SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR LIONSGATE’S NEW FILM 3 FROM HELL
I am a massive fan of pretty much everything Rob Zombie does.
That’s not to say that I think every movie, comic book, and album he has produced is perfect. Far from it. But I love his style and his ability to make even the most bizarre concepts seem somehow mainstream. The man is a pop culture icon; there’s no denying that.
Among all of Zombie’s creations, the Firefly family of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are particularly special to me. Not because they’re aspirational or admirable characters – they absolutely are not. They’re awful, nightmarish people. But there’s something compelling to me about these people and their relationships to one another, as well as the world that Zombie has built around them.
I saw House of 1000 Corpses in the theater on opening night. I had been following its troubled production for years at that point and didn’t really believe it would ever be released. I’ll always have a soft spot for Lionsgate just for making that happen.
The film blew me away with its over-the-top style and outrageousness, and my respect for Zombie increased due to his willingness to do seemingly anything, and damn the system.
While I enjoyed the heck out of House, I can’t say that I expected a masterpiece as a follow-up. At best I thought The Devil’s Rejects would be another ninety minutes of schlocky, gory music video. I was so very wrong.
The 2005 sequel was a fantastically shot, brutal piece of despair. With not a single virtuous character to be found, the movie relied on style and grisly action to keep the viewer engaged. For me, it succeeded. The Devil’s Rejects is one of my favorite movies and Bill Moseley’s Otis Driftwood is one of my favorite villains. I’ve dressed up as him on multiple occasions and we named our first dog after him back in 2006.
Since the release of that film Zombie has experimented with a range of other subjects. From his vision of Michael Myers to the psychedelic witchcraft of Lords of Salem to a Ralph Bakshi-esque animated feature, Zombie has dabbled in many corners of genre film. Some I’ve loved and some I haven’t, but Zombie’s name always guarantees a compelling watch.
After fourteen years away from the Firefly family I had no idea what their creator might have in mind or if he even still had the same gusto that made them so compelling in the first place. In my personal experience getting older means getting gentler, but a toned-down Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding simply would not work. As such, I went into 3 from Hell full of uncertainty. Beyond the characters, would Zombie even be able to harness the brutal energy of the previous films? Did he still have it in him to create that relentless tone?
3 from Hell was released as a limited theatrical experience via Fathom Events. As soon as tickets went on sale I ordered for the first night, despite the fact that I had to work the next day. Nothing less than an opening night viewing would be good enough for me, and there was no way I was missing the third entry in this series on the big screen after experiencing the first two that way.
Do Zombie and the cast still have what it takes? Was this a worthy follow-up or should the Firefly family have stayed as dead as the conclusion of The Devil’s Rejects suggested? Read on and find out!
1 – Captain, My Captain – I’ve met Sid Haig several times over the years, including once at Dragon Con the year before The Devil’s Rejects was released. He was always friendly and upbeat and excited to talk about his business.
His Captain Spaulding was a burly, vital brute with a quick wit and a huge screen presence. Between the real man and the character, I have a lot of attachment to Sid Haig, so it was rough seeing him looking as frail as he does in 3 from Hell. He still commands the screen and in what amounts to a cameo manages to be one of the most important parts of the film, but I was nearly in tears seeing that big, powerful man clearly not in the best health. It was very reminiscent of my own grandfather’s failing health and my last memories of him.
One of the best and most poignant scenes of the movie was Captain Spaulding’s final interview before his execution. He asks a reporter, “What’s the difference between a dead squirrel in the road and a dead clown in the road?”
When the reporter can’t come up with an answer, Spaulding provides one: “The squirrel has skid marks in front of it.”
It’s a subtle but powerful statement on alienation and Otherness that is threaded throughout the rest of the movie. Granted, it might carry more weight if it weren’t coming from a murderous psychopath, but I give Zombie points for the sentiment.
Due to Haig’s condition, most of Captain Spaulding’s place in the script was essentially filled in by a new character, Winslow “Foxy” Coltrane, who I’ll get to later.
I hope that Haig regains his health and has many comfortable years ahead of him. He’ll always be fondly thought of by those of us lucky enough to have met him.
2 – The Tone – As I mentioned above, I went into this not sure if an older Zombie would have the same venom that produced The Devil’s Rejects. While 3 from Hell has its moments of unrepentant evil, the overall film is less intense. And that’s not a bad thing.
