GORE IN THE STORE
3 FROM HELL ****
Directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Richard Brake, Danny Trejo, Clint Howard, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, Sean Whalen. Horror, USA, 105 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Lionsgate on October 14th 2019.
3 FROM HELL is a movie that you never really knew you wanted until it was announced. Okay, that might be overstating it a little so how about this – 3 FROM HELL is a movie that Rob Zombie fans didn’t know they wanted until his previous move 31 was released. Always a divisive filmmaker, Zombie’s first two forays into moviemaking – 2003s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and its sequel, 2005s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS – were well received by genre fans and, if nothing else, marked the director out as a filmmaker with vision but once he got his hands on the seemingly untouchable HALLOWEEN and turned in a remake that indulged in his penchant for foul-mouthed hillbillies and brutal sex and violence the tide seemed to turn a bit.
Since then it has been a bumpy road as HALLOWEEN II proved even more divisive, THE LORDS OF SALEM saw him branch out into Euro-influenced supernatural territory and the aforementioned 31 was basically a big middle finger to those who didn’t like or appreciate ...SALEM. And so after that it was a trip to the well and time to bring back the insane Firefly family, who were last seen being blown to pieces by Sheriff Wydell’s police force as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ lamented over the top of the carnage. It seemed like a pretty definitive end to the popular characters but this is Rob Zombie and if the past few movies in his catalogue have told us anything then it is that he doesn’t really care what you think and logic be damned.
And so 3 FROM HELL opens with serial killers Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) somehow barely alive and being rushed into hospital before being incarcerated, and this is where Rob Zombie’s thinking is most obvious as he bombards you with exposition via newspaper clippings, TV news headlines and faux documentary footage that brings you up to speed on how our trio are doing as he indulges in his fascination for the Manson Family by emulating the TV footage of the Manson trial from the early ‘70s (and for added authenticity the prison scenes were shot in the Sybil Brand Institute where members of the Manson Family were held).
From then on in 3 FROM HELL feels very familiar as the inevitable prison break gives way to a road movie where new character Foxy (31's Richard Brake) is introduced, revenge is taken against prison warden Virgil Dallas Harper (played with admirable relish by Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips) and our ‘heroes’ are off, except there isn’t a vengeful sheriff after them this time – just a gang of bloodthirsty Mexican gangsters known as The Black Satans who close in on them after they flee over the border.
And yes, you saw the word ‘heroes’ applied to three sadistic serial killers because that is clearly how Rob Zombie wants you to think of them, regardless of his previous claims that they shouldn’t be hero worshipped because they are so evil. Despite the obvious plot similarities to ...REJECTS there is a sense of casualness to the brutality that was so shocking in that movie but is executed with black humour here, with Rob Zombie stood only a few feet behind the camera and no doubt laughing his Stetson off with sheer glee as Otis exchanges banter with children’s entertainer Mr. Baggy Britches (Clint Howard) before cheerfully putting a bullet in his head. Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie and Richard Brake are also in on the joke, clearly relishing the chance to go over the top but adding a lot of character into their actions, such as Baby pursuing a potential victim in a pose that echoes the exaggerated comic threat of Ghostface in SCREAM, until she catches up with her prey and then humour is replaced with depravity.
Had 3 FROM HELL been made pre-31 then the tonal shift might feel a little more jarring but times have changed – both socially and for the horror genre – and Rob Zombie has become more refined as a filmmaker, knowing what works with his characters and smoothing off the edges of the violence in favour of entertaining rather than shocking. Make no mistake – 3 FROM HELL is still a savage and bloody trip through the underbelly of an America that makes celebrities out of criminals and depicts authority figures as more morally corrupt than the murderers they’re chasing (perhaps times haven’t changed that much) but when you have actors as charismatic as Bill Moseley and Richard Brake committing these atrocities it is difficult not to get caught up in the mayhem and start rooting for them.
But the big question with 3 FROM HELL is how it stacks up against its two predecessors. In truth, comparing it to HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is as redundant as comparing THE DEVIL'S REJECTS to ...CORPSES as stylistically they are totally different beasts, with the main characters names being the only carry-over. 3 FROM HELL is very much a continuation of the 1970s grindhouse aesthetic that ...REJECTS paid homage to – even down to the screen wipes – but there is a bit (just a bit, mind) more colour in the palette here, which makes sense as the movie is set in the 1980s (Foxy even sports a Judas Priest ‘British Steel’ t-shirt in one scene, just to let you know that Rob Zombie is paying attention to his timeline), but the grit and sense of sweltering heat from ...REJECTS is still thankfully present, as are a few CGI blood effects that are a little bit on the Sy-Fy side but a look at the making-of documentary included on the disc reveals that Zombie was up against it with time and budget restraints (as was the case with ...REJECTS but they didn’t look quite as obvious there) so a bit of corner-cutting can be forgiven.
What is a big step-up from Zombie’s earlier movies is in the performances, with Moseley, Brake and Phillips all being excellent as previously mentioned. However, 3 FROM HELL has a larger focus on Baby than the previous two movies and Sheri Moon Zombie does not disappoint, adding a lot of spice to a character who is clearly more demented than she has ever been – it comes to something when Otis Driftwood is the voice of reason during their getaway – and coming across as less irritating than before (i.e. the screechy laugh is used more sparingly). Her scenes with an unrecognisable Dee Wallace as a sadistic prison guard stand out as a particular highlight.
Regardless of your feelings about Rob Zombie and his movies there will always be a tinge of sadness around the release of 3 FROM HELL as in the build-up to its release veteran actor Sid Haig passed away. Always a popular face in the genre Sid helped create one of modern horror’s most instantly recognisable characters with Captain Spaulding in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and injected some warmth to the character in its follow-up. His appearance in 3 FROM HELL is brief but memorable, and although Rob Zombie had to rewrite the movie to accommodate the actor’s failing health it doesn’t feel compromised, and at least we got to see the actor (and the character) one last time.
Overall, 3 FROM HELL is a blast if you fancy another adventure featuring the Firefly family and aren’t bothered by the seeming finality of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS conclusion putting a full stop on their killing spree. The way Rob Zombie keeps their story going is probably the only credible way he could have done it – and at least we didn’t get the rumoured return of ...CORPSES supernatural villain Dr. Satan – and as a violent, at times unpredictable, but still entertaining piece of exploitation it delivers, albeit a bit inconsistently as the final act does meander off towards a rushed ending that is nowhere near as strong as ...REJECTS. Put it this way – Rob Zombie fans will no doubt love the movie and his critics will hate it so it’s business