DECEMBER 21, 2016
It legitimately angered me that I wasn't able to see Rob Zombie's 31 in theaters during its confusing theatrical run last fall, where it played for one night (one SHOW, actually) on September 1st or something like that, then again two weeks later for a more traditional run, albeit one I could never find. Per BoxOfficeMojo it actually played until about Halloween, but damned if I ever saw a theater playing it. It is the only one of his films that I haven't seen theatrically, and probably will remain so as it's not likely to have any revival screenings anytime soon/ever. But it's more than my collectivist "gotta see em all!" mentality that annoys me about missing the film on the big screen - it's because I seem to be among the relatively few people who enjoyed the damn thing, now that I've seen it on Blu-ray and spent a good chunk of the viewing wondering what people hated so much about it.
Granted, this might be the most "fan-friendly" movie Zombie has done yet, so if you're not already on board with his sensibilities I can't imagine this would change your mind - it'd be like buying a greatest hits album from a band you've never liked hoping to finally become a fan. As several people have pointed out, if someone never saw a Rob Zombie movie before and had to guess what it was about, demented clowns killing carnies on Halloween would probably be the scenario they imagined, and that's pretty much exactly what this is, with the only question mark being "is Sheri Moon one of the clowns or the carnies?" She's one of the carnies, as it turns out, and with the film often recalling his Devil's Rejects films it's interesting to see her as the heroine instead of villain this time around.
But, Halloween aside, I AM a fan of his films (and really, it's only the stuff he swiped from Carpenter that I really don't like in his first Halloween; I've always said I like the institution stuff - i.e. when he was at his most creative), and while I would have liked to see him branching out again like he did on the underrated Lords of Salem, it's also fun to see him back in his comfort zone, fully embracing the things he likes. Let's put it this way - if he didn't make this movie, in 20 years some big fan of his WOULD, calling it an homage/tribute to Rob Zombie (not unlike the way Neil Marshall's Doomsday was a tribute to Road Warrior and Escape from New York), so I like that Zombie just already made his own homage. AND he got fans to pay for it (the film was crowdfunded), which I appreciate as well; I'm not big on the idea of making movies this way (especially from proven commodities), but I love that Rob got his supporters to fund the exact movie his detractors often accuse him of making. There's something kind of beautifully dickish about that!
So as a fan, I knew what I was in for - the endless F-bombs, the sleaziness (one major villain character is introduced vigorously sodomizing a woman who is just as into it), the horror references (said villain is also watching Nosferatu at the time), etc. But for whatever reason I didn't know that the heroes were adults; I thought it was a group of kids for some reason (I didn't know Sheri was one of the good guys beforehand), so when the protagonists were introduced and included Meg Foster in their number, I got more interested. There's something pretty compelling to me about a woman who is in her sixties going through these motions; there's less of that tragic sense of "their whole life was ahead of them" that you get from the better slasher movies (or if you're just oversensitive) and more of "This woman has probably dealt with enough shit in her life, she doesn't need this too". When Foster dons a chainsaw and fights back against one of the murderous clowns, it's a terrific moment (and the one that had me pause the film to tweet that I really didn't understand why so many people hated this one).
As for the villains, they're ridiculous caricatures and little more; all named ____ Head (Doom-Head, Psycho-Head, etc) and pretty much only in two or three scenes each. While I won't say who lives or dies among the heroes, I don't think it's spoiling much to say that the movie carries on the grand horror tradition of presenting a scenario that the villains have seemingly succeeded at dozens of times in the past, but THIS TIME the tables are turned as their new would-be victims apparently become the first ones to ever put up a good fight back. The title is also the name of the game, played out every Halloween and hosted by Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson, in full Barry Lyndon-type garb for no real reason (I won't deny that it makes for a fine visual, however). They offer odds on each members' survival and, when a Head is dispatched, discuss among themselves who to bring in next. So it's kind of got a Running Man vibe in that regard; when the heroes take down one of these renowned killers an even bigger bad is brought in, until they are forced to go with a notorious monster of a man who will assuredly bring them the quick victory that has eluded them this time around. They'd make great toys or model kits, and each one has their own little hook, but there's an episodic nature to their introduction/departure that gives the film a bit of a repetitious feel - it might have been more fun to spring them all at once and let it play out as a five on five deathmatch throughout.