Much of this movie is more about the characters and their interactions than it is about violence and chaos – though there’s a fair serving of those, as well. Each character has changed in the years since the conclusion of the prior film, and a large part of this movie is exploring those changes and the mindset of Baby, Otis, and to a lesser extent Captain Spaulding.
To set the stage, after the shootout at the end of The Devil’s Rejects, the titular characters spent a year being treated for and recovering from twenty gunshot wounds apiece. This first act of the movie is presented as a true crime documentary detailing the capture of the so-called “Devil’s Rejects” after the shocking crime known as “The House of One Thousand Corpses”. I absolutely love that the newscaster says it that way because it gives the zany movie title a sort of real world shock factor. Then the movie jumps ahead ten years to 1988, with all three still in prison.
I’m sure the first thing that jumped out at you was “1988” because everything takes place in the 80s now and a lot of genre shows and films are using nostalgia as a crutch or at the very least an enticement. That’s not the case here. For better or worse this might as well still be 1978. There’s no neon, no checkerboard patterns, no Swatches. Zombie didn’t set this thing in 1988 to rub your 80s erogenous zones. He did it because that’s what the story needed to use these characters to examine the concepts of aging, purpose, and existence.
The pacing in 3 from Hell is very different from any other Zombie flick. While there are segments that are more action-oriented, we spend stretches with Baby and Otis examining their (damaged) state of mind. But these scenes never wear out their welcome. As a matter of fact, I would have enjoyed more from Sherri Moon Zombie.
3 – Oh, Baby – Everyone has grown. Zombie has reigned in his ridiculous psycho-pseudo-redneck dialogue, which I always found to be a distraction. As a result we can look at these characters more as humans and less as caricatures. The actor to benefit most from this is Zombie’s wife, who plays Vera-Ellen “Baby” Firefly.
As an audience we’ve been able to watch Moon grow as an actress over the years. While I genuinely enjoy her performances in the Halloween movies and Lords of Salem, she has hit a whole new level in this movie. Baby is, as Otis notes, wackier now. She’s still cruel and sadistic, but there’s an almost ethereal spaciness to her madness now, likely due to years in and out of solitary confinement.
In one of the more abstract scenes in the movie, Baby visualizes an anthropomorphic cat dancing in an ice cave located deep in the duct of her prison cell. Thanks to Moon’s performance up to that point, the quiet breakdown she has when the cat disappears is heartbreaking. If we hadn’t seen new glimpses of trauma and humanity the scene might have been comedic, but as is this formerly detestable character garners some sympathy.
I also felt like there were shades of Leslie Easterbrook’s magnificent performance as Mother Firefly in The Devil’s Rejects. Moon’s languid, yowling monologues are reminiscent of Easterbrook’s scenes with William Forsythe.
The climax of the film involves Baby stalking a cadre of masked assassins through a small Mexican town. Her physicality and almost cartoonishly expressive face make it one of the highlights of the movie. The Sherri Moon Zombie of 2000 or even 2008 wouldn’t have been capable of such a compelling performance.
Beyond that physicality we also have Baby manipulating a female prison guard played by Dee Wallace. There are some intense, visceral moments between the two where Zombie allows the actresses to breathe and create real tension.
4 – The Midnight Wolfman – Zombie accounted for Sid Haig’s limitations by greatly reducing the role of Captain Spaulding and writing his execution into the opening scenes of the film. There still had to be “3 from Hell”, so a new character was added – Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” Coltrane, aka The Midnight Wolfman (although suddenly I can’t remember if it might have been “Midnight Werewolf”).
While that’s too many animal monikers for one person, Richard Brake – who you might know as the Night King on Game of Thrones – is a shockingly fantastic addition to the cast.
I’m sure recasting Captain Spaulding was never even discussed, and I’m glad for that. Nobody could have possibly filled Sid Haig’s clown shoes and there would have been immediate backlash. Instead we get Otis’ brother, Foxy.
Foxy isn’t the same kind of outlandish criminal as the other Fireflys. He’s still a murderer with a cruel streak, but Brake portrays more of an everyman, salt of the earth kind of villain. It sounds weird, but it helps to ground the movie and give a new perspective on the existing characters. Foxy has a fixation on Hollywood and movies that comes through to provide some much-needed humor in places.
In one instance Foxy suggests to Otis that they retire from crime and start making porn, which Otis receives in a very positive manner. It’s a connective and humanizing moment for both characters and an important touchstone that lets the audience get better invested in the rest of the film. We’ve shared a real, actual moment with these two maniacs that wasn’t marred by the sort of indulgence that Zombie is known for. As a result Brake and Moseley get some real acting in and not just scenery chewing.
