J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sundance ’16: 31

There are thirty-one days in October. Baskin-Robbins has thirty-one flavors and Rob Zombie probably knows at least that many disembowelment techniques. Two of those will apply here. It is Halloween 1976 and the sickos behind Murder World are holding their annual survival game. The freaky faux-aristocrats will place their wagers, but it hard to understand why, considering how thoroughly they have rigged the contest. Not surprisingly, the bodies quickly pile up in Zombie’s 31, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

At least the 1970’s setting gives Zombie the opportunity to use some twangy, era-appropriate Southern Rock. Those are exactly the sort of tunes a scuffling, fly-by-night carnival would listen to as they drive through miles and miles of lonely highway. When they stop to clear a Blair Witch-looking road block, we can tell it is a trap, but they blunder into it nonetheless.

When the five survivors come to, there are informed they are the contestants in this year’s game of 31. If they can survive twelve hours in the post-industrial hunting ground than they win a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni and Turtle Wax. If not, they’ll be painfully dead. Their first designated hunter will be Sick-Head, the diminutive National Socialist psychopath. No sir, don’t you expect any subtlety here.

Frankly, 31 brings very little to distinguish it from the field of Most Dangerous Game exploitation knock-offs, including so-so predecessors like Preservation, Black Rock, Paintball, and Raze. Heck, there is even the awkwardly similar Carnage Park also playing in the midnight section this year. All of them are pretty darn bleak, which makes Raimund Huber’s Kill ‘Em All such a breath of fresh air in comparison. In the Thai martial arts beatdown, two contestants are actually vengeance-seekers who have knowingly infiltrated the brutal game of attrition, giving us something 31 and its ilk never offer: hope for payback.

Instead, Zombie just sets up his carny characters like bowling pins, knocking them down one-by-one. Everything is very methodical, with no reversals or detours permitted. It is certainly violent, but the predictability gets perversely boring.

It is a shame, because the colorful ensemble cast has plenty of genre potential. Meg Foster (They Live) is a wonderfully earthy presence as carnival owner Venus Virgo and Sheri Moon Zombie has real action cred as their exotic dancer Charly. Welcome Back Kotter’s Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs adds 1970s authenticity as Panda Thomas, the carny manager. Zombie also earns double genre points for casting Malcolm McDowell as the powered wig-donning mastermind. Yet, none of them ever have a chance to surprise us.

Zombie does have a distinctively grungy sweat-hog aesthetic, but it only gets us so far. A little suspense would help considerably, but we know how this will end right from the start. If gruesomely inventive deaths are enough for you, than have at 31 when it screens this Saturday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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