The best compliment anyone can give 31 is that it may be the most Rob Zombie film Rob Zombie has ever made. It’s a bleak and hopeless parade of brutality and nihilism that features all the devilishly charming aesthetics of the musician-turned-filmmaker’s previous works. If The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses somehow collided with a locked room thriller that lacked any real plot, this would be the result.
It’s honestly surprising a film as ruthlessly violent as this can even exist in a time where society is arguably more conservative than it has been in decades. In a time where the world is debating the legitimacy of ’safe spaces’ and the need for ‘trigger warnings,’ Rob Zombie has delivered his most fetishized take on horrific acts of evil to date with 31. The film follows five carnival workers who are kidnapped and forced to play a game where they must fight for survival against a wide array of increasingly over-the-top lunatics whose only goal is killing each of them as viciously as possible for the entertainment of gambling aristocrats wearing Victorian-era wigs. It takes roughly 20 minutes for the game to begin, and another hour and 20 minutes for the story to reach its conclusion. Everything that happens in between is the stuff of nightmares.
You might wonder how someone like Rob Zombie can continually up the evil ante when his previous films have featured such gut-churning acts as sexually violating someone with a loaded gun and forcing beaten women to wear a mask made out of their dead lover’s face, but the events that unfold in 31 make those sequences seem almost tame in comparison. Between the neo-Nazi little person, the two men wielding chainsaws while dressed as clowns, the sex slave stitched to a board with wire (who is also sawed in half from her vagina to her head), the knife-wielding nymphomaniac, and a scene-chewing Malcolm McDowell appearance that borders on the kind of zany one only expects from the likes of Nicolas Cage—not to mention numerous other horrors—31 has something that is sure to turn off anyone who takes time to seek it out. Unless phrases like “I’m going to f*ck you in all your holes” being uttered by blood-covered clowns fails to make you cringe, 31 is going to leave you unsettled.
The problem with 31 isn’t necessarily its violence or shock factor, but rather that it lacks a story and any real sense of character development. Like all Zombie creations, 31 is a film about bad people who somehow find themselves in even worse situations, which in turn means they must stoop lower than ever before in order to survive. Some will find this exploration of the gutter entertaining, while those who have protested Zombie’s previous works will be more offended than ever before. I can personally take or leave the dark aesthetic, but I cannot stand hateful acts done for no other reason than the sake of so-called entertainment. If he were a better storyteller, Zombie may have tried to tie in the fact that people watch movies like 31 to see the motivations of the people controlling the game within the movie, but even that is too high-brow for this film.
I have no doubt that certain die-hard gore hounds will find plenty to love in 31. However, I can’t imagine a world where anyone unfamiliar with Rob Zombie’s particular brand of filmmaking walks away with a new passion for the veteran storyteller’s aesthetic. This is a mean-spirited movie that offers nothing of lasting value, and it struggles to maintain whatever minuscule amount of entertainment it can create over the course of its near two-hour runtime. Worse still is the fact that the film offers almost nothing new for Zombie fans to embrace or discover. It’s more of the same, only somehow it all feels less engaging than ever before. You’ll want to talk about it, but more than likely not in the way Zombie and the other people involved in this project desire.