Note: Before we dive into 3 From Hell, you should know that this review contains heavy spoilers.
No matter how anyone feels about Rob Zombie or his body of work at this point, it’s undeniable that The Devil’s Rejects is one of the seminal horror films of this century. It’s the rare sequel that not only surpasses the original, but manages to tell a completely different story while evolving the same set of characters. There’s a distinct moral grayness to it, it’s almost news-like in its bluntness. It doesn’t glorify anything. We follow the murderous Firefly clan as they try to escape an inevitable end, and there’s no shying away from the truly terrible things that they do, but the Sheriff who is hunting them down is just as terrible as they are and equally psychotic in his pursuit of what he considers to be justice. The Devil’s Rejects ends tragically, perfectly and even kind of beautifully as the exhausted, beaten-down Firefly family see a massive police barricade and know that it is the end of the road. There’s no surprise, and they’re obviously going to go out fighting, but they are all aware that their violent lives were only ever going to end one way. It is the perfect end to their story.
With that in mind, it takes some getting used to just to wrap one’s head around the idea that the Firefly clan survived that barricade. It’s even harder after nearly a decade since the talks of a third chapter of this series started popping up online. That’s not on the filmmaker, though, that’s absolutely on the audience. With that amount of time between movies (it has now been fifteen years since the release of The Devil’s Rejects) people can’t help but imagine the entire movie in their head, speculating especially as to how the family could have survived the end of the previous one, if they even did. Most people assumed that the film would have to be a prequel or some kind of spinoff, and once it was finally revealed as being a sequel set a decade after the events of Rejects, that’s when the speculation train really took off.
There’s no way that Zombie could have provided an explanation that even most fans would have been happy with, but even still, the way he goes about the opening, explaining what happened post-Rejects through newsreel footage, still feels like the least satisfactory way to do it. There’s a lot of dialogue saying that they absolutely should not have survived their injuries, but they did. Not only that, but the movie bizarrely goes into detail to make this scene less believable than it even would have been to begin with. It would have been silly to say that the bullets missed at the end of the last one, but we only heard the sounds of gunfire and didn’t see any shots of impact, so that’s one way out if you had to take it. Instead, though, the narration assures us that each of the three killers were shot over twenty times and shouldn’t have survived, but they did. They pulled through surgery, they have no lasting effects of injury, they don’t even have scars.
That’s one of the first things that happens in 3 From Hell and it still might be the moment where you are either going to go along with it or you’re not.
In a great interview in the latest issue of Fangoria, Rob Zombie noted that the movie was directly inspired by the legacy of The Devil’s Rejects and the impact the characters have had in that time. Since its release, we’ve seen action figures, people get the Firefly family tattooed on their body, there are T-shirts and so much more. It’s smart to not only tie into that, but translate that into the serial killer fandom which was booming at its most insane peak during the late eighties, when 3 From Hell is set. There are definitely some moments that deal with that, interviewing fans of each of the three outside the prison, where people talk about their love of and even infatuation with Otis and Baby. After this brief scene, though, it never comes up again. The family are recognized after escaping yes, but only because they’re escaped lunatics whose faces are plastered all over the news. They never encounter any of these fans of theirs, nor are they ever really mentioned again.
Much of the first act also feels like it’s setting up what could have been a great either prison siege or prison break movie. It almost surprises me that it didn’t take that route, because it’s entirely within Zombie’s wheelhouse and would have made 3 From Hell feel very different from Rejects. This stuff is by and large the most interesting because it is so different, even if there’s a lot of it—like the rest of the movie—that feels like a rough draft. Usually, Zombie shines in bizarrely uncomfortable moments of dialogue, but there’s a bit between Dee Wallace and Sheri Moon that just repeats the line “snitches get stitches” over and over as if it’s either genuinely profound or Zombie just discovered the saying, and I still have no idea what that scene was trying to do.
