Sid Haig - Captain Spaulding
Bill Moseley - Otis B. Driftwood
Sheri Moon Zombie - Vera-Ellen “Baby” Firefly
Danny Trejo - Rondo
Dee Wallace - Greta
Daniel Roebuck - Morris Green
Jeff Daniel Phillips - Warden Virgin Dallas Harper
Richard Brake - Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” Coltrane
Emilio Rivera - Aquarius
Pancho Moler - Sebastian
Genre - Horror/Action
Running Time - 111 Minutes
After being shot multiple times by the police during an attempted getaway, Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) somehow managed to survive and are quickly incarcerated for their vicious crimes throughout the years. Spaulding and Otis have been placed on Death Row, while Baby still gets an option of parole that never goes in her favor. Arrogant Warden Harper (Jeff Daniel Phillips) thinks he has the remaining members of the Firefly Family where he wants them for the past ten years. But things turn sour once Otis finds a way of escaping with the help of his previous unknown half-brother Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake), murdering multiple witnesses including Rondo (Danny Trejo), who was part of his capture a decade prior. Realizing that Baby needs their help, Otis and Foxy decide to torture the Warden’s family and friends until the Warden can somehow get Baby to escape. Once Otis, Foxy and Baby are free together, they continue their murder spree until they reach Mexico, believing it’s their sanctuary. However, the leader of the Black Satans, Mexico’s most notorious gang, has revenge on his mind and plans on eliminating the 3 From Hell for good.
It’s amazing to think that after all these years, Rob Zombie remains a controversial figure in the horror community. He seemed to have gained a lot of goodwill with his 2002 debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, while gaining a ton of both commercial and critical praise for its 2005 sequel, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. However, once those HALLOWEEN reboots were released near the end of the 2000s, Zombie’s light began to dim for much of the mainstream audience that supported his earlier works. While Zombie’s films are an acquired taste and not all of them have been all that impressive [I’m talking about you, 31!], you can’t deny that Zombie definitely has a voice when it comes to his movies. You know what you’re getting with the guy - white trash dialogue, gritty cinematography, music video editing, classic rock songs and a focus on serial killers that come close to praise during a time where we wonder whether glorifying this sort of violence is a good thing or not. Zombie’s latest film, a sequel to both CORPSES and REJECTS called 3 FROM HELL, is not different from any Zombie films you may have seen or even heard about. It follows the Rob Zombie template to a tee in every single way, which makes me wonder whether it’s time for him to try something new and finally take that step to branch out that he’s been struggling with. But 3 FROM HELL still does more right than wrong, even though I can’t help but feel if the film even needs to exist.
I’m not saying that 3 FROM HELL isn’t worth a look if you’ve enjoyed Rob Zombie’s previous films, or if you’re just a fan of the Firefly Family and their rampage in previous movies. But for many, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is considered to be Zombie’s best film. It also has an ending that’s satisfying within the context of the story, making you feel something for Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding as they’re being shot up during a sequence with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” playing in the background. Those characters, despite their demise, went out on top like the film had, gaining a lot of respect for Zombie in the process as a filmmaker with something to say. A part of me feels like 3 FROM HELL takes away from that finale, finding a lazy way [let’s be honest] to keep them alive just so they can have another film killing people while Zombie attempts for the audience to like them as a characters despite how evil they are. I understand Zombie loves these characters and knows that they’ll help make the film succeed financially so he can use that money for non-horror projects he’s been trying to get off of the ground with no luck. But sometimes you need to leave well enough alone, which will make many feel down on this film because the previous one ended pretty perfectly.
That being said, I did have fun with 3 FROM HELL. It was pretty much what I expected out of it, showcasing Zombie’s voice and aesthetic that most horror fans are no strangers of. While it was lazy to just keep the characters alive by sort of giving a non-excuse as to how that was even possible, I did enjoy the documentary-like presentation revealing the events of what happened after THE DEVIL’S REJECTS had concluded. Within ten minutes, you learn what these characters have been dealing with for the past ten years when it comes to the court system, hospitalization, and their fates inside of prison. There’s also a bit of social commentary on how some people turn these killers into celebrities, creating a creepy fandom for them to the point where their fans are pleading for their freedom. They also comment that they can’t be that evil if they’re so attractive and sexy, which seems to reflect on certain portions of our current society when it comes to shows and documentaries on serial killers, especially those recent ones on Ted Bundy. Zombie is glamorizing the killers while criticizing those who do the same. I guess he’s calling himself a hypocrite, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting look at himself and at others who sensationalize this sort of thing.
