★★ out of ★★★★★
At Rob Zombie’s darkened dirtbag core is a full and unfiltered embrace of the age-old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Slow motion. Hyperbolic acting (or in some cases no acting). Closeups so close you can count individual pores Captain Spaulding’s grease-paint soaked forehead. Weirdly rare and off-putting selection of non-Joe Walsh James Gang tracks. If you’ve seen House of a Thousand Corpses and Devil’s Rejects then you’ve been thoroughly exposed to Mr. Zombie’s cinema trickery.
Three from Hell begins with a really interesting and well conceived 12+ minute collection of news footage exposition that follows the plight of the “Three”, their eventual capture, and imprisonment. The backstory is very well put together. Right down to the irreversibly warped VHS warbles, the silly production music, and the TV station logos. Mr. Zombie was clearly invested in showing a 1980s pastiche of cultural happenings. However, the first 12+ minutes while exquisitely concocted, are largely (read: entirely) left alone for the remaining 102 minutes. That’s awfully disappointing for any horror fan who repeatedly laps at this trough of depravity.
Three from Hell is vaguely a three act play that once again follows Otis B. Driftwood, Captain Spaulding, and Vera-Ellen “Baby” Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie). Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, RIP), not being in good health during the time of the film, is sadly relegated to the opening sequence where he dies in prison through lethal injection. A very underwhelming Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley) is emancipated by his equally underwhelming brother Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” Coltrane (Richard Brake: 31, Hannibal Rising, and Mandy) but not before they kill fellow chain-gang pal Rondo (Danny Trejo: Machete). It’s unclear if Danny Trejo had other obligations to tend to, but it’s safe to say his grizzled presence could have, possibly, kept Three from Hell afloat — at least for another 12 minutes.
Now free, Otis and Foxy set out to free Baby from her decidedly 1970s prison setting. Baby, in a spate of some of the wildest over-acting you’ll ever see, is have none of what the prison guards are serving. One of the prison guards, Greta (as an almost completely unrecognizable Dee Wallace: Cujo, the Howling, House of the Devil), exists to make Baby’s life difficult, brutish, and long. Baby is eventually freed, because well…we assume One from Hell wasn’t a particularly compelling film title.
The new Three from Hell gang decides to head south of the border for additional debauchery and murderous mayhem. Even though Mr. Zombie just spent the past 30 minutes explaining that the Three from Hell gang is the most notorious wanted collection of creeps, they just seemingly pass right across the border unchecked and voila’ they’re in Mexico. If there was ever a case for Mexico to pitch in on a border wall, this was it. The group settles in to tequila, doobies, midgets, prostitutes, cocaine, three legged dogs, and a whole series of other dirtbag cliches that comprise the Zombie universe. The new Three from Hell team eventually discovers that Rondo’s (Danny Trejo) brother is part of a narco-satanic lucha libra squad of mercenary killers. It wasn’t enough to just have them be satanists, or drug lords, or like-minded killers, or insane wrestlers, oh no, Mr. Zombie had to squish all this horrible Play-do together in to a singular evil cacophony.
At several points in the film Mr. Zombie toys with the idea of the dissolution of the “Three.” Baby has become even too bizarre for Otis. Foxy believes his infamy is greater than that of Baby and Otis. Baby is more fond of midgets and than she is of Otis and Foxy. Three from Hell points at some interesting tension and interpersonal dynamics, but instead continues to follow trite dirtbag-isms in the most Pavlovian way possible. It should come as no surprise that this lack of dramatic tension and character development is followed right to the bitter end where the “Three” find themselves riding off in to the sunset to get ready for Beneath the Planet of the Three from Hell, or Revenge of Three from Hell: Part IV, or the Three from Hell-in-ing.
As we’ve said so many time before on the Scariest Things Podcast, Mr. Zombie’s heart appears to be in the right place, even if his story-telling chops aren’t in that same headspace. Whether this is just an elaborate and heart-felt nostalgic ruse to guarantee full-time employment for an insane number of 1970s and 80s grindhouse actors, or whether he just doesn’t know how tell a story, one thing is clear, the first twelve minutes of this film are dynamite!
Three from Hell is likely rated R and currently available for streaming on Shudder.