I warn you now this is going to be a different sort of Impressions piece. Rather than just focusing on my reaction to one film, I found myself writing this out and realizing that I was responding to Zombie’s career overall. It won’t be a complete break down of how I feel about Zombie’s movies (I might consider doing that later), but I will be touching on different aspects.
I have an odd relationship with Rob Zombie’s films, in that I don’t actually care for most of them but still have some sort of appreciation for him as a director overall. I recently signed up for Shudder and saw that they had 31, and despite being told it was awful, I wanted to give it a go. I went in a bit uncertain of what to expect other than people seem very divided on this film. I came out with mixed opinions. I don’t know that I can say I like this movie, and I was actually extremely bothered by aspects of it, yet I kind of think it might be a highlight of his career.
I warn you now there will be spoilers.
Many people complained that 31 is really just House of 1000 Corpses re-branded, and those people are not wrong. There is a similar plot, in that you have a group of people traveling, they make a stop, they keep going, get stuck and end up in a hellish location, and it turns out it’s all connected back to that original stop. They are both clearly meant to be 70s exploitation films for the modern age. They both up the gore factor as much as they can. They both go for insane visual effects with characters that are all at once fascinating, disgusting, and frightening. They both try to tie sex and violence. Frankly, the list of how these movies are similar could go on.
The reason why knowing this I still call 31 a highlight, instead of a low light like other people do, is because of what House of 1000 Corpses was lacking. On the blog, I was running when I first watched that movie I gave a somewhat unpopular opinion of House. I said that while it had potential and some cool moments it ultimately felt a bit like an early in career college movie. More spit and polish because of the budget than a film done in that stage might have, but still lacking some core elements that would have made it great. Since viewing 31, I have re-watched House, and I stand by that.
31 attempts (again rather obviously) to do many of the same things that Zombie attempted to do with House, but now it’s not just the budget that has spit and polish but him as a director. That is not to say it’s a fantastic movie, it’s not, but it does mark how far he has come. He has once again made an exploitation film that attempts to tie itself back to the 70s, his favorite time period and I can respect that, but it has marked improvement.
Does it still have issues? No question.
The hero characters desperately need to be better developed. Venus is the only one who had something going for her to me, in that she looked at all the women around her like a mother looks on a daughter almost. Still, even that aspect was underdeveloped, and she was leagues above everybody else. The motivation behind the characters that run this event would have been cool to touch on more. And there is a hiccup in pacing, in that the group goes from frightened to aggressive with very little push. All of this could be explained by the fact that due to the very nature of the film none of that stuff matters. It’s not about the characters or the pacing it’s about the carnage.
Going off of that there is the fact that there are problematic elements to 31. Things we are supposed to laugh at that are frankly not funny and stuff used to shock that I am more insulted by than truly scared of. Once again it’s trying to be a modern exploitation film, and exploitation films are all problematic, we just need to admit that. However, I think that Zombie could have moved away from some aspects without losing anything.
I liked Brake’s performance as kind of the killer among killers and also appreciated that Zombie once again, despite what conventional horror wisdom would say, really focuses on women in leading roles instead of just being there to die.
Zombie also has certain techniques that he likes to use frequently, and he embraced some and abandoned others in this film. Lords of Salem is looked at as the highlight of his career (which I disagree with, but can get to in another post), but it fell into a lot of Zombie’s technique traps. 31 actually moved away from more of them, and I found that refreshing. It still had some of what you would expect (montage of the characters at the start and end) but didn’t rely too much on what I would consider “typical Zombie moments.” It also moved to his new thing of open-ended endings which some consider a bad thing, and I think works in some films and not in others. It is a decidedly Rob Zombie movie, yet it is not drowning as much in “Zombie” as some of his past films.
All of this again goes back to looking at his major “modern exploitation” films and coming to the conclusion that even though I might not love 31, I can see a marked improvement.
All of that being said we come back on the “bad” side with the fact that 31 might be a little too polished. A lot of exploitation films had some rough edges. House was (in my opinion) too rough, but conversely, 31 might be too polished.
So where do I fall? I mean this post has kind of hit various notes and not really been a look at just 31, and I don’t know that I could do just an Impressions of 31. To be honest, I think it’s because I simply don’t know how I feel about the movie. I did not hate it like a lot of people seem to, in fact, I am sort of confused why there is such a strong adverse reaction to it. I guess I can’t decide where this is any worse than any of the films he has done in the same vein. Perhaps people are bored of his take on exploitation type films, which I can understand, but I still don’t see this as the worst. I was (as mentioned) super bothered by problematic elements, and it made it hard for me to enjoy the experience. I also appreciate some of the kills, visuals, and certainly appreciate seeing that he’s grown as a director.
I would say I recommend this movie to only certain people. If you want gore porn and you can shrug off problematic things you might enjoy this film. If you want a well-developed horror movie move on. This is about being slightly 70s, slightly modern, and all brutal. It will appeal to a particular crowd and completely turn off others. I would argue that I could make that exact statement about a lot of Rob Zombie films, however.