When it comes to the films of shock rocker / writer / director Rob Zombie, I’m split right down the middle.
On one hand, I appreciate the deft hand he has shown when it comes to 70’s inspired exploitation-style horror flicks and there’s no denying that the man has skill and style. On the other hand, that style is (so far) decidedly one note. He does it well…but it’s all he currently does, so these days you pretty much know what you’re getting with one of his movies.
To this day, of his 7 features, Lords of Salem (2012) stands out as my favorite as, to me at least, it tried something different, while still managing to mire in some of Zombie’s trademark sleaze…it just wasn’t as in-your-face about it.
When it comes to his ‘Firefly Trilogy’, again I’m of two minds. Behind Lords of Salem, the first installment, The House of 1000 Corpses (2003) follows closely in preference for me. It’s Zombie’s first feature film and it really is like the liner notes from a White Zombie / Rob Zombie CD come to life, while also allowing him to tap into his love for the horror genre of the 1970’s / 80’s. For a film with limited budget and a troubled distribution (if I recall correctly, original studio Universal allegedly didn’t want to touch it after they saw the finished product, so on to a shelf it went for a couple years, then eventually up for sale), I think he pulled off what he set out to accomplish with that first film, which was basically a stylish, mean-spirited love letter to the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with some weird Rob Zombie shit sprinkled in there for good measure. This was followed up in 2005 with the somewhat notorious The Devil’s Rejects, a sequel that I both appreciate and loathe, almost equally. I appreciate that Zombie’s growing sophistication as a director was clearly evident and he kept the ‘reality’ of the simplistic narrative consistent. Plus, I’m always ok with flicks that open with a kick-ass shootout, which this one certainly does. The problem for me, which has become a noticeable trend when it comes to the viewing of Zombie’s films, is there always seems to be THAT scene; the scene where he fails to recognize the value of restraint, and dials the sleaze and violence up to 11. In Rejects, it’s the sadistic roadside motel sequence, where two of the murderous Firefly Family fugitives, ‘Otis Driftwood’ (Bill Moseley) and ‘Baby’ (Sheri Moon-Zombie), take a traveling band hostage and proceed to torture and murder them with a uncomfortable sense of homicidal glee. The flick revels in the depravity of the main characters and unflinchingly shows us their nasty, gore-soaked handiwork…and that’s what got to me – The Unpleasantness for the sake of Unpleasantness. Sometimes, I just don’t need it and it turned me off, dropping Rejects to near the bottom of the list, even though I do still appreciate the technical prowess on display
So fast forward to 2019, and Rob finally gets around to completing his depraved little trilogy.
3 From Hell picks up in 1988, 10 years on from the events of Rejects, after ‘Otis’, ‘Baby’ and family patriarch ‘Captain Spaulding’ (Sid Haig) were shot to bloody pieces while charging a police roadblock, looking pretty fucking dead when the echoes (and Free Bird!) faded out, and deservedly so. However, the lure of a third movie called and SOMEHOW all three survived being shot 20 or so times EACH. They gain a Manson-like sense of notoriety through their trials and imprisonment before languishing away for years behind bars. Eventually *SPOILER*, ‘Spaulding’ is sent to the Great Beyond, which kicks things into action. A new character emerges, ‘Otis’ half-bro ‘Foxy’ (Richard Brake), violently springing ‘Otis’ from the clink and going on the run, intent on Mexico. Along the way, they invade suburbia, taking hostage the family of the prison warden overseeing ‘Baby’s incarceration in a terror-fueled bid to get her free. Meanwhile, a clearly deranged ‘Baby’ deals with her own tribulations as a vengeful prison guard named ‘Greta’ (Dee Wallace) carries out a plan to torture and kill her, which plays right into ‘Baby’s bloodstained hands. Through much bloodshed and horror, the 3 from Hell are reunited and escape into Mexico, where a whole new slew of problems arise. Much CG muzzle flashes and blood ensue.
