Three from Hell is Rob Zombie’s newest film in the series documenting the Firefly/Driftwood/Spaulding family, following 2003’s House of a 1000 Corpses and 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. The end of the latter shows the remaining family members riding sorely unmatched into a shootout with the police, so I’m guessing the 14-year lapse had at least partly to do with thinking them back to life. The solution? The movie opens with Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis (Bill Moseley), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) gravely wounded and requiring a year of hospitalization before being sentenced to prison. Roughly the first half of the story is their escape, and the second half is their adventures in Mexico dodging hitmen.
For fun, I made five predictions about Three from Hell before I entered the theatre: 1. That Baby would giggle annoyingly (called it); 2. Captain Spaulding would mention fried chicken (wrong); 3. Something really gross would happen that would make me wonder why I watch all of Rob Zombie’s movies (naturally); 4. There would be good music (check); and 5. There would be moments that seem more like rip-offs of other movies rather than mere homages (not per se, but we’ll get to that later).
Many of Zombie’s regulars return: Richard Brake (Doomhead in 31) as Foxy, a ret-conned half sibling of Baby and Otis, Jeff Daniel Philips (The Lords of Salem) as smarmy prison warden Harper, legendary scream queen Dee Wallace as prison guard Greta, Kevin Jackson (31) as a parole board member, and Tom Papa (The Haunted World of El Superbeasto). Danny Trejo returns briefly as his mercenary character from Rejects, Rondo. There are cameos by Clint Howard, Sean Whalen, Chaz Bono, Richard Riehle, and Barry Bostwick as the narrator.
I bought my movie ticket unaware that it was a double feature with Rejects, and only having seen it once when it was a new release, didn’t recognize it; thus, I was quite confused for the first twenty or so minutes. Watching the two movies in a row gave me a chance to more closely study Zombie’s direction techniques, such as lots of close-ups, slow motion overlaid by music with no audible dialogue (I’m such a sucker for that shit, and he makes it look gorgeous), and panning from one shot over to a completely different setting. I appreciate Zombie’s skill with a camera, but sometimes his films are so angry and cynical that they’re hard to enjoy otherwise. The violence comes across as nihilism; the world is fucked up, so it’s okay to make it worse.
The first half makes an interesting statement on the nature of fame and how easily swayed public opinion is; the general consensus on the street is that the family is innocent of murder when a fuckton of evidence exists that proves otherwise. But the second half takes a detour right back to Corpses and Rejects without adding anything new to the series. The first film established them as a fucked-up family that kills people for fun; it was too close to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for my taste, but the characters were compelling, and their insanity is front and center. The second film turned everything around by having the family experience being at the mercy of others and victimized. They got the comeuppance they deserved for being crazy murderers and appeared to die. In the most recent film, the titular three, having learned nothing from almost dying and spending a decade in jail, torture and maim innocent people again, and then are accosted at a bordello—again. This time it’s a gang of assassins run by Rondo’s vengeful son, who are just woefully terrible at their job. They can’t shoot or knife-fight for anything, and get slaughtered by Baby, Otis, and Foxy pretty effortlessly. The three are shown as brave heroes overcoming adversity.
The depiction of people of color is all-around offensive, from two biracial couples being ruthlessly terrorized to Mexican people being either whores or ignorant drunkards who utter phrases like “Diego is master of the blade.” Then there’s the image system that strongly emphasizes cultural appropriation. Baby steals a Native American headdress and bow and arrows from Harper, and later dons a Mexican-style dress, both of which are featured in almost all images from the movie. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Baby could symbolically represent marginalized people. And don’t get me started on Greta. Fucking. Greta. I loves me some Dee Wallace, but her turn as a guard with a thing for Baby is excruciating. A predatory lesbian character in 2019, are you kidding me?
I did chuckle a little when Otis attempts to blackmail the warden into releasing Baby; Harper’s wife protests, “What you’re asking my husband is completely insane.” Otis replies cheerfully, “I’m completely insane!” But overall it was hard to watch. I’ve been reading lately about police brutality in regard to Black civilians, and knowing the statistics of how often non-white people are singled out for violence makes it more difficult to see even fictional depictions of it. And I’m so done watching women begging not to be hurt. You can call me a bleeding-heart liberal, a social justice warrior wannabe, obsessed with political correctness, dumb for being shocked at the level of disturbing content in a horror movie directed by notorious gorehound Zombie, but I’m gonna be 100 percent honest with you: I went home and cried.