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A ho-hum cats-and-mice game with all the narrative logic of a haunted house, Rob Zombie’s 31 may exist solely as an excuse to put weapons in the hands of actors wearing clown makeup. Malcolm McDowell presides over mayhem from above here, betting with his fellow sadists on which of a handful of victims will survive the longest in the death-game he has constructed. Viewers with no money riding on the outcome may have less reason to care. The director’s name should be good for a modest box-office return, but this outing is cable filler at best.
Sheri Moon Zombie (the helmer’s wife) and Jeff Daniel Phillips lead an RV full of carnies who are trucking from one gig to another when their scuzzy good times are interrupted by a hijacking. Some of their number are killed; five are kidnapped. They find themselves in a cathedral-like hall that, weirdly, adjoins an ill-lit industrial bunker where water is always dripping in the distance and every passageway is a trap door waiting to happen.
McDowell’s “Father Murder,” wearing a powdered wig and French-aristocrat frippery, emerges with two elderly women to tell the captives they’re part of a game he runs every Halloween. They’re meant to try to survive for 12 hours as the old folks send one deranged killer after another to get them, betting along the way on which will survive the longest. After informing each of the astronomical odds set on his or her survival, Father Murder introduces their first tormentor: a shirtless Latino dwarf wearing smudged clown makeup and, for some reason, a swastika on his chest. And it’s off to the races.
The assorted baddies tend to be better at obnoxious threats and silly wardrobe than at killing people; even with control over the site’s jail-cell doors allowing them to trap their quarry, they chip away at the carnies so slowly that Father Murder and company start to worry some might survive the night. Enter Doom-Head (Richard Brake), the only one of their boogeymen with something like a personality, even if it’s one cobbled together from the mannerisms and fetishes of a dozen more memorable movie villains.
Even with a longhaired German giant wearing a tutu and ski goggles on hand, 31 struggles to find images strange enough to get one’s imagination going, and the rationing-out of its bloodshed is listless. There’s not a scary moment in the movie, and its characters are neither likable enough to root for nor so repulsive we eagerly await their deaths. Unimaginative profanity sometimes seems to constitute 70% of the dialogue. But hey, if you go to bed at night hoping to dream of hillbillies in Bozo wigs coming at you with chainsaws, here’s your chance.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production company: Bow and Arrow
Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Kevin Jackson, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Brake
Director-screenwriter: Rob Zombie
Producers: Andy Gould, Rob Zombie, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Mike Elliott, Eddie Vaisman
Director of photography: Dave Daniel
Production designer: Rodrigo Cabral
Costume designer: Carrie Grace
Editor: Glenn Garland
Composer: John 5
Casting director: Nicole Arbusto
Not rated, 102 minutes
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