Much like the serial-killer-themed amusement park ride in House of 1000 Corpses, 31 is a fast and hyper-sensory excursion into a nation’s sickest and bleakest fixations.
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Rob Zombie’s 31 comes from a place of rage. Press interviews surrounding Zombie’s previous film, Lords of Salem (2012), found the director vowing to take a break from the horror genre. Since that time he has described two passion projects in development: Broad Street Bullies, which would follow the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the 1970s, and a biopic of Groucho Marx tentatively titled Raised Eyebrows, which Zombie says would take cues from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) while emphasizing the later stages of the comic’s life. If the press is to be trusted, Zombie’s progress on Bullies has been delayed due to rights complications, and Raised Eyebrows is still in early development.
Enter 31, a partially crowdfunded horror film that gives in completely to the darkest impulses of its genre. The plot is diabolically simple – Halloween, 1976: a group of RV-traveling carnies are ambushed on the road. The survivors wake up inside a vast, labyrinthine warehouse, where they are subjected to a sadistic game: they must spend the next twelve hours trying to survive, while being hunted by sadistic clowns. This game, called “31,” is organized by a seemingly omniscient trio of people who wear powdered wigs and an air of parodied antiquity, led by Malcolm McDowell as Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder.
Intriguingly, the film instantly establishes a confrontational relationship with its audience, wherein its own narrative logic and reliability are called into question. For example, we never learn how these three aristocrats are able to witness the proceedings that we, the audience, are seeing. When Father Murder and his associates muse and bet about the possibilities of the film’s protagonists surviving, I get the sense that Zombie is commenting on the flippant attitude of critical and popular audiences toward violence. The aristocrats’ powdered wigs and 18th-century attire convey an image of propriety, which is viciously and thoroughly undercut by their gleeful organization of the film’s proceedings. Nobody is safe from this film’s scrutiny; even the politest, most well-adorned members of society reveal hideous potential through Zombie’s lens.
Such direct confrontations with the audience are made nowhere clearer than in the opening shot: a long black-and-white take of Doom-Head (Richard Brake), the film’s most vile and dangerous clown, delivering a monologue that prepares us for the film’s moral abyss. “I am not here to elicit an amused response,” Doom-Head repeatedly spits, staring his audience directly in the eyes. It seems that Zombie, forced into returning to his genre-specific origins, has committed completely to the black hole at the center of this film. This is more of what the audience wants: the kind of ethically ambivalent savagery that characterized his first two films, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005) – but he’s not going to succumb. He’s not going to make this fun for us. No, this is a film about literally and figuratively godless spaces, where unthinkable atrocities go unreported and incite the amusement of the sociopathic and faceless elite.
To be sure, the film concerns itself overtly with the imagery of Hell itself: when one of the carnies, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), hides inside a filthy bathroom, she sees the word HELL scrawled in muck on the backs of the stall doors. Not to mention, when the group of captives first awakens, the camera frames the phrase “There ain’t no God in here” scrawled boldly on the side of a concrete pillar and on several other walls. (Recent evidence that this may be a trend can be found in Don’t Breathe (2016), where the blind vet who rapes and kills repeatedly invokes the missing God – which allows him to do as much violence as he pleases.) The eerily godlike spectators might actually be the film’s devils, overseeing the events of their own privately sanctioned underworld. This notion is visualized through the film’s interest in marionettes; I was reminded repeatedly of the philosophy and fiction of Thomas Ligotti, who sees horror’s true face in the possibility of indifferent cosmic puppeteers. These characters are explicitly identified as subservient to the wills of their author; autonomy means nothing, individuality means less.
This is no Lords of Salem, though; Zombie does not give in totally to his most abstract impulses. Instead, he returns to many of the thematic concerns of his pre-2012 works: most clearly, this aligns with House of 1000 Corpses and his Halloween films (2007 and 2009) in its setting – Halloween night in the 1970s, somewhere in the USA. And like those previous films, this is very much a film about the USA, about the ongoing and worsening hangover that followed the death of the hippie movement that characterized the 1960s and ’70s. This is the USA of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and of course John Wayne Gacy. Much like the serial-killer-themed amusement park ride in House of 1000 Corpses, 31 is a fast and hyper-sensory excursion into a nation’s sickest and bleakest fixations.
As a work of visual art, it is a grotesquely pronounced masterwork: gone is the classical composure of Salem. Here, scenes of violence see the camera jittering like a frightened animal; the lens crawls over the actors’ sweaty and panic-stricken faces with claustrophobic closeness. Unusual use of focus sends giant bokeh drifting near the characters’ heads, like colorful omens of death. The editing often recalls the frenetic mania of Corpses, with one scene splicing disturbingly aggressive sex against images of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). The digital evocation of 16mm grit effectively captures the sensory discomfort: this is a wet, grimy, and thoroughly unnerving experience.
The final scene brings to mind the infamous conclusion of The Devil’s Rejects, in which the titular serial killer family charges their car headlong into a police blockade to the blaring soundtrack of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” In 31, Zombie ends off with yet another image of a seemingly endless American highway, scoring provided by Aerosmith’s anthemic “Dream On.” The film’s survivors stare each other down with weapons prepared: one with switchblades, the other with fists. We know who’s going to make it out of this alive, and the answer leaves us feeling hopeless and drained. If it’s optimism and fun that you want, look elsewhere. If you’re prepared to listen to one long scream into the bowels of a nation’s despair, look no further than Rob Zombie’s newest masterpiece.
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Note: All images are taken from the film’s trailers, freely available on YouTube.