Sunday, November 22, 2020

New Flesh: 31 (2016)

The Film: 31 (2016)

What Is It About?: Taking place in 1976, 31 revolves around a quintet of carny friends (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Kevin Jackson) whom get kidnapped on Halloween. Soon, the group finds that they are the unwilling players in a game known as 31, hosted by an enigmatic trio of elders known as Father Murder, Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Gleeson and Jane Carr). It is explained by Father Murder that the object of the game is to see which of the five (if any) can survive twelve hours of siege by an escalating series of villains. All leading up to the protagonists sparring with the chaotic and unhinged Doom-Head (Richard Brake), the film's big bad who intends to finish them off to end the game. Will our heroes win, or will Doom-Head and the elders prevail?

Why Do I Recommend it?

So, 31 isn't exactly a lesser known film like the others I've featured in my New Flesh series thus far. However, I wanted to revisit this film for this month to kick off my Guilty Pleasures-themed content block as it gives me not only an opportunity to talk about my fondness for the film, but also to touch upon its polarizing director: Rob Zombie. A lot of people do not like them some Zombie, often criticizing various aspects of his filmography. Including his casting choices, particularly placing his wife Sheri Moon Zombie in all of his movies, his fascination with the 1970s and Southerners and his dialogue style, among other things. Let it be known: Minus the Halloween remakes he made, I think Zombie's films are a total blast and generally enjoy his filmmaking style (or, dare I even say, his auteurship?), and 31 is no exception to that. While 31 isn't some high art film, it's not trying to be that and it (mostly) works at what its trying to achieve. 31 especially is an entertaining experience if you choose to view it as I do: A cinematic video game.

31's structure lends itself to this reading pretty well: As summarized above, the film centers around the protagonists being forced into playing a game by the trio of elders. The three transform the unwilling participants into cyphers for the audience to insert themselves into, taking away the group's numbers and referring to them only by numbers, one through five respectively, and assigning each character betting odds in regards to their chances of survival. The commodification of the characters allows for 31's audience themselves to pick a "player" for themselves, albeit by passively investing in one (as the cinematic format permits) instead of actively playing the role of them within the game. During said game, they face down a series of villains (or bosses, if we're committing to the video game reading) that each get their own introductory scene and each increase in difficulty to fight. Which leads into the final act, in which the remaining protagonists have to square off with the final boss, Doom-Head. The climax revolves around Doom-Head facing off with the last person standing, which happens to be Charly, allowing for the audience to insert themselves into a direct avatar.

The introduction to 31 within 31, setting up the rules and the read of the film as a video game in film format

There are other elements comparable to video games, such as the film's rhythm: After the game plot kicks off, the film settles into a pattern of a transitional scene with the protagonists (known in video games as cut scenes), a villain/boss intro scene, and then a fight sequence. For example, after the introduction of the game 31 to the reluctant players (cut scene), the characters (and the audience) are introduced to the first of the villains/bosses, Sick Head, and then the film immediately transitions to the main five's fight against Sick Head, already in progress. This is sometimes broken up by scenes of the characters exploring their environment (a feature in certain video games that choose to have expansive environments), such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show homage involving the characters having "dinner" and, during the climax, Charly wandering outside in the daylight until she finds the house in which she ends the game with Doom-Head. With all of this in mind, it's visible how the film can be read, at least partially, as a cinematic video game.

Another example of the film's video game qualities: The intro sequence and fight against mini-bosses Death Head and Sex Head

That's not to sell the rest of the movie short, as there's other qualities that make 31 worth watching: In general, it's a fun action horror flick with some great set pieces, especially the battle sequence between the protagonists and Schizo Head and Psycho Head that features a character named Georgina that meets a gnarly end and the film's prologue, which is essentially a six minute monologue from Doom Head as he toys with a priest before killing him. Speaking of Doom Head, the one aspect of 31 even its critics typically agree upon standing out is the performance of Richard Brake as Doom Head. And, honestly? It's worth the hype, as Brake totally immerses himself in his role and fully embodies Doom Head. While the cast is generally good, with Meg Foster deserving a mention for making her character the most likable in the film, Brake is the MVP as he manages to pull off the monologue-heavy role that could be a bootleg Joker in the wrong hands. Some mention must also go to the music within the film: Another marker of Rob Zombie's filmography is the heavy use of classic rock songs, and 31 is no exception. Especially noteworthy are the uses of "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & The Papas (A song among my personal favorites), and "Dream On" by Aerosmith for the film's final scene. "Dream On", especially, works as it sets the stage for the implied final no holds barred match between Charly and Doom Head. Successfully embodying the desperation Charly has all the way through the film and leading up to what could be her final moments.

In the end, 31, despite its bad reputation, is an engaging experience of a film, especially when viewed as a video game in film format, and one that has more than its share of merits to be deemed at least worth watching.

Available on: Amazon Prime, Tubi, Hoopla, IMDbTV, iTunes & Amazon

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