Still, the prison sequences allow us to see Captain Spaulding again, as brief as it might be. I’m not remotely going to fault Rob Zombie for this drastic, last minute change to the narrative. Sid Haig’s health has not been great for awhile and it is a miracle that they were able to get him back for even a single scene before introducing Richard Brake as the titular third from Hell. The movie does unceremoniously kill Spaulding off, though, noting in a single line that he was executed via lethal injection and then moving on. At that point, it seems like it would have been a lot easier and made the movie feel as realistic as it is trying to be if Spaulding had been said to have died in the mayhem at the end of Rejects and brought Haig back for either a flashback or dream sequence to give him a presence in the movie.
Instead, the movie pulls what I think is the least interesting of all the options presented. As soon as the second half kicks in, it becomes clear that 3 From Hell is at the end of the day just a retread of The Devil’s Rejects. From that point, it’s almost beat-for-beat the same. The Firefly clan hold a family hostage, torture and kill them. They go on the run, they have a brief period of downtime at a motel, before someone shows up to seek vengeance on them, leading into the big third act spot of ultra violence. It’s almost exactly what we saw last time, but a little worse, and not just because we’d already seen it before. The family getting tortured in Devil’s Rejects gave us enough information to get invested in them, so that it’s truly horrifying when the bad things start to happen. Here, we don’t even meet some of the characters getting tortured in this sequence until they’re already tied up.
The third act in Rejects also worked much, much better because the Sheriff out for revenge was someone who had been established in the opening scene and had been slowly unraveling throughout the movie. It was unsettling to watch that happen and William Forysthe’s performance really got a chance to breathe. Here, the guy seeking revenge on the Firefly family isn’t even introduced at all until minutes before he shows up to kill them, with his group of henchmen in Luchadore masks in tow.
That’s not to say 3 From Hell is all bad, by any means. The performances from each of the main cast are rock solid, which is no surprise, as these are Rob Zombie day players who know exactly how to work in synch with this director. Many have heaped praise on Richard Brake and Sheri Moon, deservedly so, but Bill Moseley still shines the brightest for me. Out of everyone, he truly picked this character up as if he’d never left it. He knows exactly who Otis is and exactly how to play him, and this is the one character where it truly felt like no time had passed at all.
Richard Brake had the biggest challenge coming into this close-knit group without feeling like a Cousin Oliver trying to convince us he’d been there the whole time, but—perhaps because of how well he’s worked with Zombie in the past—he does it. He completely gels with the other two and is one of the highlights of the film because of it.
Sheri Moon’s performance is an interesting one to talk about because it is so over-the-top. She’s going for broke. This might partially have something to do with the very different roles she’s played since Devil’s Rejects, mostly as protagonist rather than antagonist. But it more than anything has to do with how the character has changed. It’s largely unstated, but made pretty clear that after a decade in prison, Baby Firefly has genuinely lost her mind. She’s not the same as she was and the other characters notice it, she even seems to notice it herself.
There are a few character moments that could really have made this movie soar if it had only leaned into them, and that’s one of the biggest. Otis notes that Baby is different, that he sees how she’s changed and it’s more than just the fact that she’s been incarcerated for so long. He’s either scared of her or scared for her and those are the familial beats that 3 From Hell really needed. There’s also a brief discussion between Otis and Baby, reminiscing about Spaulding. Both of theses scenes are dropped before they really have a chance to breathe and it’s a shame there weren’t a few more of these emotional beats as they could and should have been the heart of the film.
Overall, 3 From Hell doesn’t ruin the legacy of The Devil’s Rejects, as I know others have said, but it doesn’t do much to help it either. This was a monumental task to begin with. There was a lot of heavy lifting required to come up with a worthy successor that would have given a clear reason to bring back characters we had already long-since said goodbye to. I don’t think, ultimately, that this was the story that needed to resurrect the Firefly family, I don’t think this is anywhere near the trilogy capper we could have had. But there are moments where it almost is, and at the end of the day, even seeing these actors return to these characters—who have become so iconic over the past fifteen years—has its own charm.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Richard Brake, Sid Haig
Studio/Production Company: LionsGate