Sunday, October 23, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: 31 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Jane Carr, Richard Brake, Lew Temple, Daniel Roebuck, Pancho Moler, David Ury, Torsten Voges, E.G. Daily, Esperanza America, Andrea Dora, Michael "Redbone" Alcott, Tracey Walter, Ginger Lynn Allen, Devin Sidell. (R, 103 mins)

Earlier this year, critic/blogger Jason Coffman wrote a fascinating piece about horror fandom that went viral and quite frankly deserves a Pulitzer. It was filled with things that needed to be said, such as, in no uncertain terms, that horror fans are the worst. Of course, that's a gross generalization on my part that wasn't exactly Coffman's central thesis, but he questioned why a very vocal contingent of horror fans--he called them the "gatekeepers"--had such vehemently negative reactions to thoughtful, serious horror films that received significant accolades from critics outside of horror circles. The piece was written specifically in response to audiences turning on THE WITCH, but it also referenced similarly acclaimed offerings like THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS. To reject original, thought-provoking films that fall in the horror realm, to question their genre validity because they've been praised by those outside the insulated horror bubble, Coffman posited, is to "reinforce the image of the 'horror fan' as a slack-jawed dullard whose only interests are sex and gore."

Well, he's right. And you can thank the gatekeepers for 31, the latest film from horror/metal icon Rob Zombie. Financed in large part by crowdfunding, 31 is Zombie's gift to his fans, the gatekeepers who adore him. To criticize Zombie--to even question him--is verboten in horror gatekeeper circles. Zombie is a guy who knows and loves horror movies. It showed in his days fronting the band White Zombie, itself named after the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic. But after 16 years and with six feature films under his belt, shouldn't there be some kind of progress by now?  I'll give Zombie props where it's due: his second film, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, is his masterpiece, a definitive mission statement that melded the '70s aesthetic of Tobe Hooper and hillbilly horror with the operatically bloody ferocity of Sam Peckinpah. It's foul, it's vile, it's difficult to watch--and it's incredibly powerful and an unforgettable experience. And Zombie's never come close to it since. His entire filmmaking career seems to be an endless, circle-jerking tribute to 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. His 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN is a disjointed fusion of his usual hicksploitation horror before shifting gears to became a condensed, pointless remake of the 1978 original, while the less said about his 2009 HALLOWEEN II, the better. 2013's THE LORDS OF SALEM was ultimately a misfire that lost its way as it devolved into sub-Jodorowsky shock imagery, but it had a weird '70s Satanism vibe going on, like 1973's MESSIAH OF EVIL if directed by Stanley Kubrick. It wasn't a success, but Zombie was at least making a concerted effort to work outside of his comfort zone for the majority of the film.

31 finds Zombie back in his comfort zone and on total autopilot. His 2003 debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (shot in 2000 and left in distribution limbo for three years), is a terrible movie but it at least has the excuse of being a debut. What's his excuse for 31? It's like an "extreme" version of his already "extreme" schtick, but his abilities seem to be regressing. He's so reliant on in-your-face shaky-cam and garish lighting (including a strobe-lit sequence) that a good chunk of the film is visually incoherent. And the plot? The same shit. It's set on Halloween 1976 and a bunch of hard-partying carnival workers who say "fuck" a lot are lured into the middle of nowhere to take part in "31." It's a MOST DANGEROUS GAME-type contest overseen by a trio of foppish Brits, dressed as grotesque aristocrats in powdered wigs and pancake makeup like they're going to a midnight showing of BARRY LYNDON: Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson), and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr). The five carnies--headed by Zombie's usual star, wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly--have to overcome unbeatable odds to survive the night as they face off against their opponents hellbent on slaughtering them. The killers are an increasingly ludicrous collection of ROAD WARRIOR rejects in clown makeup: Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a demented little person in a Hitler stache and with a swastika painted on his chest; Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), a pair of chainsaw-wielding brothers; and the cartoonishly Germanic Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and the fetishist Sex-Head (E.G. Daily). Not all of the carnies make it, but once that initial lineup is defeated, Father Murder calls in his ace closer Doom-Head, a maniac prone to pretentious, philosophical Quentin Tarantino-esque monologues and played in a grating, headache-inducing fashion by Richard Brake in what might be 2016's most unbearable performance that will nonetheless inspire countless insufferable cosplayers at horror cons for the next decade.

Like Tarantino, Zombie has favorite cult actors he likes to use repeatedly--McDowell, Geeson, Daily, Meg Foster, Daniel Roebuck, and former porn star Ginger Lynn Allen have been in past Zombie films (Geeson came out of a decade-long retirement to co-star in THE LORDS OF SALEM)--and here he even gives us a prominent role for Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, best known as Sweathog Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington on WELCOME BACK KOTTER 40 years ago, here playing Panda, one of the doomed carnies. It's nice to see Hilton-Jacobs again, but it's too bad he's using an overdone Jamaican accent that renders most of his dialogue unintelligible. You'll wish more of the dialogue was unintelligible when you see Foster (as carny Venus Virgo) gesticulating around her crotch and saying "fucky fucky fucky, juicy juicy juicy, money money money" and witness this enlightening conversation between carny Levon (Kevin Jackson) and a cackling Sick-Head (note: transcription double-checked for accuracy):

Levon: "Fuck you."
Sick-Head: "Fuck you!"
Levon: "Fuck you!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!"
Levon: "FUCK YOU!!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!!!"

A louder and somehow even more obnoxious HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES peppered with shout-outs to Tobe Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE, 31 is obviously intended for the Rob Zombie superfans and is more or less a greatest hits package, from the splattery violence to the endless vulgarity to resemblance of the "Heads" to Captain Spaulding and the Firefly clan to the ersatz Peckinpah WILD BUNCH freeze-frames and the opening credits featuring a Southern rock favorite (in this case, the James Gang's "Walk Away"). If you're one of the Rob Zombie gatekeepers, then you decided this "fuckin' ruled" before he even started filming. 31 is for you. Go enjoy yourself. You've seen it all before--and better--but hey, this is what you wanted.

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