After a 15 year hiatus, Rob Zombie’s Firefly family returns to the silver screen for a limited Fatham Events theatrical engagement. While House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were created on $7 million budgets, 3 from Hell was made on a budget of just $3 million. Smaller budgets often mean more opportunities for filmmakers to be creative without the studio scrutiny and expectations that come with a higher price tag, and there’s usually more leeway when it comes to studio tolerance for the kinds of shocking and graphic content Zombie’s films are usually known for. But- while Zombie’s twisted vision for the franchise is clearly never compromised in this film- the limitations of the budget appear to prevent 3 from Hell from reaching the high watermark Zombie set with The Devil’s Rejects.
Zombie makes the best of the resources he’s got throughout the two hour runtime of 3 from Hell, but the lack of resources become distractingly apparent in several key elements of the film. It’s recently been revealed that Sid Haig wasn’t available for extended filming due to health concerns at the time of principal photography, and the script had to be altered during production to accommodate an alternate story. This led to the introduction of Richard Brake as Winslow Foxworth Coltrane, a character who never quite lives up to the notoriety of Sid Haig’s, Bill Moseley’s, and Sheri Moon Zombie’s beloved originals. Coltrane has the same subversive characteristics as Mosely’s Otis, without any of the charisma or perverse likability that Moseley brings to the role. Danny Trejo, another fan-favorite from The Devil’s Rejects, appears for even less time than Haig, and his bafflingly abrupt removal from the story makes way for Emilio Rivera to fill his shoes as the character’s son. Unfortunately, Rivera’s character is even less fleshed out than Brake’s, and the new additions to the cast are merely caricatures of archetypes previously established by veterans like William Forsythe, Lew Temple, and Ken Forree in Zombie’s earlier productions.
Even Captain Spaulding and Baby lose some of their distinctive qualities in this film… Spaulding because he’s barely in it and Baby because she is in so many disjointed solo scenes that don’t paint a consistent picture of her character. The two of them both have moments where they retread Leslie Easterbrook’s moments of “rat in a cage” psychopathic rambling as Mama Firefly in The Devil’s Rejects. Some fine-tuning to the script could have presented these similarities as a familial trait, but the way it comes across on screen the characters just sort of lose their defining characteristics that make them unique. Unfortunately, Haig isn’t given any other opportunities to conjure up a classic Spaulding performance; but Sheri Moon Zombie is afforded some interesting moments for Baby to shine. The scene where Baby enters a knife tossing contest against a couple of local knuckleheads is her best, and it highlights the playfulness, skill, and danger the iconic character represents. Careful editing could have exorcised some of her less powerful moments, like a scene where Baby gleefully imagines a dancing ballerina wearing a giant cat mask while she’s in prison.
Once Otis and Baby are out of prison, the story of 3 from Hell largely follows the same plot outline as the story of The Devil’s Rejects. There’s a gory incident in a run down hotel, the characters terrorize hapless victims using all-too-familiar methods, and then they take it easy and party it up in what they believe is a safe haven just before realizing they were double-crossed and served up on a silver platter to a powerful adversary who’s hellbent on avenging a family member who previously fell victim to the Firefly clan. The unfortunate difference between the two plotlines is that 3 from Hell is lacking the powerful ending of its predecessor in favor of something with much less gravity. The similar plotlines between the two films highlight some of the shortcomings of 3 from Hell. Both Emilio Rivera’s portrayal of a vengeful bounty hunter and Jeff Daniel Philips’ performance as a desperate sheriff who isn’t afraid to cross the line deliver mere echoes of the powerhouse nature of characters like Sheriff Wydell, Rondo, and Billy Ray Snapper in the previous installment. Repetition is also a problem in the film. Nearly every line of dialogue is riddled with the same two or three swear words and by the time Richard Brake howls like a coyote for the fifth time the viewer might be left wishing for some lines that might distinguish his character from the better fleshed-out characters that came before.
The cinematography of 3 from Hell is not as impressive as most of Zombie’s other work. The majority of the film is chock-full of close up shots which become distracting any time the camera is squished in too close to the performers’ faces for the mind to perceive the action on screen. Even establishing shots- like the exterior of Warden Harper’s house- are boxed in by the framing of the inside of a vehicle. The only set that is revealed in wide shots is the Mexican church grounds at the end of the movie. While these claustrophobic shots may have been intentional for scenes in prison cells and cramped hotel rooms, the constant use of them cause the movie to lack a sense of space and environment. Some of the best scenes of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects show off the big, creepy Firefly house, or moments of fast-paced horror across sprawling landscapes. The only location that feels like a real place to the viewer in 3 from Hell, however, is the aforementioned church exterior and the dusty dirt landscape that surrounds it. This distinct lack of shots containing any background scenery could be directly related to the limitations to the film’s budget, and it seems likely that most of the locations budget was saved for the setting featured in the grand finale.
Rob Zombie’s musical selections for his movies are always top notch, and the songs in 3 from Hell are no exception. Choice cuts from Suzi Quatro and Terry Reid elevate scenes that evoke memorable musical moments in The Devil’s Rejects. Unfortunately, there are fewer of these moments overall throughout 3 from Hell, likely due to the reduced budget available for licensing classic tunes. The characteristics of Tyler Bates’ pounding score for Rejects has been scrapped in favor of a more minimalistic collection of vintage tones by Zeuss in 3 from Hell.
The best part of 3 from Hell is easily Bill Mosely as Otis, and the seasoned actor regularly saves the scenes he’s featured in. Mosely consistently captures the essence of the character, and he communicates all of Otis’ classic ticks and features with ease. Limitations to the script and budget do not hinder him from delivering a performance that equals his previous efforts. And it’s moments like these- along with some classic Baby moments- that cause 3 from Hell to offer just enough of a taste of the good old days for curious fans to make it through a screening. But the shortcomings of the film’s production are enough to cause even the most diehard followers of the Firefly family to wonder if the original three from Hell would have been better off never surviving the climactic firefight of their much superior previous film.