★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Rob Zombie
If you went to Sunset Strip and asked a hip-looking millennial what elements exemplified the grindhouse cinema era, what do you think the response would be? Confused? Indifferent? Bored? Titillated? Or do you think they’d start to rattle off a listed of oft-used Rob Zombie tropes and tripe? Funky hats. Salacious carnies. Corny Satanism. A dose of 1970s AM radio one-hit-wonders. R. Crumb inspired iron-on t-shirts. Gritty references to demon weed. Well, chances are, you’d get the entire pastiche of 1970s clichés as funneled through the clumsy prism of the clumsiest auteur there ever once was.
In the course of Mr. Zombie’s six+ feature-length films it has always been a pinch unclear if his vision is well meaning, but ultimately lazy and ill conceived. Or, if his films really do suffer from a lack of creative vision. Each of his films certainly embody a grit and vigor, but more often than not, the thin and dirty veneer is undone by a lack of plot and character development. Of all of his films, 2016’s 31, suffers from this particular lack of focus.
31 is a period piece set in 1976, and while 1976 was an interesting year for our country, it is entirely unclear why, other than trotting out a stale sample of the James Gang’s song, Funk 49, Mr. Zombie would choose to set the film in 1976. Was 1976 more frightening to focused-grouped millennials? Are people terrified by the concept of grindhouse films? Don’t look for answers here because you won’t find them. What you will find is a rag-tag group of dirty-sleazy carny hippies who are abducted by a group called the “Heads” who force the carny hippies to fight for their lives over the course of 12 hours. Why 12 hours? Why is the game called 31? Why are there five sets of psychopathic “Heads” — Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, and Sex-Head? Again, turn off the old thinker and let Mr. Zombie tell his story.
What unfolds are five very gruesome, brutal, and vile torture scenes. Really, that’s it. The protagonists are placed in to the 31 maze, they get in to a series of fight-to-the-death skirmishes with the “Heads”, and the beatings, stabbings, and choppings commence. Why? Doesn’t matter. Each run-in with the “Heads” is a chance for Mr. Zombie to fetishistically roll out another series of actors who appeared in films that symbolize the grindhouse era of cinema. Unfortunately, this is one of the only redeeming qualities of his filmmaking prowess, but this too is ill-conceived. To wit, while it’s nice to see Welcome Back Kotter’s Freddy “Boom-Boom” Washington still kicking around on the silver screen, there’s no reason to clumsily force a Jamaican patois on his otherwise so/so character. There is a joke about a doobie early on in the film, but it seems highly unnecessary for Zombie to manufacture already tired and boorish stereotypes. Unsatisfied with a clunky Jamaican patois? Try a psychopathic dwarf dressed as a shirtless Hitler with a Hispanic accent. Why? Just let it wash over you and enjoy the killing. That’s why.
The only real dramatic tension in the film rises and falls (read: mostly falls) around the question about whether the salacious carnies will escape the sadistic “Heads.” The answer, spoiler alert, is not really. That’s precisely the problem with 31, amongst other things, the viewing audience has no real investment in the characters – good or bad. There’s no exposition, there’s no character development, and ultimately no reason to speculate about the fate of the carnies.
When the film was originally released in 2016 it was edging towards a hard NC-17. In fact, after viewing two cuts of the film, the MPAA still noted that 31 was “…sadistic graphic violence, bizarre sexuality/nudity, pervasive disturbing images and some strong language.” After a nip here and a tuck there, Mr. Zombie was able to eke out an R rating that the MPAA judiciously characterized as “strong bloody horror violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use.” For the record, the Scariest Things Podcast is all for sadistic graphic violence, but at the end of the day there needs to be a reasonable rationale for such repulsive exploits.
31 is Rated R or NC-17 and available for streaming on Shudder.