Rob Zombie’s 3 from Hell picks up a decade after The Devil’s Rejects left off, with a little nipping and tucking and ignoring the sack of bullets that were shot into the bodies of the Firefly family as they rode along to “Free Bird.” To some, the mere thought of digging up old bones is sacrilege. But in treading familiar ground with familiar faces, Zombie manages to find something fresher than expected.
With each installation that looks into the lives of the Firefly family—from Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley) to Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Tiny (Matthew McGrory), Mother (Leslie Easterbrook), and now a half-brother Foxy (Richard Brake)—Zombie has done something completely different. House of 1000 Corpses, for all its tonal whiplash and set pieces that don’t mesh, is a fun house of pain and pleasure, a frequently indulgent picture that’s as promising as it is frustrating and has no shame in acknowledging its debt to Tobe Hooper. The Devil’s Rejects, then, is tight where House is loose: a marvelously mounted piece of vulgar American cinema that asks “what if Bonnie, Clyde, and an old clown got off on torturing folks, fucking a lot, and finding fun while being on the run?” It’s a film about awful people doing awful things, and yet somehow, you’re still rooting for them, and Zombie makes that a surprisingly guilt-free experience by virtue of pitting them against an evil as massive as The Man. But most excitingly, it takes characters who were presented as oddities and turns them into living, breathing beings through killer performances.
3 from Hell in many ways repeats a formula that The Devil’s Rejects presented. In its simplest form, it’s about getting out alive, getting along together, and going to hell and back with the people who know you best, and there’s a certain queerness that comes with Zombie’s penchant for those on the outskirts of society. Due to Haig’s illness at the time of shooting, Zombie offers Captain Spaulding only a few moments on screen; a rather loving, if minor by necessity, tribute and send-off to one of the most notable characters of both Zombie’s and Haig’s careers. Of the original trio, Baby and Otis remain the killers they always were, but time has rendered Baby even more unstable after a decade of isolation in prison, and Otis is now the kind of man prone to miserabalism between bouts of violence.
Sheri Moon now has the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, not simply in the movements and purrs that come with being a cat woman, but in the casual ferocity and control over situations she exudes, and the subtle pain behind the eyes of a woman beaten down by the system. The “sexy baby” voice that was at once creepy and fitting for a woman whose ass was frequently on display is now a voice of exhaustion and instability, though Zombie never shies away from reminding the viewer of her sex appeal (never a director to shy away from an ass shot). In one of Zombie’s most inspired moments—recalling David Lynch’s Eraserhead in its execution and somber tone—Baby stares into a grate in her prison cell, only to watch a cat person dance softly, slowly, freely; a key moment of dissociation that summarizes her character choices for the whole picture.
Baby’s violent outbursts, whether on screen or off (and Zombie as a filmmaker curiously seems less interested in the torture that filled his earlier work this time around), are easy to take pleasure in. In part, this is simply because Zombie knows how to deliver trashy and delightful set pieces, but also because Moon is a unique and unpredictable actress. Even having played the same characters three times, she and Moseley find themselves shedding a layer of skin only to reveal something new. Richard Brake’s addition to the trio only adds to the fun. He and Moseley offering beats of back-and-forth conversational humor seems odd at first—quite literally arguing about William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours at one point—but it fits right into the offbeat familiarity and film reference-laden world of the Firefly family. Amidst the humor, these men get little moments of introspection as much as Baby does. Foxy’s fascination with Lon Chaney’s performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for instance, is on the nose, but offers a simple and revealing glimpse into how these characters see themselves: sympathetic figures beneath all the “monstrosity” on the surface.
And in tone, 3 from Hell may be the most self-aware and ambitious entry in the trilogy, split into four different movies in a not-so-neat two-hour package. Zombie first offers a 70s style news bulletin clearly intent on catching the audience up to date as much as it’s poking fun at a modern obsession with serial killers (better integrated here than in David Gordon Green’s Halloween with its one-note true-crime podcasters). This format is soon abandoned for two split routes: for Baby, it’s pure women-in-prison B movie content, and for Otis and Foxy, we find ourselves in the familiar territory of a hostage situation. Both of these roads inevitably crash together and lead us to Mexico, delivering the kind of set pieces that would be declared “problematic” on arrival had the film opened wide instead of a three-day Fathom Events release.
It’s in this last act that Zombie finds some of his most exciting material. The filmmaker borrows heavily from Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch especially, and embraces absolute chaos. In fact, Zombie treats the viewer to everything from Sheri Moon shooting a bow and arrow while wearing a Native American headdress as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” plays, to a gang clad in suits and luchador masks with pentagrams stitched into them. And with the grand collection of disposable bodies that the Firefly family have encountered over the years, the series even finally finds a character to root for in Pancho Moler’s Sebastian. With an eyepatch and a fondness for the Firefly family, he’s the closest thing to an audience stand-in there is; able to ignore some of the worst crimes these people have done because of the splashes of identification that lie within, alongside the knowledge that the establishments they’re railing against are frequently far worse than the murderous trio we’ve come to know and love. And 3 from Hell, for all its indulgences and brutality, is a return to the people who may very well feel most like home to Zombie. It’s why it’s worth scrapping the perfect ending that came with The Devil’s Rejects: he’s a man who enjoys watching the monsters take control and gives them the opportunity to do so more often than not. Whether the audience is willing to come along for the ride is up to them and them alone.
Directed by Rob Zombie; written by Rob Zombie; starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Pancho Moler; 111 minutes.