It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"31," a surprisingly effective new horror flick about a group of carnies who are kidnapped and hunted by murderous clowns, doesn't feel like business as usual for the writer/director Rob Zombie. Sure, you can find all the touchstones of Zombie's burgeoning filmography here, including foul-mouthed circus folk, surprisingly well-composed handheld digital photography, and a slew of character actors that only diehard horror nuts will recognize. And the run-and-kill, "Most Dangerous Game"-style plot is strictly boilerplate: foppish aristocrats abduct a group of carnies and bet on who will live and who will die.
But Zombie's characteristically infectious personality and abrasive style of filmmaking gives "31" an unusual urgency that pulls together otherwise familiar elements and makes them cohere into a dire polemic. Granted, Trump and Clinton supporters can just as easily see their respective opponents as the piece's real villains: some of the evil clowns identify themselves as Nazis and/or misogynists, and the aristocrats pulling their strings represent an established hierarchy of jaded kings and king-makers. But there's a hard, albeit idiosyncratically expressed, political core to the film that makes it a perfect election season horror film that forces a complaisant community of outsiders to fight for their lives.
What will you do, Zombie seems to ask: bow down to the rich demagogues who pit you against your fellow men? Or will you fight for yourself, and cut down the people who willingly accept dehumanizing roles?
There's no middle ground in "31," though the film's antagonists are eventually revealed to be just as human as Zombie's lead protagonists. As they chase each other, both groups—the good-natured carnies led by Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and the killer clowns headed by sadistic killer Doomhead (Richard Brake)—egg each other on as if they were sitting in a dunk tank, daring rubes to hit the target and send them reeling. But the main difference between the two groups is fairly simple: Charly's gang works together to survive while Doomhead's crew are tools of evil masters Father Doom (Malcolm McDowell) and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr).