Rob Zombie is well known for his gritty, unrelentingly violent style of filmmaking, as seen in works of his such as The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and Halloween (2007). For the most part, his films tend to consistently receive mixed reviews, although he’s gained a cult following based on his raw, gory content, and recognizable style. I did enjoy The Devil’s Rejects to some extent. I appreciate Zombie’s unflinching depiction of “man’s inhumanity to man,” as it makes the viewer uncomfortable much in the way that Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) does. However, there was definitely something missing, because there’s one thing that a Rob Zombie film will always be, and that’s style over substance. 31 is no different. In fact, I think it supports this notion more than any other Zombie film I’ve seen.
The film follows a group of carnies who are ambushed, kidnapped, and subsequently forced to fight for survival in a house of horrors (of sorts). From the very beginning, all the characters are unbearably annoying and difficult to really empathize with. This alone causes the film to fall flat in that the endangerment of the characters is the main source of tension throughout. All semblance of a story basically disintegrates once the characters wake up in the building where they’re being kept. From this point until the end of the film, all plot points are simply, ‘these guys are gonna try and kill them, then these other guys are gonna try and kill them.’ This monotonous style of storytelling makes the 102-minute runtime feel double that.
In contrast with its lackluster plot and dull array of characters, all other aspects of 31 are so far over the top that it feels like it was made by a teenager who recently discovered cursing. And 4chan. The villains in the film are three Victorian-era-looking old aristocrats who enlist the help of vicious, psychopathic killers to terrorize the captured carnies in hopes of killing them in brutal fashion. The killers are some of the most ridiculous characters to the point that they are far more laughable than scary. The only example you really need is the first killer, a Spanish-speaking, knife-wielding dwarf with an enormous swastika painted on his chest. The other killers are all designed to be similarly ridiculous, foul-mouthed characters, making the film progression a constant eye roll.
Finally, because this film had truly no redeeming characteristics, let me address the cinematography. The camerawork in this film takes handheld to a whole new level, and in the worst way possible. I, for one, am a huge proponent of the handheld camera; however, 31‘s camerawork is so shaky, dark, and jarringly chaotic that it’s truly hard to follow. While I absolutely understand that the chaos serves the plot and tone of the film, it’s to the point where it genuinely muddles the progression of the story, and truly only confuses and distracts. Overall, this film fell far short of what I expected from a new Rob Zombie film, and actually made me feel as if Zombie is devolving rather than progressing as a filmmaker.