10 years after their near-fatal shootout with police, rampage killers Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape from prison – their companion Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) having been executed for his crimes. Teaming up with criminal “Foxy” Coltrane (Richard Brake), they make a break for Mexico, although Baby’s murderous obsessions may see them dead before they can make it.
3 From Hell is the third film in director Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” series of grindhouse films, which have previously tracked the exploits of Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding in House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). It has been 14 years between instalments for the characters, who make their return in a film that will likely entertain existing fans of the series while not standing out enough on its own merits to attract a fresh audience. It is, as it stands, a weird trilogy of films that started with grotesque all-out horror before shifting into a sort of grimy, gory criminal saga instead. The Devil’s Rejects seemed to have a solid, definitive ending for the characters; 3 From Hell has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
At this stage of his career, with seven features under his belt, Zombie has certainly cemented a specific aesthetic style. It manages to blend the greasy, no-budget look of cheap 1970s exploitation flicks with a very contemporary level of energy. Things look old and new at the same time, vibrant with colour but smeared with a nauseating sort of malevolence. Viewers may feel here or there on Zombie’s writing – I find it effective but broadly limited – but as a visual stylist he certainly deserves respect.
Returning performers Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie both re-inhabit their characters with ease. They are gaudy monstrosities: both terrifying murderous psychopaths, yet they still easily provide a self-aware absurd humour to their parts. Moseley is incredibly watchable. Moon Zombie essentially plays a variation on the DC Comics character Harley Quinn, had DC ever had the nerve to extend that character to her logical conclusion. Sid Haig, a genre stalwart who made a huge impression in the first two films, essentially appears in cameo via an early flashback. It is a deep shame: he was extremely unwell during his brief shoot and died last September. Even on screen for a minute or two he manages to make an impact.
With Haig largely out of the picture (it was a last-minute change, made three weeks before shooting), Captain Spaulding’s position in the film is assumed by new sidekick “Foxy”, played by Richard Brake. Brake had previously worked with Rob Zombie on the horror film 31, where he played his role Doomhead with an astonishing and bizarre amount of grotesqueness and charisma. He largely repeats the fear here, albeit in a slightly less over-the-top character. There is something innately watchable about Brake; even performing the most heinous of acts he presents riveting stuff.
Reviewing any Rob Zombie film often feels like an exercise in futility. His fans will like what he produces, while a more mainstream audience will generally recoil from his nihilistic, violent world view. To a large extent this does feel true: as they say, expect what you get and you’ll get what you expect. Within the bounds of his distinctive oeuvre, 3 From Hell is a solid entry in Zombie’s canon but lacks the distinctive edge of his best works: House of 1,000 Corpses and 31.