Armed with a $100 gift card for Walmart *shivers* from my employer, I scored Tenet (boo!) and a Blu ray Firefly Family Triple feature for $15.
How could I not!
So last weekend, I sealed myself away (my wife – not the biggest Rob Zombie fan) after a puff, armed with an icy cold beer and my trusty notepad.
And I got to writin…!
(SPOILERS may ensue)
-Very Natural Born Killers-like beginning. Heavy on the doc + TV feel. The story fills us in on what’s been happening with these walking pieces of shit through an appropriately ’80’s’ montage of news and documentary footage, which reminded me very much of Robert Downey Jr’s sequences in 1994’s Natural Born Killers, a divisive flick in its own right (STILL not sure how I feel about it!) that I guarantee would turn up on a Rob Zombie Top 10 Movie Influences list.
-Damn! Haig not lookin good. Definitely sick at this point. This was allegedly Sid Haig’s final film. Apparently, the poor guy ingested puke into his lungs getting sick in his sleep at some point, which led to pneumonia that eventually killed him at 80, a week after this movie was released. While he was hospitalized, he managed to get sprung for just enough time (one day only, I believe) to put in for a key (and final) scene for ‘Spaulding’
-OK send off for ‘Spaulding’/Haig. When it was obvious that Haig wouldn’t be able to continue, Zombie retooled the story to somewhat graciously exit the ‘Spaulding’ character. Given what they had to work with, it worked, in my opinion.
-Moseley still scary as ‘Otis’. Consistent over 3 flicks. Sometimes an actor can be such a natural fit for a character that it’s scary, and Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and his portrayal of the savage serial killer ‘Otis Driftwood’ is unsettlingly realized. Dude’s a repellent son of a bitch! Speaking of consistency, I’m pretty certain that ‘Otis’ was clearly an albino in House of 1000 Corpses, a curious character trait that just seemed to get misplaced between that film and its sequel. A couple points knocked off for that strange omission.
-Danny Trejo! Yes, ‘Machete’ himself is in the house! Just…really briefly.
-Doc footage angle too cinematic. Prison break. One or the other, Rob! Ok, this sequence I found odd. For some reason, there’s a documentary crew filming prisoners working in a field, of which ‘Otis’ is one. We are told that the grainy 8 or 16mm film footage shows the brutal massacre of the guards by ‘Otis’ and ‘Foxy’, including the shooting of the film crew filming it. The problem is that all this supposed ‘raw’ footage is shot and cut in a style that matches the editing of the rest of the movie. It feels like the documentary approach was an after-thought in editing, so they slapped a film grain filter and narration over what they had and called it a day. I get what you were doing, Rob…it just didn’t work for me.
-Richard Brake! Good Haig replacement. Richard Brake (Doom) is an interesting-looking dude and often turns up effectively playing a scumbag of some kind, which he’d done twice before for Zombie, first with Halloween II (2009) and then again, as ‘Doom-Head’ in 31, a piece of shit character I actually kinda like. And here he was again, and I’ll admit that he fit right into this sordid little universe.
-1988 setting = good call. Explains aging. Sheri Moon-Zombie is a sexy lady and Rob is a lucky dude for landing such a fine specimen that seems to effortlessly compliment his style, in almost every way. Hell, he puts her into EVERY ONE OF HIS FLICKS, so clearly she acts as something of a muse, which I cannot fault. That being said, it’s now obvious that 20 years have passed since she first popped up as the drop dead sexy but crazy as shit ‘Baby’ in 1000 Corpses, where I found her to be an absolute object of desire, hot in that slightly sleazy un-PC pornstar kinda way (which I know is sexist disservice to Mrs. Zombie but cut me some slack, t’was in my early 20’s when I first encountered her!). To her credit, IF she HAS had any work done over the years, of the plastic surgery sort…my untrained eye can’t tell. She looks like herself, just older. And it worked just fine for me. Still a damn fine-looking lady, IMO. So yeah, jumping ahead a decade in the story made sense.
