There's an interesting question that can be presented when asking what it means for an artist, in this case a director, to "sell out". When this discussion comes out a lot of people state that this is the point where a creator allows their work to be taken away from the original artistic goal or intention of their work in order to turn larger profits, though some say this is as simple as said creator intentionally making their work more generally accessible for the general public, perhaps creating a more simple project with less discussion or interpretation to worry about. I, personally, think the very idea of "selling out" makes little sense, because these choices are almost always exclusively in the hands of the same creator, so you have a back-and-forth argument against the intention of a creator and the actual merit of artistic design. It's far from an impenetrable discussion, but it's one that I've always found completely pointless to insist there is a direct answer for, though I have found some interesting arguments on whether or not selling out is inherently a bad thing when we discuss it in this capacity. My initial ramble here has a lot to do with how people, and the creator himself, have taken to Rob Zombie's newest film "31", which I only view as relevant, because it's kind of a direct effect on how I felt about the film, overall, and I'm a huge fan of nearly all of Zombie's films, to this point, and I wouldn't feel good about reviewing this without a preface... also, it annoys me that a fucking Rob Zombie movie is the first film in a long time that's filled me with this kind of conflicting emotion.
Review by Ginose
Added: September 23, 2016
It's probably best to discuss the film's plot on the simplest terms, which are really the only terms that would do it any justice, set on the Halloween of 1976 a traveling carnival's crew is passing through a long stretch of desert on set to their next destination, when they are assaulted, and five of them are kidnapped. Upon regaining their consciousness they are introduced to a trio of eccentric deviants taking on the roles of some cartoonish game organizers who present to them that they will be participating in an annual game known as 31: A war game in which the participants are assigned odds of survival in a 12-hour survival game against a constant assault of contracted killers, with varying theatrical gimmicks and a wide range of personalities and specifications. As the nights goes on, blood is shed and odds are shifted, but the goal and message are the same: War is hell, and surviving this private hell is going to push the contestants to the limits of their physical ability and sanity.
Now, as I said, it's a simple plot to guide a simple premise to its logical conclusion, which is a typical Zombie orgy of violence and manic chaos, but there isn't much to how the film gets there, and the story is paced in such a way that this simplicity is hardly a weakness of the film. Truth be told, on its own merits the film really doesn't have many weaknesses, though the point against this is that none of its strengths, in the plot department, really make it break out against a lot of other Rob Zombie films... a whole head over the vast majority of modern horror films but those are not the films I'm comparing this too, as they are hardly the ones that set my expectations going in. My ramble at the beginning sort of came from a discussion Zombie actually had during a Q&A at the end of the screening, in which he admitted that this film was most similar to what the conventional expectations of his films seem to be, form the general populace, despite the fact that he'd rarely made anything even similar: With the lengths he went to make this movie (crowd-funding and the like) the project seemed, conceptually, like a personal beat that he was really excited to get into production, so why go for something as conventional in concept as what people have come to expect? I can hardly criticize it, in that respect, but it sets an odd standard that kind of preemptively protects itself from such criticism.
This kind of seems like a load of shit to try to chop through, but I assure you, it's not an enormous problem, as the film still excels in every route it attempts to. It's a massively impressive feat to see a film that adapts so well to the modern horror ideologies while still feeling like a completely unhinged B-film, and it doesn't lack in its technical merits, either. Long and short of it is that NONE of Rob Zombie's filmmaking style is wasted here, and it's super easy to be completely invested in a Zombie film when you can see all the appreciation he puts into the material he draws inspirations from, and there's a specific reason he adheres so closely to the horror genre for just that reason.
The movie looks exactly like a Rob Zombie film should: Nasty and unwelcoming. Every scene in the underground arena is about as unwelcoming as you can expect with the characters on display, as each level shows a distinctly disturbing and distrusting atmosphere that kind of ties the thematically disjointed atmosphere and tends to leave you in just as winded a state as the pacing does, but it manages to keep from being boring nor too overwhelming. The characters, from personality to aesthetic, are really the main draw of this one and you can determine pretty early whether or not this will be one to stick with nearly as soon as the movie really gets underway; you won't fall too far from the experience, as it progresses, as this is the kind of film that doesn't tend to linger too long, and the next scene is always just about to happen, even when you're sitting around kind of expecting it to happen. Though even though the pacing is perfect, most of the time, it still leaves a lot for you to kind of get excited for, on your own, specifically in the plot department because what I described four paragraphs ago is pretty much it. I mean, there are a lot of unknown factors going on for the villains throughout, but none of them really affect the direction or style of the story proper, which is kind of important, but there's hardly a lot to cling onto and you'll easily find yourself bored if the style proper doesn't really appeal to you, which I can see happening if excess and violence doesn't hold to you.
Still performance wise the film is kind of... mixed. I don't think anyone works too far out of their element, and a lot of that grows to meet that potential... ehhh, however: With characters this ridiculous you will be powerfully torn with how you want to view them, as characters. Whereas more people may be expecting, and indeed perfectly okay with, the villains to be the massive camp classics that they are acting out as, the protagonists hitting a lot of the same notes may get a bit wearing for the uninitiated to the style of b-movie formula and standards that come with it, but you may also be able to ignore that if you can accept that the characters are hardly the focus. Is it worth it to sacrifice one so obviously for the other? I mean... yeah, sure. Movies have been doing it for decades. Expectations are what need to be tempered in most cases.
Though the film looks and flows perfectly well, the biggest detraction of this one would be comparing it to many of Zombie's other films and, well, if you can accept that Zombie is a very particular director with a very particular niche appeal, then you kind of know what this movie flows like, but it doesn't temper into the experimental style of "House of 1000 Corpses" or "Lords of Salem", nor does it get as harshly observational and uncomfortably empathetic as "The Devil's Rejects" or the "Halloween" remakes; the film opts to instead be the movie that everyone thinks he makes, especially if they're unfamiliar with his work altogether and he actually... excels at it? I don't know how best to explain that feeling besides the fact that it's the least investing, but the most stylistically entertaining film he's ever made, and the trade-off makes me uneasy... like watching Michael Jordan actually BE good at baseball, ya know? I mean, he told us what this movie was going to be, and I had no reason not to believe him, but the overall experience is still as uncomfortable as the film chooses to be, but perhaps not for the reasons he intended.
If you're a big fan of the man's movies then there's a lot here to love, if you're NOT then it's definitely quite a bit simpler than most of his films, so there should be less sporadic bullshit going on to leave you uneasy or confused, just disgusted by the gross excess. As I said, expectations are key, and this one hit most of them for me, but also failed to make me anywhere near as invested in the insanity as I was in his last few films. Give it a watch for the sake of variety, but I doubt it'll haunt you for too long. Fun characters, though.