The contemporary controversy (or at least one of the contemporary controversies) concerning Todd Phillips’ Joker rehashes a long running argument about genre films which allegedly invite the viewer to identify with a protagonist who’s a violent psychopath… remember how Meir Zarchi’s rape / revenge (with the emphasis very much on revenge) epic I Spit On Your Grave (1978) was castigated as a glorification of violence against women? One outraged pundit condemned Zarchi’s film as: “Impossible to defend”, further opining that: “The Vice Squad ought to watch every person who actually buys a copy of this tape”. Bonus points if you can identify that outraged pundit (answer below *) The best genre films have always been aware of the thin line between the critique and endorsement of the “killer as pop culture icon” phenomenon and any list of those which navigated that particular moral tightrope most nimbly would have to include the likes of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), films to which the item under consideration here owes much.
Completing a (so far) trilogy initiated by Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses (2003) and continued in his The Devil’s Rejects (2005), 3 From Hell was supposed to reunite redneck maniacs Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) with killer clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). Unfortunately Haig’s rapidly declining health reduced his participation here to fleeting stock footage, which means one of the as yet unreleased productions which he completed before his death on 21/09/19 will have to stand as the capper to a truly amazing career.
RZ quickly rewrote 3FH to include the Fireflys’ previously unseen half brother “Foxy” Coltrane (Richard Brake from Zombie’s 2016 effort 31… he also played Seneca in Bettany Hughes’s TV series 8 Days That Made Rome!), much as Moseley’s Chop-Top character was parachuted into Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986. Foxy arrives to rescue Otis from a chain gang, in the process slaughtering everyone else he encounters, including Mexican crime Lord Rondo (Danny Trejo). They then hold nasty warden Virgil Dallas Harper (Jeff Daniel Phillips)’s family and friends hostage until he collaborates in springing Baby from his penitentiary (and she’s A Wild One, alright).
Here’s where the problems really start… the warden is a certified scum bag but several perfectly nice and as far as we know blameless characters are brutally done in for the viewer’s lip-smacking delectation. You could argue that the nudge nudge intercutting of these murders with Three Stooges footage constitutes an all-too on the nose declaration of cartoony intent (not too difficult to swallow when you’ve already accepted the introductory premise that Otis, Baby and Spaulding survived something like 100 hundred bullets apiece, administered to them at the conclusion of The Devil’s Rejects) but the fact that Mr Zombie went out of his way (as we learn from the feature length “making of” doc on this disc) to shoot stuff in the cell where Susan Atkins confessed her part in the Tate killings is really kinda questionable.
After spending the first half of this picture’s near-two hour running time settling accounts with the forces of law and order, the gang decamp South of the border but their desire to lay low for a while and enjoy a bit of Roderiguezesque R’n’R is foiled by the appearance of Rondo’s vengeful son Aquarius (Emilio Rivera) and his luchadores masked minions, The Black Satans, cue predictable quasi Spagwest carnage a la Tarantino…
There are things I actually rather liked about this movie. Sheri Moon Zombie impresses as a genuine screen presence rather than the trophy wife vanity casting you might have feared and Moseley continues to consolidate his status as a contemporary Horror icon. It’s always great to see Dee Wallace and nice to know that Clint “Coopershit” Howard is still working. Mr Zombie is good with action, less so with the dialogue / expositional stuff. That “making of” and the director’s commentary track eloquently testify to just how much love and hard work he put into pulling off what was clearly a mammoth undertaking. But if you’re gonna use Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Davida to compliment a climactic moment, you’re going to have to top what Michael Mann did with it in Manhunter (1986) and he doesn’t. Similarly, if you’re consciously invoking such august company as Hooper, Carpenter, Stone and even Sergio Leone, let alone Tarantino, you’re stepping into giant shoes and on the evidence of 3 From Hell, that still feels like a bit of a slippery fit for RZ.
Ooh, thanks for all that (James Gang era) Tommy Bolin on the soundtrack.
(*) It was John Waters.