-OK, they’re not hiding Sheri’s age. I like that. Obviously a follow-up to the last scribble but this is in direct relation to a strangely brave shot where ‘Baby’ is being led down a hallway in dramatic slow motion and the lighting accents the emerging age lines and creases gracefully shaping that supermodel face of hers as she strides toward us. It’s a small thing, but a brave one and I applaud it.
-And she’s funny too! Parole hearing scene. Does crazy well. ‘Baby’ has always been fucking loony tunes, but mostly in a calculating and gleefully homicidal way. But normalish when the moment called for it. Not here. She’s wacked right the fuck out and Sheri seemed to be just going for it, maybe as this would be the last chance to go all out with the character she’s been so long associated with. Either way, I found myself chuckling at her over-the-top performance several times.
-Oh shit! Face lift! A desperate chase through the woods, a cornered victim, a really sharp knife…you see where this is going.
-Dee Wallace! Again! It’s always a pleasure to see this charming lady onscreen, probably most famous for playing the mom ‘Mary’ in E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), but also readily recognizable from a slew of genre entries through the 80’s (The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), Critters (1986) etc) and still ongoing today, as this performance demonstrates. She’d already worked with Zombie on his underrated Lords of Salem so clearly they hit it off. She plays a very un-‘Dee Wallace’ character with sadistic prison guard ‘Greta’.
-Fuckin shaky cam! But damn, she fucked the lesbians up! Yuck! This happened more than once in this flick. Instead of giving us well-shot and edited action scenes, Rob falls into the low budget trap of using indecipherable close-ups and hectic editing to convey ‘action’, namely in fight scenes. It didn’t help things. In this sequence, ‘Baby’ is ambushed by a pair of…pardon me…bull dykes (I know, I know), who fuck her up good, but eventually get a gory, badly edited comeuppance.
-Oh shit. Another ‘Rejects’ motel scene. Great. That’s heavy sarcasm on the ‘Great‘. As soon as ‘Otis’ and ‘Foxy’ invade the warden’s house, I knew what was coming – THAT scene, the one I mentioned earlier, that turns up in virtually all of his movies, where Rob smashes the bounds of good taste and shit gets uncomfortable. I wasn’t disappointed.
-Sheri’s pretty fuckin nutty this time around. ‘Baby’s nuttiness continues.
-Yep. A lil needless sadism. Classic Zombie. Boo… The narrative shifts back and forth between ‘Otis’ and ‘Foxy’ cruelly messing with the hostages and ‘Baby’ unleashing her own carnage behind bars.
-Clint Howard?! Why not! Because no movie is complete without a hapless party clown turning up at a vicious hostage situation for no apparent reason, other than to become the butt of a cruel joke before… *SPOILER*…having his grease-painted brains blown out. Just cuz.
-OK, WTF?! Hilarious cat head ballerina scene. Holy shit! This one had me laughing out loud, not with the movie but directly at it! There’s a scene where ‘Baby’ hallucinates the image of a cat-headed ballerina performing what I think is supposed to be some haunting dance routine but it just came across as super silly and ultra cheap.
-Oh no! E.T.’s mom! Surprise surprise…’Greta’ bites the dust.
-Yep. ‘Rejects’ motel scene all over again. Restraint, Rob. Seriously. I think that sums up what’s going on at this point in the 1 hour, 55 minute run-time
-‘Otis’ / ‘Foxy’ banter often funny. I’m willing to be there was a lot of ad libbing on set.
-They are still assholes. This is one issue I have with Zombie’s writing…he’s really good at creating these dangerously eccentric and often down right evil characters, so good so, that he seems to ONLY populate his stories with these types, which becomes a drag with you aren’t really given a character you can and want to root for. The Firefly Family, looking past the horror and depravity of their extensive murder spree, are ignorant redneck hillbilly types that are straight up assholes when they aren’t shooting or stabbing folks. I found myself rooting for them to die but knew they wouldn’t, due to Rob’s fascination with them. He HAD already given them a fitting, if melodramatic, end at the climax of Rejects, but promptly undid it for this flick.
