Rob Zombie returns with an ultra violent, gleefully amoral exploitation movie that presses all the right moral outrage buttons.
You either love Rob Zombie as a filmmaker or you hate him – there doesn’t seem a lot of room inbetween, and a large part of the horror establishment seem to be very much in the ‘hate’ camp. Certainly, Zombie’s films don’t tend to fall into the ‘elevated horror’ mould so beloved of the current generation of chin-stoking horror critics – he’s as unrepentant a genre filmmaker as you could hope to find, even if tht genre isn’t always pure horror.
After proving his trippy, occultist credentials with the remarkable Lords of Salem, it’s back to basics with 3 From Hell, which is the somewhat belated third part of a trilogy that began with House of 1000 Corpses and continued with The Devil’s Rejects. The film opens with news footage of the capture and imprisonment of Captain Spaulding, Otis Driftwood and Baby Firefly, allowing a final appearance as Sapulding by the great Sid Haig, who’s ill health prevented him from repeating the part at length. Instead, Spaulding is executed at the start of the film, and is replaced in proceedings by another family member, Foxy Coltrane, played by Richard Brake, who we first see breaking Driftwood out of a chaingang before the pair of them carry out a home invasion on prison warden Virgil Dallas Harper’s home, forcing him to break Baby out (a pointless concession, given that the family and friends being held as hostages are immediately slaughtered anyway), the three of them then fleeing to Mexico, where an idyllic life of tequila and whores is rudely interrupted by a gang of vengeance crazed Satanic lucadors.
The film is effectively – and fittingly – a trypitch, with the first third primarily focused on the initial jail break and Baby’s time in the brutal prison, the middle section being the home invasion story and the final act focusing on the Mexican jaunt, though of course everything bleeds across into each other. The home invasion section is where the film sags slightly, if only because it’s the sort of thing we’ve seen countless times – as soon as it was telegraphed in the dialogue (a discussion about The Desperate Hours), a sighed and prepared myself for the worst. In contrast, the opening scenes – all well crafted faux documentary material that was so impressive that I was slightly deflated when the film slipped into standard narrative style – are excellent and the prison scenes powerful and brutal. The final part of the movie is more laid back, if we can say that about a film that ends with a bloody shoot out, and becomes good fun, if perhaps more throwaway.
Given that Zombie has had well over a decade to bring this third installment to the screen, it does at times feel a little generic – nothing really happens here that is a surprise. But then, why should it? If the earlier films were love letters to earlier genre pieces, then this is Zombie paying tribute to himself, and frankly, he has every right to. It’s impressive just how few fucks he is giving here in regard to critical appreciation or modern sensibilities – there’s cultural appropriation a-go go, gratuitous nudity ans sexualised violence, gross out moments of bad taste and more violence than I’ve seen on screen in quite a while. Notably, while the chattering classes are fretting about Joker portraying a sympathetic psychopath, Zombie here gives us three brutal murderers and has the audacity to make them the film’s heroes. It’s morally dubious, and frankly I’m all the more down with it as a result; Zombie knows only too well that horror is a subversive genre and should have no truck with good taste and political correctness.
Bill Moseley is on fine form as Driftwood, Brake is impressive as the new recruit and Jeff daniel Phillips is wonderfully sleazy as the moustachioed, coked-up and sleazy warden, the most unlikely prison head since Natural Born Killers. But this is Sheri Moon Zombie’s film – as Baby, she is seductive, girlish, psychotic and cold blooded, often changing within the blink of an eye. The film plays on Manson mythology and she’s every Manson girl rolled into one (with a bit of Charlie in there too). She tends to get stick for the fact that her husband always puts her in his films – and no one else puts her in theirs. But to be honest, that’s to the shame of other filmmakers, and if Rob and Sheri are the Jess Franco and Lina Romay of 21 century American exploitation, joined at the hip and only working with each other, then more power to them.
Outside the main cast, there are small roles for genre favourites like Danny Trejo and Dee Wallace, Austin Stoker from Assault on Precinct 13 and, of course, Sid Haig, who’s appearance is an appropriate final moment for the great cult star. Similar pop culture refeneces are dotted around the soundtrack, with Suzi Quatro, Terry Reid and Iron Butterfly’s iconic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
I’m not going to pretend that 3 From Hell is a deep film, that it has anything to really say or is especially valuable, but none of that really matters. Honestly, I’d tired of horror films that wear their subtext on their sleeve and desperately call attention to how socially significant they are. This is a much more honest film than pretty much any genre piece you’ll see this year, I’d wager, and as a piece of violent, no-nonsense entertainment, as entertaining as you could hope for it to be. It might not be a fashionable opinion, but I’m starting to see Zombie now as possibly our most important and entertaining current exploitation filmmaker (I say exploitation, because this is only peripherally a horror movie even if you like to stretch genre boundaries), and if that upsets you, so be it.