring Richard Dawson. It works right? You've got McDowell giving the odds and acting as the game show host/carnival barker. Running Man. Dangerous Game. It's a recycled story in a new environment that works for a kill by numbers Horror plot. It allows for as many creative kills as you want to throw at the screen and has only a few outcomes: The players win. The players lose. The game does not finish. I like the simplicity and as a fan of both Running Man and Most Dangerous Game, I dig it.
Blood/Gore: Plenty of it and yet never enough. I suppose the rumor is that Zombie had to cut quite a bit to get the R rating. We're used to that. We're also used to getting the Director's cut and not knowing what the fuck was added back in because it's just little bits and pieces of scenes. What is important is that 31 doesn't feel cut. It's bloody and messy and raw. It's sloppy all over the lens with the red stuff. There are plenty of juicy kills that go just a little. too. far. with the stabs and the slashes and the hacks. Yet you don't see all of the juicy bits on screen. Some of it is left to the mind's eye to fill in the blanks. There were times when I didn't even realize that I didn't see a certain knife strike of chainsaw dig. In that sense it actually reminded me a bit of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I'd go as far to say that there are scenes where Zombie pays homage to one of his favorites. I see plenty of folks saying they'll wait for the Director's Cut/Unrated cut to see all of the grue, but I don't think you'll need to wait. I think the power of the big screen outweighs any cuts you might be expecting on the small screen.
T&A: Yep. It's there. It's definitely there, but is it overtly a sexual movie? Nope. You'll get the obligatory Sheri Moon Zombie skin as she wears a short halter top with a lion on the front and there are a few scenes where the clown gladiators are dressed for fuck, but you can leave your dick in your pants (or whatever it is you pull of out of your pants in the theater). There's one exceptional little fuck scene, but I may be the only one who would find it at all hot and heavy. You will have to be the judge when you see it. It's definitely hits the raunch button.
FX: The makeup and costume design are outstanding. You get some great looking grease painted freaks running around with evil fantasy weapons, but don't expect traditional clown makeup at all. I'd go as far as to say that I didn't altogether feel like I was watching clowns attack the players. It's an unorthodox but creepy take on the most hated of carnival attractions. The blood is dark red ie not HG Lewis Crayola red and the chewed up bodies lean toward realistic as opposed to over the top gonzo. I tend to prefer gonzo, but 31 is gonzo in its costume design and general feel. This isn't a movie that relies on creature creations or stranger half human/half fish amalgams.
Intensity/Pace: It's a wild ride. It starts with a brief character introduction where we meet one of our baddies early on with a one on one, interview esque murder/conversation. It's intimidating and strong. It is in this opening scene and quite honestly throughout the rest of the movie that we discover Richard Brake is one excellent villain. Boy does he get under your skin, yelling at you/the screen. He's spitting on you. Chewing you apart with his facial expression and unkind words. The assault continues like this throughout the rest of the movie, various bad guys acting as the driving force for action as our players are stalked. There's some down time in between each kill which almost gives 31 the feeling of a 70's porn flick with the formula "intro-fuck-plot-fuck-plot-fuck-repeat-credits". Though the scenes of intense action are divided by period of slowed down team building, the picture never feels slow, often inspires tension and each break feels wholly appropriate.