Even though the main characters are given likable personalities and funny dialogue for the audience to get on board with them in a strange way, the first half of the film pretty much makes them very unlikable and never shies away on how devious they are. Otis and Foxy take pleasure in torturing their victims until they get tired of them, making their loyalty to Baby wrong to support because of how they handle it. Baby is also pretty grating during this portion, but it’s for a reason. Being stuck in jail has affected her mind to the point where she’s seeing things and acting more crazy than usual. Add in a guard who abuses her and a Warden who makes an example out of her, and you see that Baby is in a situation beyond her usual control. She can’t seduce her way out of this jam, making her vulnerable, but also making her more evil since she can’t release all the killer instincts she contains within her.
In a lot of ways, the structure of 3 FROM HELL is pretty much the same structure as THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. The Firefly Family are evil bastards at the start of the film, but once they murder a bunch of people, they become more lovable and sympathetic in the second half of the film. That’s exactly what happens when Baby escapes and rejoins her family. They murder a bunch of people they take hostage at the Warden’s home [which reminds you of the motel scene from TDR]. They escape to a motel in Mexico to hide out for a while to figure out their next move while the men bang prostitutes [just like the brothel in TDR]. And then they have to survive a villain who wants revenge on them for murdering someone in their family [just like the Sheriff in TDR]. While THE DEVIL’S REJECTS handles all of this stuff way better and with more emotional stakes, Zombie knows you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. While not as powerful the second time around, at least Zombie handles this part of the storytelling logically well enough to make us forgive him enough to go along with it. But you can’t help but feel you’ve seen this before and more memorably.
As for the dialogue, I still think Zombie ought to let someone handle the writing duties based on his story while he focuses on the visual aspect. Zombie can write some great lines, but his characters all sound the same for the most part, as if he only knows how to portray one type of person and not much else. That being said, I thought the dialogue in 3 FROM HELL was tamer than usual. Yes, there are some outlandish words being said by many of the characters here. You still get your usual F-bombs and sexual innuendos. But Zombie seemed to have restrained himself a bit, giving the dialogue a bit more of a punch, even if it won’t win everyone over. The script won’t win any awards and Zombie still needs to figure out how to give different characters different voices to separate one from the rest. But there is some poignant stuff here, especially in the second half, as well as genuinely funny dialogue that made me laugh. Not everything clicks, but Zombie seems to be maturing a bit. Or maybe he’s just bored trying to be over-the-top with his language since he’s done it so many times before. Whatever the case, I do think it’s time to try something new, whether that is writing characters who aren’t white trash, or having someone else write for him.
The story does have issues, though. While I did enjoy having Foxy around, he’s no Captain Spaulding. That’s not Zombie’s fault, as Sid Haig has been in ill health for years now and could only commit to a day of filming. Zombie actually had to write Spaulding out for much of the film, giving most of the dialogue to Richard Brake’s Foxy instead. Foxy is a great character once the film plays out, as his dialogue reveals aspects about the man that will either make you disgusted by him or likable because of how comical he sees the world. I just wish he had been introduced better, since we had no idea Otis and Baby even had a half-brother in the previous films. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but having him just pop up and an narrator telling us he’s related seemed a bit uninspired.
And while the last act of the film is the most exciting part of 3 FROM HELL, I wish the villains were fleshed out more. All we know about the leader is who he’s related to and that he has a Mexican gang that the locals seem terrified by. But that’s it and we’re never given an opportunity to care about him and his agenda. It’s a shame because this gang is 100 percent bad ass and deserved to be more of a presence in the entire film. It’s almost as if Zombie tried to make the Warden the main antagonist to the 3 From Hell, but decided that recreating the revenge sub-plot of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS would be more entertaining. I do think the Mexican gang were more entertaining as threats, but having the Warden being the main villain would have giving this sequel a different and more grounded feel, in my opinion. But maybe Zombie felt the film needed to be more fun than serious and went a different route. I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by it all on some level.
That being said, Zombie needs to have someone else write for him, or have a script doctor that will tighten up his narratives in the future. You can’t really introduce story arcs and not really follow them through for whatever reason. And characters need to have their own voice and not all sound like derivatives of one another. And I felt the counterpoint that both HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS had doesn’t really exist here, at least not in a way that’s developed a whole lot. Most of Zombie’s films work better because they have something to say and we feel something afterwards. I think 3 FROM HELL starts doing that but then just drops it to give the fans what we all expect. It’s a fun script, but it’s not necessarily a strong or memorable one.
Despite issues with his screenplay, Zombie’s direction is still very good and tries to emulate THE DEVIL’S REJECTS as much as the lower budget would allow him to. Visually, it felt like Zombie took each act and directed them all differently from the others. The first act had more of a visual look that was similar to the one he used for his remake of HALLOWEEN in 2007. The grainy documentary footage of criminals going to jail or being filmed behind bars, the claustrophobic feel, and the descent of characters slowly going insane and more violent all seem inspired by that film. We even have a dreamlike sequence that is very HALLOWEEN 2, although how many will dig it depends on what they felt about all those white horse sequences. The second act is shot very closely to how Zombie filmed THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, with this grainy film look and dirtiness that doesn’t hide how brutal is the story he’s trying to tell. There are a lot of earth colors and definitely has that 70s gritty vibe going for it. Then we get the last act in Mexico, which quickly reminded me of the earlier Robert Rodriguez films like EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO. It looks and plays out like a spaghetti western of sorts, as this is the portion with all the action. It’s less about brutality for the sake of violence and more about survival of the fittest, which I dug a whole lot. In fact, I felt the middle portion felt and looked old hat, while the outer acts felt fresh and different compared to what Zombie usually does. It was cool to see Zombie try new things.
