It’s been nearly 15 years since the release of “The Devil’s Rejects”, the unlikely sequel to writer/director Rob Zombie’s first feature, “House of 1,000 Corpses”. “Rejects”, a film that polarized critics and audiences alike with its unflinching depiction of a murderous family on the run from a vigilante Sheriff seeking revenge for his late brother, dared audiences to rethink the typical arc types of good vs evil. The members of the sadistic Firefly family are seen to humiliate, torture, assault and of course murder their victims with no remorse and by the end of that film, they are almost seen to be the heroes of the story. It’s a bold and visionary masterpiece that has since been regarded as one of this centuries most inventive genre films.
Given that film ended with the Firefly family driving into a hellstorm of bullets by a line-up of Police, serenaded to the sweet sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, a sequel always seemed unlikely. However, throughout the years, an idea for a follow-up had been endlessly teased and rumored by the actors and Zombie, himself. After 14 years of waiting, we finally have the third (and possibly final?) installment of the Firefly family saga.
Like many of Zombie’s previous works, the reaction to “3 From Hell” will most certainly be a love-it-or-hate-it affair.
While I can understand both sides equally and after setting aside any expectations that have been building for over a decade, I found “3 From Hell” to be an entertaining journey with some killer set pieces and characters that continue to offend and compel in equal measure.
Picking up 10 years after the events of “The Devil’s Rejects”, we find the remaining members of the Firefly family, Otis (Bill Moseley), his sister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Baby’s father, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), have since been locked up and have become something of media celebrities. They eventually escape and cause a new path of chaos wherever they go.
“3 From Hell” operates on two distinct levels; writer/director Rob Zombie on auto-pilot, seemingly just going through the motions for large chunks of the film, and Rob Zombie going madcap genius. The latter outweighing just enough in the long run.
Whereas “Corpses” and “Rejects” were full Grindhouse pictures will their unique blends of style and homages, “3 From Hell” finds Zombie going full-out on the pulp factor.
This is a pulpy adventure that find its influences more within the video nasties of the 70’s and 80’s, with scenes that feel heavily influenced by the likes of “I Drink Your Blood”, “Blood Feast” and even “Women in Prison” films.
The returning cast hasn’t lost a step when it comes to reprising their roles.
Bill Moseley is terrific once again as Otis. His charismatic persona mixed with pure evil and heinous actions is just as commanding as it was 15 years ago, even if he’s not given as much juicy scenery to chew.
Sid Haig, who doesn’t get much screen time here, is still great when he IS on screen. Perhaps the biggest surprise comes from Sheri Moon Zombie who has never been more dynamic as she is here.
Baby has become even more unhinged than when we last saw her, which creates some of the best moments in the film. Throughout the entire runtime, it’s practically impossible to take your eyes off her. Moon Zombie injects the film with a manic energy that often overcompensates for the films lack of focus.
Joining the Firefly gang this time around is Richard Brake as Foxy, Otis’ younger half-brother. Brake, a recent Zombie regular most known for his scene-stealing role as Doomhead in “31”, is an equally welcoming presence. The character of Foxy admittedly doesn’t have much backstory or many layers compared to Baby or Otis, but Brake is such a compelling screen presence that the character is nevertheless a blast to watch.
There are some wondrous bits of demented dark humor that work exceptionally well. This is perhaps Zombie’s funniest film to date. Zombie may not be returning to the storytelling highs of his past work, but he does create a return to form with some of the best dialogue he’s ever written. “Corpses” and “Rejects” certainly had their fair amount of humor, but there are numerous scenes in “3 From Hell” that had myself and my entire theater laughing out loud.
Often, Zombie falls back on his old tricks, following nearly the exact same structure as “Rejects”. A hostage situation takes up a large majority of the second act, just like the motel sequence in “Rejects”, but far less effective.
Zombie’s previous film, “31”, felt like the first step backwards in his directorial oeuvre, and although “3 From Hell” does take some very lazy steps, Zombie thankfully comes up with just enough new fresh ideas to suggest he’s not completely out of gas.
The first act becomes a bit of a satire on early true-crime media frenzies, reminiscent of how much of the public reacted towards Ted Bundy and the Manson Family. Early on, we see snippets of a faux news story interviewing everyday people who claim the 3 couldn’t have committed such heinous crimes, with some being downright fans of the 3 killers. The phrase “Free the 3” even becomes a national headline.
This Oliver Stone/“Natural Born Killers” homage is amusing and quickly grabs your attention, suggesting Zombie might have something to say about the repercussions of such acts and how the media creates a specific narrative of such events. However, it ultimately goes nowhere and really doesn’t create much of an impression on the overall narrative.
This is a more laid back film compared to anything Zombie has made before, but it’s concerning when we still have no real sense of plot at the one hour mark. In some ways, this is Zombie’s most restraint work to date, which in this instance, is not a compliment.
3 From Hell” is also one of more visually unpleasant films I’ve seen in a theater all decade with a large majority having to do with switching from 16mm to digital photography (mostly likely due to budget restraints). While “Rejects” had an intentionally grainy, sun-dried look to it, “3 From Hell” just looks too digitally photographed to pull off an authentic looking Grindhouse feature that makes the film ultimately look cheaper than it really is.
The film is also distractingly lacking in period detail. Had the film not told us this takes place 10 years after “Rejects”, you would have no clue when this takes place.
What might be the biggest disappointment of the entire film is Zombie’s lack of unique direction. This certainly is not a poorly directed film, but given everything in Zombie’s previous works, the lack of confidence is worrisome.
When Zombie finally does finds some focus in the narrative, that’s when things begin to pick up.
Zombie finally discovers true inspiration in the back half of the film with it later becoming an homage to spaghetti westerns. Zombie channels the works of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Corbucci with a hint of Herschell Gordon Lewis in the show-stopping final act.
Zombie has always known how to stage an effective action sequence, with the shootout at the opening of “Rejects” being the prime example. Here, Zombie crafts some killer suspense in a riveting finale that amongst the best filmmaking he’s ever done. The final 20 minutes are pure, high-octane pulp that ends the film on a high note.
Zombie doesn’t seem to have much to say here, which is shocking given the filmmaker has spent most of his directorial career furthering his craft and reaching for new ideas to explore. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t appear like he really wants to say anything. It feels like he just wanted to get back with the characters he created in his first film and play around with them again. The quieter moments with the group just sitting around and bonding are some of the best moments in the film because they feel the most authentic. Despite the unfortunate lack of Sid Haig, the bond that made these characters so iconic in the first place is just as apparent as ever.
Die-hard fans may feel unsatisfied in the lack of compelling answers to questions left off in “Rejects”, but despite its many flaws, Rob Zombie is still, and will always be, a unique visionary. Many will claim the story of these characters should’ve stayed closed nearly 15 years ago, and it’s hard to argue that. For what “3 From Hell” is on its own merits, however, it’s a satisfying journey through madness.
By the time the credits begin to roll with the same aerial views of sun-covered highways and mountaintops seen in “Rejects”, playing to the sound of Terry Reid, it feels as though Zombie is saying goodbye to the genre (and the characters) that made him who he is today.
Having talked about wanting out of the horror genre for quite some time now, this feels like a fitting note for him to go out on. Whatever comes next for Mr. Zombie is up to him, but whatever it is, it will surely be something only he could create.