But don’t worry – Foxy gets plenty of opportunity for that, as well. Every time he belts out a Midnight Wolfman howl is a delight, to the point where you’re looking for it by the end of 3 from Hell.
5 – Once Upon A Time in Mexico – Remember Danny Trejo’s role as Rondo, one half of the Unholy Two in The Devil’s Rejects?
Well, he’s back and it’s one of 3 from Hell’s finer and more surprising plot points. Poor ol’ Rondo ended up on the chain gang with Otis and has the bad fortune to be present when Foxy helps Otis escape. Rondo doesn’t remember our convict, but Otis sure remembers him. And executes him live on camera.
While this seems like simply an exclamation point on the first act of the movie, it’s actually the event that sets up the climax.
It turns out that Rondo’s son is a big time muckity-muck in Mexico, which is where the Fireflys decide to migrate after a small but vicious murder spree that includes Jeff Daniel Phillips’ prison warden and all of his friends and family. And a clown named Mr. Baggy Britches played by Clint Howard.
Once in Mexico the family is, of course, ratted out and Rondo, Jr. shows up with his team of Satanic-themed luchador-masked assassins. At first the setup seems familiar, as Otis, Baby, and Foxy have been partying all night and are seemingly in no shape to deal with their assailants. Which is exactly what happened in The Devil’s Rejects when the Unholy Two apprehended the Fireflys for Sheriff Wydell. We as the audience know that.
But Rob Zombie knows that we know that and plays with our knowledge to create a slightly different scenario; one that is much more fun to watch and is the climax of the movie rather than the setup for the final act, which plays out very much like a classic Spaghetti Western.
These masked Satanic luchadors give the audience an unknown enemy to root against, allowing us for the first time to root for the Fireflys without feeling bad about it. Plus, the assassins’ shared theme allows for what I thought was the funniest line of the film:
When Otis is informed that Satan has sent his soldiers to kill him, he responds with, “What?!? I’m Satan!”
It got a BIG laugh in the theater.
6 – Let the Laughter In – 3 from Hell is still a violent, ugly movie about violent, ugly people. But the tone is lighter than it was in The Devil’s Rejects, we have Foxy as a sort of comic relief, and we have villains who aren’t really worse than the Fireflys, but are opposed to them. And since we’ve been with Otis and Baby for three movies now, familiarity makes them the heroes of that scenario.
While they still commit horrific acts against people that don’t deserve it, the familiarity of these characters makes their acts less appalling – kind of like Freddy and Jason. I’m not saying what they’re doing is okay, but it feels less objectionable to sit back and be entertained.
Which is possibly another statement that Zombie is making with this movie. The opening documentary makes a point of the cult of personality surrounding the Firefly clan and the public’s bizarre adoption of them as icons and victims of an unfair system. Obviously there are many parallels to the real world that can be drawn and I’m sure Zombie would be happy knowing his audience grasped any of them. As gratuitous and vile as his movies can be, Zombie himself seems to be a mild-mannered guy and a champion of peace and togetherness.
I mean, he’s a vegan, for Pete’s sake.
7 – Relief – You guys – I was going to be thrilled if this movie just landed at “not awful” or even “I wasn’t embarrassed to watch it”.
I love this world and these despicable characters and didn’t want to see them depicted in a lesser way. But I don’t think I imagined that 3 from Hell could possibly be a better movie than either of its predecessors. I’m not saying I like it more – I won’t know that until I’ve watched it a few more times over the course of a couple of years. But I genuinely think it’s a better film.
Bill Moseley is at the apex of his acting career, turning in a performance that cements Otis Driftwood as one of the great on screen villains. I know I didn’t give Moseley his own section, but that’s because he was already awesome in the prior two movies and I didn’t think “Bill Moseley is still awesome” needed saying.
As much as I love The Devil’s Rejects, I think this is by far Rob Zombie’s tightest, best directing. No time is wasted and every shot feels significant and seems to be conveying some crucial feeling or piece of information. Sometimes the camera lingers on a character for an extra second, capturing a look or action that punctuates the scene.
From beginning to end I was captivated by 3 from Hell, savoring every minute in this world and its grotesque menagerie of inhabitants. It was almost shocking to have it end with Otis, Baby, and Foxy walking off into the proverbial sunset, presumably to be safely tucked away until Zombie and company are once again inspired to bring these characters out to play. I, for one, will be there whenever it happens.
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