However, I did have issues with some of the editing. If you’re going to film action sequences, especially one-on-one action, you need to let your audience see it play out on screen for us to feel something about what we’re watching. I’m not sure if it was a budgetary reason or Zombie just isn’t good with filming fight choreography, but using quick flash cuts like I’m watching a damn nu-metal video isn’t the way to go. It really annoyed me and took me out of the film because I wanted to see what was going on instead of just the brutal aftermath. And I thought some of the CGI blood used during gunfights looked really cheap, with some being timed a bit off as well. But overall, it looked and was paced like a Rob Zombie film. If you’re into that, you’ll have no issue with 3 FROM HELL.
I felt the acting was the best part of the film, which is usually the case with Rob Zombie films regardless of the quality. Bill Moseley is still great as Otis, playing the character more of how he was near the end of THE DEVIL REJECTS with a more sarcastic and subtle tone than the more violent one he used for HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. In fact, I think Moseley evolved Otis in a way that made the character feel almost tired of the life he had been living for years, almost portraying a more resigned and wiser version of Otis who did what he needed to survive and escape, but wasn’t really enjoying murdering anymore. It almost feels like Zombie was writing a bit of himself in Otis and Moseley did a solid job. Sheri Moon Zombie is going to be hit-or-miss with anyone who watches Zombie’s films, but we can pretty much all agree that Baby Firefly is probably her best role overall. And Zombie shines in 3 FROM HELL, giving us a multi-layered performance I was not really expecting from her. Of all the actors, she has the most to play with and does it really well. Her descent into madness is well acted in an over-the-top way, she handles the comedy stuff well, and she plays a cool badass woman you know you shouldn’t root for, but you kind of want to. Zombie is not the best actress and she won’t win any major awards, but she knows Baby like the back of her hand and believably portrays the devolution and then her eventual return to her REJECTS character without sweating it. Without her, I think 3 FROM HELL would have been a total bomb. Another great performance was Richard Brake as Foxy, getting all the best dialogue and reciting them with great comic timing and much enthusiasm. He was memorable in both HALLOWEEN 2 and 31, continuing that here as a replacement for the missing Captain Spaulding character. While not as colorful as Sid Haig [providing a memorable cameo at the start of the film], Brake fits right in with Zombie and Moseley to complete the trio.
The supporting actors are great too. Jeff Daniel Phillips goes from calm and cool, to scared and manic as Warden Harper, giving another solid performance in a Zombie movie. Dee Wallace probably could have been given more to do as prison guard Greta, but she works with what’s given. Clint Howard is pretty damn great as an unfortunate clown who ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Emilio Rivera had a great presence as vengeful Aquarius, while Pancho Moler’s turn as Sebastian was well-acted, providing the audience with a lot of sympathy for him through the eyes of Baby. Zombie always has a solid cast of people in his movies and this is no exception.
THE FINAL HOWL
If you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie’s films, you’re going to hate 3 FROM HELL. If you were a big fan of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and think this film shouldn’t exist, you’re probably not going to love 3 FROM HELL. It’s definitely a flawed film and it might feel pointless at times, but I still managed to be entertained by this long-awaited sequel. The screenplay has issues and Zombie really needs to have others write down his concepts and ideas in script form while he just handles the visuals. But there are fragments of great ideas and commentary within the context of this new narrative, even though it follows the structure of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS probably way more closely than it should and not as good. But the new characters are welcome additions, and I thought a lot of the dialogue was pretty funny and memorable. The visuals are Zombie’s strength, as it’s a well-made film done on a much cheaper budget than his previous films. But the three acts all feel different, yet still feel cohesive in a strange way, making you wonder where exactly he’s taking this story in a good way. The acting, especially by Sheri Moon Zombie and Richard Brake, is excellent and carries the film strongly until it’s unfortunate flat ending. But 3 FROM HELL is pretty much what you expect out of Rob Zombie - foul language, white trash characters, brutal violence, and a leaning towards favoring the villains over the typical Hollywood heroes. I’m probably being generous with my score, but I never felt bored once and I had fun watching these old characters return to do more damage in a world that doesn’t know how to contain them. Not as good as THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, but I liked it slightly more as a film than HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Plus, it was way better than 31, which automatically gets points from me. For those who hated the film, I totally get it. But I'm on the side of those who are more positive on this one.