-2nd Act meanders a bit. Mexico. Says it right there.
-Ok, trippy party montage…just to have a trippy party montage. Perhaps in an effort to pad the run-time (though it certainly wouldn’t have needed it), we are treated to an extended montage of ‘Baby’, ‘Otis’ and ‘Foxy’ engaging in all manner of sleazy revelry, presented with a very ’60’s / ’70’s flavor that didn’t really serve the plot in any way and felt somewhat self-indulgent…which it probably was.
-Lots of crass filler. No surprise there. Pure Rob Zombie.
-Haha! Gang of Mexican wrestlers! Black Satans. Because…why the fuck not.
-Good use of Iron Butterfly. Action montage. Given his background in music and video, it’s no surprise that Zombie knows how to marry image and sound, in this case classic tune In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly laid over an extended shootout.
-Can’t tell if ‘Baby’s use of the head dress and bow is racist. As they were wrapping up the torture / murders at the warden’s house, ‘Baby’ spotted a large feathered Native headdress on display and takes it as her own, along with a bow and quiver of arrows. In these fragile days, when everyone is SO SENSITIVE ABOUT EVERYTHING I have to wonder how the use of these obviously Native American items would play with certain crowds.
-Feels like The Way of the Gun. Cat n mouse shootout. I love writer /director Christopher McQuarrie’s debut feature The Way of the Gun (2000), which ends with the two asshole protagonists taking on a collection of mob goons in a dried-up border town. Same feel here.
-Is that ‘Tick’ from Strange Days?! Ouch. I knew I recognized Richard Edson, who plays clip dealer ‘Tick’ in one of my favorite underrated movies, 1995’s exceptional Strange Days (which I highly recommend, BTW). You may also recognize him as the sleaze-bag joyrider parking attendant from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). He meets a painful but abrupt end.
-More CG than expected – blood, muzzle flashes etc. This surprised me, the sheer volume of very noticeable CG blood, muzzle flashes and various self-indulgent effects, which for me cheapened the movie when compared to it’s predecessors.
-And more damn shaky cam, close-up fighting! Unfortunately, this shit made up a big part of the 3rd Act.
-Not awful, not great. Definitely a Rob Zombie flick. Kinda sums it up right there.
All in all, 3 From Hell was…ok. It did feel a bit cheaper and ‘tacked on’, as final chapters go, but it stayed true to the unpleasant world, characters and atmosphere already established by the earlier films. Being that it mirrored some of the structure of The Devil’s Rejects and again force-fed us more scenes of heartless cruelty, just cuz, I would rank it near equal to that one, hovering near the bottom of my list of Rob Zombie films and my order of preference. Amazingly enough, I think I prefer his previous, much-maligned and micro-budgeted slasher 31, which is NEARLY as unpleasant (also a ‘true’ Rob Zombie flick, for all that entails, but at least some of the homicidal maniacs in that one get fucked up by the would-be victims, instead of the psychos always coming out on top, regardless of their evil bullshit), but somehow more engaging. There isn’t a ton a I can say beyond what I’ve already said…if you’re a horror movie fan or, more specifically, a fan of Rob Zombie’s cinematic endeavours, then you may get something out of this final chapter to his Firefly Trilogy…but I can’t say that it’s somehow ‘required viewing’. As previously written…not awful, not great.
*I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again – I would love to see Rob Zombie try his hand at directing a feature written by someone who is not him (naturally thinking Horror, Science Fiction or Action but who knows what his interests may be at the time, should it ever come).
**Also, what the hell happened to the character of ‘Doctor Satan’, who we met torturing the last two victim characters from House of 1000 Corpses in his nightmarish underground lab?! He, like ‘Otis’ albinism, just vanish as the series plays out. There’s very little mention (if any) regarding his fate or even his existence in the other films. I feel like excluding him was a missed opportunity to explore some alternative insanity that could’ve spiced this over-arcing storyline up.