Characters: Each baddie has a fun name. Doom-Head. Psycho-Head. Death-Head. Sex-Head. Sick-Head. Schizo-Head. You get the picture. Even our goodie good guys have fun names like Venus Virgo, Rosco, Levon and Charly. The cast is a solid bunch of old Zombie veterans and new faces. I love em all. Favorite appearance was Ginger Lynn as Cherry Bomb. She actually does have the one overtly sexual scene in the movie opposite a favorite villain of ours, and though I don't think it's supposed to be sexy, I found it insanely hot. Folks like to give Sheri Zombie shit for her acting. I have never had a problem with her as an actor or her style and though that her performance in Lords of Salem was exceptional. She is a strong lead in 31 playing half the movie as a fun-loving performer, the rest as a balls out leader of the would-be victims. Typically I hear critiques of her performance, and I'd let it slide, but not this time. I disagree with some of the negativity I've seen spit her way for her role in 31. It's unfair. The standout performance is Doom-Head. Richard Brake has a great future in Horror if he wants it appearing in quite a few movies and TV roles as well as having a part in Zombie's Halloween II. While I agree that her performance was exceptional, I was wondering why everyone jumped on the Elizabeth Daily bandwagon so quickly. Was it her role as Dottie in Pee Wee's Big Adventure that drew everyone out? Just curious. She was brilliantly sexy and devious. A standout performance in 31 to be sure. Pancho Moler is fantastic and plays a very fun, funny, evil bastard of a villain. He provides some powerful tension and really gave 31 that old school exploitation feel. Malcolm McDowell does a fine job though I must admit to hating his costume. I get why he's wearing what he's wearing; I simply think he looks silly. No actor let me down in 31, and I didn't feel like I was getting cameos shoved at me which sometimes happens in Zombie movies.
What it's not: This is not Devil's Rejects. This is not Lords of Salem. This is not House of 1000 Corpses. This is not Halloween. It simply a different picture than what we've seen from Rob Zombie in the past with elements of his own style worked into character creation, set and makeup feel as well as influence from 70's grimy, grindy cinema.
What IS it?: It's a Rob Zombie movie. Chances are good that if you don't like Rob Zombie movies, you won't dig this one. Liking Zombie's previous movies will not guarantee you like this one though I'd say that's a good jumping off point for you.
What didn't I like since all I've really done is tell you what I liked and how much I liked 31?: During scenes of violence, the camera is shaky and chaotic. These scenes are shot this way to give you a feel of intense disorientation. This simply make me nauseous. I get why it is used, and I think it's effective, but I could do without it. All it means for me is that I have to rewatch the movie to fully appreciate the kills. The movie is pretty dark. It's set in a factory. I like that, but I kept feeling like certain things on the screen were buried in the low light. I wanted a better look at some of the wounds or costumes. It was difficult to get my eyeballs on some strong visual aspects of the picture.
Score: I always love RZ's choice of music. No exception here. There were two uses of tracks from his latest album that fit right in (they were not rock songs), and I'm glad he chose to use them on the CD/in the movie.
The preview experience was a blast. I met up with half the theater by chance at the Five Guys across from the theater and ate burgers with a bunch of metalhead/Horror fans. We took that positive energy into the theater, applauded at the end and cheered and laughed throughout the picture. Some of the civilians (casual Horror fans who enjoy a good Horror movie, but may not want a severed head performing oral sex on them while watching a movie) clearly were not getting it, but Rob Zombie movies generally aren't for everyone anyway. The folks behind me talked throughout the whole movie. I didn't give a fuck. They were praising the movie and excited. That's a great thing to listen to. It was great to see two Rob Zombie videos for tracks off the album before 31 started. Though I don't think the Q&A will be part of the regular theatrical or VOD experience for moviegoers, I think it greatly added to my enjoyment of the movie. I also think the preview of the making of featurette was a great way to take the audience into Zombie's eye and better understand the creative process of a divisive filmmaker. He's not just sitting behind the camera like the director featured in the movie Hooper, being pretentious and wanting more more more out of his actors whatever the cost and without care. His process is thoughtful. He actors are responsive and the creative endeavor is a group effort.
I truly enjoyed 31, and I hesitated to even write this review solely because I don't want to hear the backlash of negative opinions often offered quite freely in response to a Rob Zombie/divisive filmmaker's work, especially when the responder has not actually seen the film yet. I get off on high energy pictures with good kills, fun violence, an element of comic book Horror villainy and exploitation attributes that make me feel naughty. That's exactly what we have here. As a last note, that 31 takes place on Halloween did not make it feel like a Halloween Horror movie. I suppose I understand the need for that element, but I wouldn't go into this one expecting the next great Halloween Horror movie to add to your October playlist.
You can catch 31 on VOD on September 16th. Limited theatrical on Oct 22nd. No Blu-ray/DVD release date just yet, but Rob Zombie's FaceBook page mentioned they'll post it there first when the date is a go.