31

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

31 - the story of five carnies kidnapped on Halloween morning 1976 and held hostage in a remote industrial hell. While trapped, they are forced to play a violent game called 31. The mission is to survive 12 hours against an endless gang of grease-painted maniacs.
"It's exploitation cinema but it's made with care."

Few filmmakers have grown up in public in quite the way Rob Zombie has. From early efforts that were the cinematic equivalent of finger painting and played like MTV with added gore, he's come a long way, picking up scraps of technique at every stage. With this film, he has finally come of age. There's a new cinematic vocabulary on display and, more importantly, his own voice has started to come through.

Perhaps it's odd to suggest that somebody who has managed to attract such a dedicated fan following as Zombie had not previously communicated with a clear voice, but whilst the violence and the brashness of his work gave it a distinctive character, he was limited in what he was able to express beyond that. 31 is set in the Seventies and is to some extent pastiche, but he has understood the cinema he's playing with well. The central characters are well drawn, their relationships to one another efficiently communicated, and although he packs in a lot of stylistic quirks popular in the period, they don't detract from his story. This is thanks in part to the excellent work of cinematographer David Daniel and editor Glenn Garland, who give form to his still chaotic vision. It's exploitation cinema but it's made with care.

Copy picture

This is important because the story here is a familiar one, even if it's nicely framed. An overlong but endearingly camp introduction by psychopathic killer Doom-Head (Richard Brake) segues into the story of a group of hippie carnival performers travelling the dusty backroads of America in their beat-up van. After stopping in a small town on the 30th of October, they find their route blocked by voodoo scarecrows in the middle of the road. Somebody has set an ambush. Before they know it they are chained up in a spectacular baroque theatre where bewigged aristocrats (led by a quiet but still charismatic Malcolm McDowell) take bets on how long each of them will survive a labyrinth of terrors. After that it's full on Running Man stuff, but with fewer one-liners and more of that trademark gore.

Although the running round the corridors and screaming section is the least interesting part of the film, it still hangs together pretty well. Most of the bad guys have personality that goes beyond their promotional schtick, and Zombie knows when to bring us back to the relationships between the heroes that make us care about them. Sheri Moon Zombie makes a fierce and likeable lead and has a chemistry with her husband's camera that recalls some of the screen's greatest director-star love affairs. Jeff Daniel Phillips also works well, coming across like a Nick Cave character having a particularly bad day. Brake's end of level boss has unexpected depth, though viewers familiar with the bdsm scene are likely to pick up on more of this than others. There's an erotic element to much of the violence but, more than that, there are jokes directly aimed at those who recognise it.

Though some scenes drag, the pacing is generally good and the film effectively creates the sense of an exhausting physical and emotional journey that is vital to the myth pattern on which stories like this are built. To put it more simply, this is fun. It has energy and it has personality. Zombie is not (yet) up there with the greats, but this is superior trash.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2016
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31 packshot
A group of carnival performers are kidnapped and forced to fight for their lives in a deadly maze.
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