When people think of Rob Zombie’s films, they think of dead bodies, naked breasts, vulgarity and a retro 70s grindhouse vibe... and to do so sorely discounts Zombie’s skills as a filmmaker.
Zombie has a knack for horrifically beautiful compositions and a feel for atmosphere and character, letting quirks and background details suggest history and depth. He speaks the language of classic horror films, but when he emerged as a filmmaker his taste for the extreme put him at home in an era in which ‘Saw’ sequels had become institutions (note: we now live in the era of ‘The Conjuring’).
‘House of 1000 Corpses’ was Zombie finding his footing. Its sequel, ‘The Devil’s Rejects’, had plenty of virtues alongside the screams and viscera. Zombie’s 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s masterful ‘Halloween’ found him trying (largely successfully) to squeeze a distinctive vision into a box created by slasher-film expectations. Where Carpenter’s original left killer Michael Myers as mostly an unknowable mass of bloodlust (see: David Gordon Green’s recent... uh, reboot sequel ‘Halloween’), Zombie’s version delved uncomfortably into serial killer psychology. ‘Lords of Salem’, easily Zombie’s finest film, was an unsettling and frequently beautiful modern giallo.
His latest film, ‘3 From Hell’, is a sequel to ‘The Devil’s Rejects’. It opens in 1978 with a pseudo-documentary about the fate of killer clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, ‘Bone Tomahawk’), Charles Manson aficionado Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Harley Quinn-ish “Baby” Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) – the remnants of the murderous gang from ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ who survived being shot 20 times each (to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 'Free Bird') at the end of the previous film.
A documentary prologue covers the trial and the death sentences they receive, to be served out at Bain County Correctional, run by warden Virgil Dallas Harper (Jeff Daniel Philips, ‘Satanic Panic’). It also includes fake “testimonials” from people who seem to idolise the gang as outlaws (a la Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’), despite their mindless crime wave of murder and mutilation, and chant “Free the Three”. After a brief interview, Haig’s Captain Spaulding (arguably the beating heart of the series) is killed off-screen, executed via lethal injection.
Ten years later, Otis Driftwood escapes after being sent out on a chain gang along with his old enemy, Rondo (Danny Trejo, ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’). He is freed by his heretofore unmentioned half-brother, serial killer Winslow Foxworth "Foxy" Coltrane (Richard Brake, ‘Mandy’, ‘The Sisters Brothers’). The duo finds the warden’s house and takes his wife hostage as collateral to break Baby out of jail. There’s also an appearance by Clint Howard as a particularly unfunny clown calling himself “Mr Baggy Britches”, who has the misfortune of showing up at the door where the hostages are being held.
Even as someone who found the campy ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ to be watchable, and thinks ‘The Devils Rejects’ is a legitimately good movie, ‘3 From Hell’ is still a below-average film. Zombie does little more than play his greatest hits, running through them like lines on an anniversary tour setlist. That means freeze frames and copious amounts of sub-juvenile banter.
Zombie does little more than play his greatest hits, running through them like lines on an anniversary-tour set list. That means freeze frames and copious amounts of sub-juvenile banter.
At a guess, I’d say that Zombie’s original vision had to be rewritten and recast at the last minute, as Sid Haig passed away after filming just a few scenes. The new character that is introduced to fill the void feels like a third wheel (the other characters even acknowledge this) despite the talent of Richard Brake. Compared to those earlier entries in the series, it suffers dramatically due to the fact that so few of the original Firefly clan are left.
The only reason ‘3 From Hell’ isn’t as unwatchable as ‘31’, Zombie’s worst film, is because those remaining characters from the previous movies still have some magnetism. Sheri Moon has evolved into a good actor over the years and is particularly impressive here, playing an older, hardened version of her trailer-trash seductress. Richard Edson, as a pimp who sounds a lot like Fenster from ‘The Usual Suspects’, is also genuinely funny.
The last third of the movie sees the gang lay low in a Mexican village and engage in a massive shootout, like Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’. There’s a slow-motion action sequence played out to Iron Butterfly’s 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' just like the climax of Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’. There is even a machete duel straight out of Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Machete’ (another grindhouse series that ran out of creative juice). While he’s learned how to approximate the look and feel, the outsider-art griminess, of the cult classics he reveres, Zombie’s nods to superior filmmakers and good intentions don’t carry ‘3 From Hell’ as far as they should.
As with every Zombie film, there are solid ideas - Baby in prison being put through the gauntlet by a sadistic guard, a luchador-masked Mexican cartel coming after the crew, a trio of serial killers viewed as counterculture cowboys - but none of them are fully realised and thus fall flat. Bloodshed is filmed in queasy close-up, frequently rendering its close-quarters combat nearly incomprehensible, while the dialogue coasts on the repetition of the word “motherfucker”, with hardly any substance or memorable monologues.
Whether the ultimate failure of ‘3 From Hell’ lies in a troubled production or creative exhaustion on the part of Rob Zombie, this shambling revenant of a film is something that might only be appreciated by the most indiscriminate midnight-movie crowd and diehard fans of the series.