If there’s a filmmaking equivalent to a band “just playing the hits,” that pretty well describes what Rob Zombie does with “31.” From its classic rock and country soundtrack to its cast of lowlifes and carnies, this picture gives the cult director’s fans just what they want — and no more.
After a chilling black-and-white opening where a psychotic clown tortures a priest — followed by home movie-style credits set to an old James Gang tune — “31” introduces an RV full of libertine hicks, road-tripping through rural America. Twenty minutes into the film, their vehicle gets hijacked, and the passengers are taken to a deadly indoor maze, where they’re ordered to fight their way out.
“31” features some of Zombie’s regular ensemble (including Sheri Moon Zombie and Jeff Daniel Phillips as two “contestants” in the murder-maze), supplemented by his usual array of excellent character actors (including Malcolm McDowell as the costumed aristocrat who runs the game).
The film lacks the thematic or narrative complexity of Zombie classics like “The Devil’s Rejects” and “The Lords of Salem.” The sparse, dimly lighted set and straight-line plot hamper “31,” no matter how many chainsaw-wielding Bozos and Hitler-lookalike dwarfs the heroes have to outwit.
Still, the performances are energetic, the dialogue’s flavorfully vulgar, the gore suitably nightmarish. The Rob Zombie brand promises hard-core horror and scuzzy atmosphere, and “31” delivers just that. Even on autopilot, Zombie makes movies that hit hard and leave a stain.
MPAA rating: R, for strong bloody horror violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In limited release