I’m in two minds about Rob Zombie’s filmography.
On one hand, he encompasses better than probably any director from this century the grimy, ramshackle spirit of ‘70s exploitation horror. There’s a slickness to so many contemporary horror films – even the great ones! – that’s entirely absent in Zombie’s coarse creations, creatures that ooze with the stench of putrid humanity. You don’t need to know much about the making of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre to feel the sense of oppressive heat and the rank smell of sweat; I don’t know how grimy Zombie’s film sets actually are, but his films have the same atmosphere.
I’m less enamoured with his obsession with the redneck culture and psychology that dominates his work. Zombie’s feature debut, House of 1000 Corpses, demonstrated the success of a nostalgic yet experimental approach to horror cinema, while never boasting much of a script. His subsequent films have carried on in much the same fashion – arresting images, underwhelming ideas – while an unfortunate preoccupation with rednecks came to dominate. Hence my mixed feelings on his otherwise arresting Halloween remake; it’s compelling in its commitment to a no-holds-barred slasher aesthetic, but stumbles when it tries to examine the question of Michael Myers with no answers to offer.
3 From Hell falls just on the wrong side of the ledger for me. It’s a film consumed by its own characters and mythology, but undercut by the thinness of both. Returning, some 14 years later, to the world he created in Corpses and continued in The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie centres 3 From Hell on returning characters Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley). Captain Spaulding (an ailing Sid Haig) makes a brief appearance but is replaced in the narrative by Otis’ hitherto-unseen brother, Foxy (Richard Brake). If you wondering ‘didn’t they all die at the end of Devil’s Rejects?’, yes. They got better.
Part of the problem with 3 From Hell is that it doesn’t really have a substantial enough idea to justify returning to a decade-old franchise. While I much preferred Corpses to Rejects, I’ll readily acknowledge that the latter was an interesting departure from its predecessor. Corpses was a funhouse slasher; Rejects asked the question ‘what if the Sawyer family from TCM went on the run?’ 3 From Hell never really goes beyond just kind of asking that question again, a few years later.
The other problem is that I just don’t find the titular three compelling, sympathetic or beholden to a kind of twisted nobility in the way Zombie wants me to. This isn’t a morality thing. This is fiction: I can sympathise with self-interested psychopaths in movies – and often have! (I mean, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of my favourite films.) But Baby, Otis and Foxy just aren’t as interesting or entertaining as Zombie seems to think they are; they’re only so much drunken, braying redneck repartee I can stomach. If you do find these characters compelling – and they’re certainly animated by committed performances from the three actors – I imagine the film is much more successful.
All griping aside, 3 From Hell is hardly disastrous. Zombie riffles through genres with the urgency of a man who senses that his ability to produce feature films is dwindling; first we’re in a crime mockumentary, then a prison movie, then a hostage drama, then a road trip and – finally – a literal Mexican standoff. While he’s still overly enamoured of shakily-edited, quick motion action (arguably a concession to a low budget, but I’m reading it as a conscious choice), he has a talent for creating the kind of memorable imagery that’s far too infrequent in the ‘70s exploitation cinema he’s paying homage to.
If you can look past 3 From Hell’s failings – chief among them its insistence that rednecks are entertaining, its underdeveloped script – you’ll be entertained. And given the vociferousness of Zombie’s fanbase, I have no doubt at all that there are plenty fans out there who will happily do so. Unfortunately, I can’t count myself among them.
3 From Hell plays at Monster Fest in Brisbane on Thursday the 31st of October.