3 From Hell

Rob Zombie is no stranger to the horror genre – his dual careers as musician and film director indebted to grindhouse cinema and horror classics. After the break-up of his band, White Zombie, in 1998, he embarked on a solo music career, and his debut album, Hellbilly Deluxe, was a veritable treasure trove of samples and references from the films that most inspired and influenced him. He clearly had designs on a career in film for some time, overseeing the direction of almost all of his own video clips, and it wasn’t long before he would start making full-length movies. His first two features, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, were the cinematic equivalents of Hellbilly Deluxe. The early works of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper served as the blueprint for Zombie’s tribute to ‘70s hicksploitation, the genre repurposed and revitalized by a hardcore hillbilly fanboy.

These two films pertained to the evil deeds perpetrated by the Firefly family, led by Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding – three characters as nasty and grotesque as you’ll find in the annals of horror history. House of 1000 Corpses saw them playing host to an ill-fated pair of traveling couples in a garish haunted house designed by and for serial killer stans, degenerating into a demonic freak-show, the occult leanings heavy and pervasive. The Devil’s Rejects took the show on the road, with the trio pursued through a Texan dust-bowl by a vindictive sheriff, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Almost 15 years later, and after directing a handful of unrelated films, Zombie picks up directly from where these events culminated with 3 From Hell. Given the end of The Devil’s Rejects, it’s an unusual move, and not even something that fans were necessarily clamoring for, but it’s admittedly hard to say no to the eponymous three. 

The question is whether or not Zombie could deliver a film that built upon the mythos associated with these characters, whether the exercise would have enough purpose to justify its existence. I’ll admit that I was excited by the prospect of 3 From Hell from the moment of its announcement, but I had concerns that an extension of the story was unwarranted and would tarnish the Firefly legacy. As it turns out, the fears I had were justified – the attempt to breathe new life into the premise is unsuccessful. Vital signs are weak, with little notable brain activity and loss of control of other bodily functions evident. The titular 3 From Hell really needed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

The main issue I have with Zombie’s filmography is that the further he strays from the template of a lovingly crafted and knowing homage, the less sure he is on his feet. On a scale of Eli Roth to Quentin Tarantino, he settles on the less favorable side, his work at its best when it’s emulating or calling back to what came before. That’s not to say he’s devoid of talent or creativity – a lot of the fun to be had in House of 1000 Corpses was wrapped up in the mad mixture of old and new, and when it works, it really works. It has just become increasingly obvious through the progression of his career that the strength of his films are not entirely of his own making, and 3 From Hell is a deviation from a tried-and-true formula that ends in disaster.

It starts off in relatively familiar territory – thinly veiled allusions to the trial and incarceration of the Manson family present and accounted for. Rather than being in service of the story, however, it feels like the narrative, and even the characters themselves, are instead captive to the references Zombie wants to hit on, at least early on. This is in stark contrast to what we’ve come to expect from the earlier films, but the discomfort is heightened further when he switches gears, throwing the baby out with the bathwater to forge his own path. It’s a nonsensical progression of events that feels like a blind-folded Zombie was throwing blunt projectiles at a dartboard of “crazy.” Little hits the mark, and that which comes close is undermined by frustrating creative choices. The carnage is weakened by an over-reliance on digital effects and ropey work from the special make-up department, and some of the key action sequences suffer dramatically from the implementation of shaky cam. It feels like pre-planned patch-work to mask an inferior product, a far cry from the bold and brazen confidence of Zombie’s debut feature.

My biggest bugbear, however, is the devolution of the titular characters, having lost almost all of their potency in 3 From Hell. The ailing health of Sid Haig (Rest In Power) led to a necessary rejigging of the main line-up, but 3 From Hell demonstrates that sometimes more is less. The previous two films kept some measure of distance from the vile antagonists, but Zombie seems intent on humanizing these characters more than ever here, and it’s the wrong move to make. They’re at their best when they are the bogeymen, and every second spent in their company in the downtime between the moments of madness dilutes their character. Bill Moseley shows fantastic form, even if I was more enamored by his Manson-on-meth take from the first film, but his performance here is undercut by a script that turns the devil into a delinquent dunce. The less said about Baby here the better; pulled in 100 different directions, none staying true to the essence of the character.

3 From Hell might just be the station from which I depart the Zombie train. His early efforts bought a lot of good will from me, but it seems he is intent on taking a different direction from that which drew me to his work in the first place. In this instance, the dead really should have stayed buried. Hit me up if Dr. Satan makes a comeback, though.

D

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