That said, it never really gets boring, and Zombie keeps the scenery changing just enough to keep it from seeming too samey, impressive for a low-budget movie shot in a warehouse. There's a circus type room, some typical tunnels, even a few exteriors - like the villains, there's a sense of progression that elevates it above what it could have easily been in the hands of a less capable filmmaker. Because, and I'll never stop repeating this, Rob Zombie IS a really great director, he just needs a writing partner to flesh out his films and maybe keep them from feeling like they're all part of the same skeevy universe. Lords of Salem felt like a step in that direction, and I can't help but wonder if it was more of a success if he would have continued down that path and maybe even felt compelled to direct someone else's script for a change (the closest he's gotten to letting anyone else write his stuff is when he copied what Carpenter and Hill already wrote in 1978). On paper this is probably close to terrible, but his visual sense keeps it engaging; the film is actually quite great looking at times (particularly in the rare daylight scenes) and, as you will see on more than one occasion on the making of documentary, he's constantly working to make his sets and backdrops more alive. This isn't a guy who will just defer to his DP and production designers while taking the credit as the director, he really gets in there and makes sure his low budget isn't reflected by what's on-screen.
In fact, if you know you'll hate the movie (or already do) I would like to encourage you to rent the disc just to watch the documentary (if you have time, that is - it runs 132 minutes) and see how hands-on he is - you'll see him lugging parts of the set around and dressing them accordingly, and going over nooks and crannies with the crew instead of just sitting in his chair waiting for them to do everything like some of his peers are happy to do. His lack of a filter is also on full display (when a crew member doesn't show up, he mocks him and says that they got a replacement that was better anyway - heh), and you don't even really have to watch the whole thing to see that love or hate the guy, you have to admit he doesn't phone anything in when it comes to the actual directorial craft (it's the writing process that seems to be where he rushes through things). Unlike Michael Lives, it also feels more like a real doc; once again the post production process is skipped over entirely, but there is more with the actors and other crew to round it out, as opposed to that other "doc" which just felt like four hours of random behind the scenes footage. And thankfully very little of what we learn here is repeated on his commentary, which does get into the writing a bit more and offers a few more of his hilariously blunt observations ("No idea who any of these people are" he mutters over the executive producers' credit), though as with his writing, I wish he'd bring someone in on his tracks as they tend to be pretty dry for the most part, and he clearly gets bored after a while - perhaps if he was joined by Sheri or one of his longtime crew he might have a little more fun.
Now that I think about it, even the "preaching to the choir" kind of complaints aren't totally fair. Sheri aside (and Jeff Daniel Phillips, who follows his solid LoS turn to prove he's actually a fairly engaging actor, which I never would have guessed from his Halloween II stuff), he keeps his regular acting troupe to a minimum, working with more newcomers while NOT bringing in his go-tos (Ken Foree, Sid Haig, William Forsythe, etc. are nowhere to be found), and he's never dealt with a confined location before, either (House of 1000 Corpses kept cutting to that one girl's dad out and about, if you recall). And the Halloween setting is about as significant as Thanksgiving is to Blood Rage (meaning: not at all), so even things that seem like he's copying himself aren't really doing that. He also returns to composing for the first time since 1000 Corpses, working with John 5 and others and doing a pretty good job (though I must admit my favorite cue was clearly a lift from The Fog theme). It's not his best film by any means (it's actually his weakest after Halloween, but again I'm a fan of them all so that's not really a dis), but I think it deserves a fairer shake than I've seen it get so far (I remember even some of my fellow Lords of Salem defenders telling me how awful this was after its Sundance screening), and perhaps now that people can easily find the goddamn thing it will earn a few more fans. All I know for sure is, he hasn't lost any of my support with his work here, and as always I look forward to what he does next.
(In film, that is - I never have liked his music either with White Zombie or solo, ironically enough.)
What say you?