by Steven Wandling
I love exploitation cinema. There’s a special place in my heart for the type of down and dirty film that most general audiences have never heard of, or would let alone spend any hard earned money to see. The idea of hardcore visceral sex and violence doesn’t appeal to a lot of people, and it’s easy to understand why. There are those of us that can watch anything from the infamous video nasty list and find something beautiful and even ornate. The Toolbox Murders (1978), for instance, is a notoriously mean and nasty little film that was heavily censored and out right banned in the UK upon its release. I can watch it over and over again as an outright classic. Examples could compound (and get much worse), but the idea is clear. A good time at the movies for me can (and often does) involve some extremely dark and uncomfortable subject matter full of violence, assault, blatant misogyny and not really have much else to offer. It’s too bad that Rob Zombie’s long-awaited (or ill advised) new “Firefly Family” film 3 From Hell didn’t seem to check many of those boxes convincingly.
The rocker-turned writer-director seems to be stuck in a creative deluge, telling the same story over and over after creatively peaking with the much maligned Lords of Salem (2012). Much of the problems I had with 3 From Hell, I also had with Zombie’s last film, 31 (2016). After entering the cinematic landscape like a shotgun blast with The Funhouse (1981) meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) Tobe Hooper homage House of 1000 Corpses (2003), Rob Zombie was off to the races. He was divisive from the start, but at 17 House of 1000 Corpses was one of the wildest rides I had ever taken at a multiplex and was aesthetically pleasing enough to feel like the best parts of an acid trip. House almost never saw the light of day, as Universal Studios shelved it for years after principal photography was completed, calling it practically unreleasable. Thank god for Lionsgate. It wasn’t long before a sequel was announced that would make Rob Zombie be taken seriously as a director.
Trading in the eye candy aesthetic and hallucinatory approach for a blood-soaked Peckinpah (Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch) influenced road trip with the three sickest family members since the Sawyers, House followup The Devil’s Rejects (2005) still had its detractors, but it also garnered a lot of critical praise and cemented the Fireflys as genre legends. Here was a filmmaker that had grown and arguably made a sequel that was better than its predecessor. Fast forward fourteen years later and Rob Zombie has returned to the world that brought him into cinema by resurrecting the infamous Driftwoods for another blood-soaked journey with 3 From Hell. So after all this time and anticipation, why does it sadly feel so tepid and stale?
Perhaps the unfortunate but necessary re-writing of all Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig)’s scenes due to his ailing health is part of the problem. It doesn’t quite have the same level of devilish glee without the evil clown there that had the uncanny ability to massacre a group of people and still make audiences laugh within seconds. All criticisms of a film aside, Haig is a legend of the silver screen and his presence is greatly missed throughout. Or maybe 3 From Hell just suffers from a bad script that seems like lesser versions of Zombie’s better efforts behind the camera. For me, it was a combination of both and then some.
The first half hour to forty minutes of 3 From Hell had me wondering why I had even made the trip at all. Not so much the opening act of a film, but a scattershot amateurish knockoff of news reels, jail shots, and courtroom footage that attempts to evoke everything from Natural Born Killers (1994) to Helter Skelter with all the nuance and smarts of an episode of Inside Edition. Otis (Bill Moseley), always the baddest motherfucker in the room, is reduced to spouting ridiculous lines that Charles Manson would have been embarrassed to utter. It’s an excruciating experience that drags on for far too long before anything entertaining or macabre happens, let alone moving the narrative forward in any type of cohesive way.
3 From Hell isn’t all bad though once the film actually decides to begin with the already escaped Otis hatching a plan only he and long lost half-brother Foxy (Richard Brake) could hatch to break Baby out of prison. Sherri-Moon Zombie, who has played the maniacal serial killer Baby thrice now, absolutely crushes it throughout the entire film. All of the power plays and games between her and an unrecognizable Dee Wallace as a tough-as-nails prison guard made me wish that the movie had just stayed there. Unfortunately it doesn’t for long enough. That’s a big problem with 3 From Hell overall. Every time the film gets going somewhere remotely interesting in any way, it then stalls for another fifteen minutes with…nothing. Just meandering nonsense that tries to recapture a lot of moments from the previous films that fall flat on their face one after the other. After one sequence that was supposed to mirror the best and most horrific scene from Devil’s Rejects, I found myself actually bored for the serial killers in the middle of their own spree.
After hanging out, shooting the shit, reminiscing about their own mortality, and killing a few more people, the gang finally hits the road and heads south to Mexico. This is where 3 From Hell finally shines. The Day of the Dead aesthetics and the sun soaked Mexican backdrop give for the best sequences of the film, showing off some of the more hallucinatory side of Zombie’s visual palette that, again, sadly doesn’t last long enough. It’s a great sequence though and is a great mirror back to the final party in The Devil’s Rejects. There’s also some great use of music too, especially in the climax, when Otis, Baby, and Foxy face down their biggest, baddest, and most ridiculous threat yet to the sounds of Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Da Vida. It’s a helluva third act that almost saves the entire movie…almost.
An ending so good to a film so meandering only ultimately leads to frustration. Aside from the ridiculously good climax, all of the sequences after that dreadful first act (and I use that term loosely), mirror a better sequence from one of the previous two films in the series. It’s sad to see such a same-old same-old film from a franchise that had two completely different ones that came before it in tone and aesthetics. There’s just nothing new under the sun in 3 From Hell, sad to say. There’s no menace to these characters any more, save for Baby. Richard Brake is fine, but he’s no substitute for Sid Haig, and he seems to be playing a less interesting version of his Doom Head character from 31. Bill Moseley just seems to be having a good time without much of a trace of the “devil that was here to do the devil’s work.” Sherri absolutely kills it though and even in the film’s dullest moments manages to pull an entertaining moment out of it. If not for Lords of Salem, this would be her finest performance to date. It is the most interesting iteration of Baby.
In the end, 3 From Hell does little to justify its own existence outside of the hardest of hardcore Rob Zombie fans. The film has neither the haunted house from Hell funhouse aesthetics of House of 1000 Corpses or the blood-soaked heights of desolate madness in The Devil’s Rejects. There’s nothing that he hasn’t already done himself better throughout most of the film, and by the time Zombie does do something interesting it’s far too late to be anything but a really cool climax to a pretty bad movie.
Thanks for reading! Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell has one night left in a 3 Day fathom event exclusively in theaters nationwide before being released on blu ray in October. If you like what you’ve read, please share with your horror loving friends. Please follow creepylovely on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. If you would like to write for us, just shoot a private message or DM on social media. Stay creepy!