I’m dating myself here, but I actually remember the first trailer for House of 1000 Corpses making its way online. We’re talking back when QuickTime was a thing and it took hours for a simple minute-long teaser to download. As a fan of his music at the time, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wasn’t too surprised when it turned out to be a colorful, moody, and lurid montage of horror imagery. After all, the man had been directing his own music videos for years at that point, all of which varied wildly in terms of style and tone. It made complete and total sense that his first feature would follow suit.
That first impression was not wrong. When the film finally arrived years later courtesy of Lionsgate (after having been dropped by both Universal and MGM), what played out before my eyes was a cacophony of styles, influences, and tones. It may have been filled with throwback elements and set in late 1977, but House of 1000 Corpses felt very modern. I didn’t catch all of the references that were flying hard and fast, as I was still young in my horror education, but I knew I liked what I saw. Sure, it’s kind of just a high-end student film that happened to have millions of dollars behind it and a great cast of character actors inhabiting the roles, but it was wildly different than anything else playing at the time. I really dug that about it.
Cut to two years later and we have The Devil’s Rejects rolling into theaters. Gone are the candy-coated, comic book terrors of Corpses. In its place is a brutally realistic, disturbingly violent, and hauntingly cruel sequel that blurs the line between criminals and cops. Predators and prey. Throughout its running time, Zombie takes great strides to make the ever-vile Firefly Clan into actual three-dimensional characters. They are never made to be sympathetic, but by showing the people behind the killer personas, one comes to at least understand how much they care for one another.
As a result, it makes the pain inflicted upon them by a vengeful Texas sheriff hit even harder. They might deserve every last ounce of it, but it doesn’t make you cringe any less as you see such barbaric “justice” carried out. Gone are the weird zombies, the axe-wielding gas mask professor, and the deranged cyborg doctor from Corpses impossibly phantasmogorical underground labyrinth. The monsters’ masks are now gone. For all of the mugging, posturing, and monologuing that they have done for their victims across the events of Corpses and Rejects, they are still human beings and they still bleed and scream when the chips are down.
The Devil’s Rejects played like the films of Jack Hill and Russ Meyer filtered through the gritty brutality of Sam Peckinpah and it excelled at doing so. Instead of attempting to differentiate itself from Rejects as much as Rejects did from Corpses, however, 3 from Hell instead aims recapture the magic that bottled when he made Rejects. Sadly, it falls short of the marker. The storytelling is just way too choppy and meandering for the film to recapture that same vibe and it also lacks Rejects‘ intensity. Only the Mexican-set third act bloodbath comes close, but even that isn’t quite up to snuff. It’s by no means a bad film, but it spends too much time remixing sequences from the last film and not enough charting its own territory. It just simply fails to live up to its predecessors.
The good news is that the characters remain 100% intact and at the end of the day, that’s why we are here. While both are fine in the film, no one walked out of Corpses carrying on about the roles played by Chris Hardwick and Rainn Wilson. No one remembers Bill and Jerry. We remember the antagonists and their Marx Bros.-inspired monikers. Bill Moseley as “Otis B. Driftwood”. Karen Black as “Mama Firefly”. Sid Haig as “Captain Spaulding”. Sheri Moon Zombie as “Baby Firefly”. Matt McGrory as “Tiny”. Dennis Fimple as “Grandpa”.
In the world of the Fireflys, only the crazy and strange standout. It’s why William Forsythe‘s psychotic Sheriff Wydell and the party-happy Ken Foree easily come to mind when thinking of The Devil’s Rejects, but calmer supporting players like Lew Temple, Geoffrey Lewis, and Priscilla Barnes are overshadowed. It’s also why Richard Brake makes a great addition in 3 from Hell as newcomer “Foxy Coltrane”, who functions as a sort of halfway point between Baby’s playfulness and Otis’ more vicious nature.
Even here, where they are unfortunately aimless and kind of cluelessly wondering what the future might hold for them, they’re still at least engaging to watch in the moment. Of course, that’s what happens when you actually bother to hire good character actors for most of your lead roles. These are weird and wild characters that are often pure id. They act out their basest desires with no thoughts as to the consequences of their actions. While I’d never say that fresh faced thespians or marquee stars couldn’t pull that off, it seems to flow better when it all comes from established character actors who know how to make even the shakiest of scenes pop.
Because of this, even with a minor stumble like Hell under its belt, there is still plenty of life in this franchise and its characters. Enough so that I can easily picture Zombie returning to tell another lurid tale of maniacal madness years on down the road with the Fireflys that are still breathing. And you know what? When that near-inevitable time comes, I’ll be there with popcorn and a soda, because I know that the players involved will always make it worth my while.
Mr. Zombie might not knock his films out of the park in my eyes every time he bats, but I can honestly say that I rarely know where the ball will go when he steps up to the plate. What Rob Zombie will show up next time? Will it be the one who made the stark classic The Devil’s Rejects? Might it be the fellow who amazed me with the phantasmogorical masterpiece that is The Lords of Salem? Perhaps the director who delivered candy-coated terrors of House of 1000 Corpses and 31? Or the PTSD-tinged bonkers slasher Halloween II? Hell, it could even be the potty humor-loving goofball behind The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. The fun is in not knowing and even when I feel like he trips up a bit, it’s still always a journey worth taking.
3 from Hell is the third installment in the Firefly franchise. It was written and directed by Rob Zombie. The film is produced by Mike Elliott, Rob Zombie, Michael Amato, Greg Holstein, and Jonathan Saba. It stars Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Kevin Jackson, Emilio Rivera, Dee Wallace, Pancho Moler, Richard Edson, Danny Trejo, Clint Howard, and Sid Haig.