Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sherri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Richard Brake, and Sid Haig
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Hello America. Did you miss me?"
The very notion of 3 From Hell is inherently audacious. Rob Zombie killed off the Firefly family with such an emphatic hail of gunfire in The Devil’s Rejects that each bullet doubled as an exclamation mark to his thoughts on the absurdity of horror icons. Just when it looked like he would reserve sympathy for these devils with a wistful escape scene, he swiftly blew them away, leaving a sobered audience to contemplate just where their sympathies should truly lie. Coming back from that—especially after nearly 15 years—implies a boldness of purpose: simply put, Zombie would need a hell of a reason to resurrect these characters. Unfortunately, 3 From Hell doesn’t exactly bear that out: no, not every sequel needs to justify its existence, but this one has the unfortunate effect of adding a perfunctory ellipsis to that emphatic, one-two punch of House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. At its best, it’s a fine (if not unnecessary) retread; at its worst, it’s the latest evidence that Zombie has lapsed completely into a shtick that slightly diminishes his greatest work.
For a brief moment, it looks like Zombie has cracked a reason for the sequel to exist, as grainy, faux-documentary footage reveals that the Rejects did, in fact, survive their shootout with the police in 1978. It’s a bit of an anticlimactic reveal, but the footage goes on to describe the Fireflies’ improbable survival and their resultant celebrity status. In a natural extension of the hero-worship stuff Zombie was musing about in the previous film, he has the Rejects’ devotees worship the incarcerated maniacs, granting them an iconic status in American pop culture. Yes, it’s essentially Zombie riffing on the Manson Family phenomenon, but it’s a sharp, clever way to dive into this follow-up: just what would it look like if the Firefly family became genuine pop culture icons?
But no, it’s only a preamble for the real story: after the state unceremoniously executes Captain Spaulding (an unfortunate narrative turn dictated by Haig’s poor health, which kept him from shooting more), Winslow “Foxy” Coltrane (Jeff Brake), a previously unseen Firefly sibling breaks half-brother Otis out of custody, effectively setting the film back down the path towards retreading The Devil’s Rejects.
To Zombie’s credit, however, he tries to do what he can to combat the déjŕ vu. Rather than rush straight to putting the Fireflies back on the lam, he tinkers with a few different modes. Before Baby escapes, 3 From Hell becomes a women-in-prison movie documenting her hellish captivity at the hands of a vicious guard (Dee Wallace) and a wicked warden (Jeff Daniel Phillips). Otis and Foxy terrorize the latter at his home to coerce him into releasing their sister, briefly turning the film into a home invasion thriller. Then the Fireflies reprise the previous film, complete with an intense pit stop at a grungy motel that goes south (and even some Halloween night ambiance to recapture the vibe of the original film). Ultimately, everything comes to a head in Mexico, where we get Rob Zombie’s redneck spaghetti western.
On paper, all of this could sound like a spirited attempt to keep a long-awaited sequel from the doldrums of repetition; in reality, however, it starts to feel like Zombie had about five different ideas for how to proceed and couldn’t settle on one. As such, we get them all haphazardly stuffed into 100 minutes that grow increasingly tedious once it becomes clear that Zombie really just kind of wants to hang out with these characters again. Their return doesn’t portend anything substantial, nor does 3 From Hell ever really arrive at much of a point beyond its obvious fondness for its own characters, which is an odd thing to say about a movie involving a family of mass murderers. Imagine an especially fucked-up victory lap that nobody particularly asked for: that’s 3 From Hell.
It’s also the most Rob Zombie victory lap imaginable. If you thought 31 felt like diving straight into the director’s pure, unfiltered id, then 3 From Hell is akin to luxuriating in his nightmares and daydreams all at once. Despite the 1988 setting, the aesthetic takes its cue straight from the 70s grindhouse, as an almost tangible layer of grit and sleaze papers the entire thing. David Daniels’s photography is often grungy and blown out, creating the impression of a grimy old print that doesn’t quite work given the film’s otherwise harsh, digital look.
Familiar faces from Zombie’s career drop in and out, most of them either as despicable or disposable as the last. Personalities are bombastic, sometimes to the point of parody, as we meet various cokeheads, maniacs, and even an entire luchador hitman squad. You won’t be surprised to discover that a dwarf (Pancho Moler in a stark departure from his role in 31) comes to the unlikely aid of the Rejects in Mexico because, well, why wouldn’t he? There’s an entire digression where Otis and Foxy debate the merits of Bogart and Cagney, complete with impersonations. Characters punctuate each sentence with the word “fuck” as if it were about to be completely ghosted from the language.
But you expect this, right? Complaining about the filthy and the profane in a Rob Zombie film is like using a grungy, hole-in-the-wall gas station bathroom and freaking out about the possible contagion. You’re probably gonna see some shit streaked on the walls, you know? It comes with the territory, and it probably seems a little silly to get exactly what you paid for. However, Zombie’s previous efforts often managed to buttress his grubbiness with bravura filmmaking choices, genuinely inspired dialogue, and a devious (perhaps, yes, juvenile) spirit that turned these movies into something like wild, carnal burlesque shows, complete with grease-painted clowns in most cases. Most of Zombie’s filmography is nothing if not playfully unhinged: when he’s at his best, he feverishly blends sledgehammer violence with a carnival atmosphere, and the layer of grindhouse sleaze is one of many crucial, potent flavors.
At his worst, however, Zombie mistakenly ladles on the sleaze, effectively drowning out whatever charm might seep through. 3 From Hell is a mostly miserable experience in this respect, just a grim, nihilistic endurance test of torture and violence. Again, you expect this from Zombie; what you don’t expect is just how hollow and empty it all feels, mostly because you never get the impression that his heart is really in this resurrection. Without a compelling story hook, the ultra-violence and provocation just feels like a tired act; what’s more, Zombie’s obvious fondness for these characters sensationalizes their violence in a way that stands in contrast to the subversion of The Devil’s Rejects. It’s a disappointing step backwards for Zombie to essentially become a carnival barker promising nothing but the same, fucked-up “thrills” you’ve seen before.
To be fair, it’s not entirely his fault. Haig’s health issues forced a rewrite that virtually removes Captain Spaulding from the entirety of the film, a void that proves to be impossible to fill. His absence confirms that Haig has always been the weird, deranged heart and soul of these movies, as his performances dial exactly into the redneck funhouse wavelength that Zombie’s work thrives upon. Even though he doesn’t appear for the duration of House of 1,000 Corpses, his indelible presence at the beginning set the tone for kooky, unhinged Halloween-night festivities to follow. Zombie’s tonal shift in the more rugged, stripped down sequel did little to dilute the impish glimmer in Haig’s performance: I doubt anyone would consider The Devil’s Rejects to be a pleasant film, but there is something oddly, incongruently entertaining about it, and Haig is a big part of that. He just has an irreverent energy to him that streaks through the rest of the film.
No disrespect to Brake, but he can’t quite match that. Part of this is just natural: after strolling into the third movie as the de facto replacement of a beloved character, Foxy feels like something of an intruder. While his chemistry with Moseley and Zombie is fine, the lack of shared history is a sticking point: it’s weird to watch a victory lap where we’ve just met one of the participants. It’s also sort of like when your favorite band finally reunites, only they have a new member and can’t recapture the magic. Looking past that, I suppose Brake acquits himself well enough in a role that mostly has him maniacally howling and spitting Zombie’s typically perverse dialogue; it’s more playful and much less sinister than his indelible turn in 31, but this looseness is a good match for the laid-back, hangout vibe of 3 From Hell.
And that’s really what this amounts to: a hundred or so more minutes for Zombie and fans to amble along with the Firefly crew. Moseley and Zombie effortlessly slip back into the roles of Otis and Baby, almost as if fifteen years haven’t passed at all. The former carries himself with a bemused smirk, almost as if the actor and the character can’t believe he’s still here, raising more hell after all these years. Otis has practically chilled out and sees these newest exploits as icing on a fucked-up cake—you sense that he’d be pretty much okay with not being a spree killer at this point.
Baby, on the other hand, has gone completely off the deep end, allowing Zombie to go a little bit more broad with her performance here. 3 From Hell is a good reminder that we should all find someone who looks at us like Rob Zombie’s camera looks at Sheri Moon Zombie: in many ways, she’s the star here, and the movie could almost be about how her stint in jail has completely broken her and turned her into a mindless killing machine. A wistful exchange with Otis reveals a sort of existential crisis, but it’s met with dismissal from her carefree brother, a moment that captures what a shrug of a movie 3 From Hell really is. In one of his few opportunities to make this sequel matter, Zombie tacitly admits that this is just one more ride for the sake of it.
It’s kind of an aimless and tedious one but features just enough manic nonsense to make it worthwhile, like Clint Howard showing up as an ill-fated clown during the Firefly’s home invasion. Likewise, the film has some other fun appearances from the likes of Danny Trejo (reprising his role from TDR, though it barely feels like it), Austin Stoker, and Wallace going way against type here as the tyrannical prison guard with a twisted infatuation for Baby. Phillips also leaves an impression as her warden cohort; Zombie always brings out the best in him (he was practically a revelation in The Lords of Salem), and his gonzo turn here brings an energy level that the rest of the film doesn’t quite match. I almost wish Phillips had assumed the role of Foxy instead because his level of mania is more in line with the Firefly clan.
Unfortunately, however, these are but brief glimmers to momentarily distract from the sinking feeling that sets in about halfway through 3 From Hell, a film that just never quite seems to make a case for itself. There’s almost a sense of resignation about it, as if Zombie is resorting to doing this simply because he feels like this is the only product anyone will fund. He holds obvious ambitions beyond this: not only was The Lords of Salem a mature step forward, but he’s also bandied about other projects over the years, including a Broad Street Bullies movie and even a Graucho Marx biopic.
It’s a shame that nobody seems willing to take a risk on Zombie and allow him to move beyond his comfort zone. If both 31 and 3 From Hell are any indication, this is a filmmaker desperately in need of a shock to his own system, or, at the very least, a vote of confidence from investors and fans that they’re willing to follow him wherever he goes—and not just back to his familiar haunts. 3 From Hell ends with an unwittingly appropriate shot of a meandering, winding road: not only is it an exact retread of The Devil’s Rejects, but it also captures the rambling, aimless quality of the film itself—and, perhaps, of Zombie’s career at this point.
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